He is like that guy who worked in your office once, the shy tech-geek, the temp down in IT, who typed Ctrl-Alt-Delete on the keypad when your hard drive seized up. Until very recently, that guy was Kerry Conran.
For more than a decade, Conran was the computer nerd at a series of temporary jobs at newspapers and magazines, living in his little apartment in the San Fernando Valley. He didn't want money. No, he wanted to barter for his services, for 3-D graphic software and hard drives with mega-capacity. "Every job I took, it was with computer parts in mind," he says. "And that's how I built my Frankenstein."
Conran never cared much about rebooting your system. Rather, he was imagining, with a kind of mad scientist desire, rebooting the entire movie industry.
And now the world can see what Conran has wrought, with the release Friday of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," a movie the writer-director began envisioning when he was 10 years old.
It is a fantastical and original piece of work, that feels at once comfortable and nostalgic but weird and new. Set in 1939, it stars Jude Law as the dashing Sky Captain, Gwyneth Paltrow as the plucky reporter Polly Perkins and Angelina Jolie as the eye-patched Franky Cook.
The actors are real. But everything else in the movie has been created on a computer. No locations. No sets. Every backdrop and scene that appears in the movie -- the giant robots marching down Sixth Avenue; the hanging gardens of Shangri-La; the undersea lair of the evil mastermind Totenkopf; Radio City Music Hall -- exist only on a hard drive, put together from a melange of photographs, paintings and animation.
The actors spent 26 days on a soundstage in London (most movies shoot for three or four months), performing their scenes against a completely blue background, blue from floor to wall to ceiling, a blank canvas. And then Conran and his team added everything else -- the zeppelin docking at the Empire State Building, the tiny elephant that could fit into the palm of your hand, the flying aircraft carrier, the undersea monsters.
Many action adventure movies today employ computer-animation and special effects, but they also use real locales, build elaborate stage sets and create their monsters out of plastic, foam, paint and wire. The actors in 1988's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" were famously shot on a blue screen, but only animation was inserted around them. "Sky Captain" is different; it is one giant special effect.
Conran believes that his techniques -- the live-action movie taking place on a virtual set -- will usher in "a renaissance of independent filmmaking." With a computer-generated world for the actors to move through, Conran says a film can take place anywhere one's imagination can go, ancient Egypt or Mars in 2054. For a fraction of the cost, he says.
"The studios today are in this awkward and horrible position where films cost so much money to make, they have to be cautious so they can appeal to the broadest audience, so that is half the point of this experiment, to see if independent filmmakers and studios can both take chances again, to think differently."
Looking at Conran -- even now, at the Paramount lot, dressed in short pants, sneakers and ball cap, a big overgrown kid at 38 -- it is hard to imagine how he secured the talents of three of Hollywood's most bankable stars and was given a reported $70 million to create his vision.
He grew up in Flint, the Michigan auto industry town. His dad worked for Chevrolet as a middle manager in charge of stocking parts for the assembly line. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore worked back then down the block at the Flint Voice, a little newspaper. Conran never met him.
As a kid, Conran and his older brother Kevin (who worked on "Sky Captain" and was Conran's first hire on the film as production designer) were enthralled by old movies broadcast from Chicago station WGN every Sunday. "All this goes back to my earliest days of watching those movies. 'King Kong' and 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.' Preston Sturges films and ones like 'The Day the Earth Stood Still.' I just loved them. There was a whimsy to them, an innocence, but this level of imagination that was just amazing."
Like the flying monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz"? "Oh, man, the flying monkeys underlie everything. That's it! It was a time and a world where flying monkeys could not only happen, but were celebrated. That's it. A world where everything is possible." Zeppelins docking at skyscrapers and miniature elephants. "But with that awkwardness," Conran says. "That innocence." Corny but amazing; that's the aesthetic he is most drawn to. Conran left Flint, the first in his family to do so, to attend CalArts, the filmmaking school in Los Angeles. Around this time, Conran began to think about the possibility of making a movie entirely on a computer. The software was growing more sophisticated by the day. After graduation, on a Macintosh IIci he bartered for, he began the early version, the 1.0, of "The World of Tomorrow." Animating his giant robots. Constructing his virtual Manhattan. After four years of work, he had six minutes of film.
One night a friend of a friend, Marsha Oglesby, a Hollywood producer, came by for dinner and persuaded Conran to show her the six minutes. She was blown away by its look and feel. She showed the movie to her boss, Jon Avnet, who showed it and the script to Jude Law, who showed it to Gwyneth Paltrow, and then they brought in Italian producer Aurelio De Laurentiis for financing and Paramount bought the domestic rights.
The industry trades estimate the movie eventually cost $70 million to make. Not cheap. Conran says he is not an accountant, shrugs and says, "What the movie cost is one-quarter to one-third of a live-action summer movie like 'Van Helsing' or 'Spider-Man.' " In a warehouse in Van Nuys, Calif., Conran, his brother and their crew used the script to create a series of hand-drawn storyboards for the whole movie, a common technique. Then they transferred those images into the computer and made a moving motion picture, crude but watchable, a rough draft called an animatic, where the planes fly and cartoon characters move. "It's uncanny how much the animated version duplicates the finished film shot for shot."
Conran and team could decide, from the animatic, all their virtual camera angles and virtual shots. In London, they built a huge blue soundstage. Nothing but blue. And placed numbered dots on the floor. "The dots would be this grid, and when we filmed a scene, say at Radio City Music Hall, we'd tell Gwyneth to walk from G1 to H5 to J17 and the camera would be set on F12 filming."
Before shooting the take, Paltrow would be able to watch the animatic of her cartoon character walking through Radio City. So she would be able to act, and react, to things that weren't there, like Giant Robots.
As Conran filmed Paltrow, he could also watch another screen that allowed him see Paltrow moving through his computer-generated sets. Conran says: "The benefit for the actors was they could watch the movie, the scene, in the animatic version before we shoot it on the soundstage. And it helped that they had theater experience, but really the acting was more like a play than a movie."
Conran and crew also had a rule: The only things real in the film are the actors, their costumes and any object they physically touched. So Law would hold a glass of Milk of Magnesia or a ray gun, and that prop would be real, but the room he was in would be created on the computer.
After the principal filming was completed in London, Conran and his illustrators could then tweak every scene, changing the lighting, making the zeppelins or sea monsters bigger, smaller, brighter or darker. "We would generate backgrounds, literally making paintings on glass canvas," scanning them into the computer, "then adding photographs we'd alter or enhance and 3-D imagery we'd create from scratch."
"The beauty was we could do anything we wanted," he says. It was also a bit of a curse. The movie was scheduled to be released in June but was held until September as the tweaking continued.
Conran is already writing the script and imagining the visuals for his next movie, based on "Tarzan" author Edgar Rice Burroughs's "John Carter of Mars" series of pulp novels, a project that filmmakers have been thinking about for the past 50 years.
"It's going to be a hideously gigantic film," Conran says. And why not, since it will be mostly generated on computers. "Exactly," Conran says. "Why not?"