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Technology Rules in 'World of Tomorrow'

By David McGuire
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2004; 10:10 AM

You'd better hope your computer doesn't break down today. There's a good bet nobody will be around to fix it. That's because every self-respecting geek with $10 and a pulse will be queuing up to see "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," the slick new live-action blockbuster that forgoes sets and locations in favor of purely computer-generated backdrops.

Computer generated images ("CGI" for the uninitiated) are nothing new in movies. They've been used to create the illusion of massive armies ("Troy"), ancient cityscapes ("Gladiator") and orbital dogfights ("Star Wars: Episode One").

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But as New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden says, never have computer-generated effects so totally dominated a live-action film: "If nothing else, 'Sky Captain' is a landmark in computer-generated imagery. Its actors cavort through an entirely synthetic, computerized retro-styled future world that fuses Art Deco, Futurism, Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' and the spirit of the 1939 World's Fair into an all-purpose eve-of-World-War-II environment extrapolated into a science fiction limbo. Its cheerfully ominous scenario of a planet invaded by robots that systematically set about stripping the earth of its natural resources resonates in any number of ways without seeming strident or promoting a political agenda."

Washington Post reviewer Stephen Hunter elaborates on the technological accomplishment: "The trick, played by writer-director, mega-computer geek and New York Times Magazine cover boy Kerry Conran, is by now well known: He filmed his small cast on a large, blank soundstage, then inserted that footage into a dazzling computer-generated world, a kind of retro-1939, or, say, a '1939' as predicted by Amazing Science magazine in 1932. Everything you see on the screen, except for the people, exists only on hard drive."
The New York Times: Fending Off Alien Robots, but Still Time to Flirt (Registration required)
The Washington Post: 'Sky Captain': A Virtual Bomb (Registration required)

When a Man Loves a Computer Very Much ...

Indeed, the story of Conran's quixotic quest to make "Sky Captain" may end up being more interesting than the film itself (more on that a little later). Long before he'd wrangled $70 million in studio cash and enlisted big-name actors, his project existed solely on his computer, as Wired explains:

"A CalArts grad with a fondness for comics, vintage movies, and computers, Conran set out a decade ago to make an old-fashioned black-and-white movie serial about a mad scientist and his robot army. No studio would hand a novice $100 million to re-create 1930s Manhattan, so he turned to his Macintosh IIci and started rendering robots while supporting himself with computer consulting gigs. 'I sort of disappeared from the face of the earth,' he says. He covered his windows with tinfoil, tacked bluescreen to the walls, transformed his living room into a soundstage, and recruited his friends as actors. Then it hit him: After four years he had just six minutes of finished film.

"His big break came when he hooked up with Jon Avnet, the veteran Hollywood producer who'd made Tom Cruise a star with 'Risky Business.' ... Avnet signed Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow to star and talked Aurelio De Laurentiis - Italy's top producer - into funding the project. Conran went back to work with a small army of animators, modelers, color artists, compositors, and editors, plus terabytes of storage and a couple of hundred rendering machines. As before, he relied on off-the-shelf tools - standard f/x and editing software like Maya, Final Cut Pro, and Adobe After Effects. 'I didn't create any software,' he says. 'The leap I made was borrowing conventions' - and then exploiting them to the max.

"To create the illusion of depth, for example, he used the multiplane technique Walt Disney invented for 'Snow White,' stacking animation cels in layers so they can be moved independently. While today's filmmakers routinely [interweave] live-action footage with digital animation, they're rarely as obsessive as Conran: There are crowd scenes in which he shot 100 people separately so he could manipulate each one as he pleased."
Wired: Kid Robot and the World of Tomorrow

While the on-screen effect may seem effortless, cobbling together the technology behind it was not, Avnet explains in an interview published at Straight.com. ''Had I known then what I know now, I would have shot myself,'' Avnet told the interviewer. More from the article: "The hard part began when Avnet realized that the movie could not be made with existing film technology. He and director-writer Conran and their production team had to create their own effects house and hire almost 100 people."

Avnet gives some of his reasons for the retrospective death wish: "Whenever anybody glibly tells you that they want to do something different [you have to understand that] there is no pattern to follow and that creating that pattern will be very, very challenging. We were trying to render some of the largest images that anyone had tried to produce on-screen. We had to write code to get that to work, and for weeks on end we couldn't render New York City [for the opening scene]. Then we had to add robots and planes and make it all look half-decent and stylized. So it was very demanding."
Straight.com: Computers Paint Future World of Sky Captain


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