Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, shot by Eric Adkins, uses extensive computer compositing to pay homage to serial cliffhangers of the 1930s and ’40s.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was launched a decade ago as a question in a film student’s mind: how can one make a film with little money, a small crew and out-of-this-world ideas?

Using his knowledge of traditional cel-animation techniques, Kerry Conran looked at the stories he had loved as a kid — film noir thrillers, classic Universal horror movies, German Expressionist films, comic books and pulp-fiction novels — and decided to blend them together into one homage-packed, visually exciting piece. The resultant film is a nod to the serial cliffhangers of the 1930s and ’40s, with a little film noir and Buck Rogers science fiction thrown in for good measure.

Sky Captain centers on ace pilot Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law), who leads a squad of aerial defenders of all things good. When New York City is attacked by scores of giant, lumbering robots, Sky Captain is reunited with former flame Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), an intrepid reporter who suspects that the attack is linked to the recent disappearances of several renowned German scientists. Polly is in hot pursuit of the story, and Sky Captain is called in to save the day and unravel the mystery.

When Conran conceived the idea for Sky Captain in the early 1990s, he didn’t want to create “something ultramodern and slick.” He explains, “The films I love have a somewhat crude image quality that I embrace wholeheartedly. I started examining them closely and saw a way to mimic their styles and looks within my limited means. When I broke down a frame into its components, I realized they were roughly equivalent to a background plate and a foreground element, and my idea was to marry those elements together using computers that were just becoming affordable on the consumer level at that time. I thought I could create those elements any way I wanted to fairly successfully with a simple approach rooted in cel animation; in this case, the ‘cel animation’ would be live actors photographed against bluescreen and then placed against simple 2-D photographic background ‘plates.’ Even back in the early 1990s, the results looked surprisingly convincing, especially when the final image was composited in black-and-white.”

At the time, Conran’s idea seemed fairly radical. He explains, “I was proposing using a consumer-grade computer to compensate for the fact that I didn’t have an optical printer or an animation stand to composite those various ‘foreground’ and ‘background’ elements. It seemed to be an emerging way to combine live-action footage with different backgrounds while utilizing the comfortable conventions of traditional 2-D animation. When I started experimenting with piecing this stuff together, the material that lent itself to a more realistic-looking finish was the slightly cruder, more stylistic imagery — something like [Fritz Lang’s] Metropolis.”

Determined to see his vision through, Conran enlisted director of photography Eric Adkins, whom he had met at the California Institute of the Arts while he was studying animation and film; Adkins was working as a teaching assistant for cinematography instructor Kris Malkiewicz. Together, the duo began to work out how they would film the ambitious project. “Kerry and his brother, Kevin, an illustrator [and production designer on Sky Captain], spent months working on conceptual sketches and designing this world that Kerry had in his head,” recalls Adkins. “They created hundreds of backgrounds that were comprised of archival photographs, matte paintings and animated CG environments. Slowly, layer upon layer, they built the look of the project.

“We then began to dissect the elements that would go into a given frame of the film,” Adkins continues. “We built a bluescreen studio in Kerry’s apartment by blacking out the windows with aluminum foil and using a PVC-tubing frame to hold a chroma-key blue material. We also started replacing Kerry’s temporary CG ‘poser model’ references with live-action bluescreen footage that we shot on Sony’s then-new 6mm tape format [now known as MiniDV] with a rented DCR-VX1000.”

Four years later, the first six minutes of Conran’s project, dubbed The World of Tomorrow, were complete. During that time, technology had continued to catch up with Conran’s ideas, and Adkins had forged a career specializing in visual-effects cinematography on commercials, features (Mars Attacks!) and television shows (The PJs). Then, a chance meeting landed their “demo reel” in the lap of producer Jon Avnet. Avnet immediately saw the project’s potential, but he thought the film should be developed outside of the studio system so that Conran could maintain autonomy while completing his singular vision.

Bringing Conran’s project to the big screen was initially a modest proposal. Working with a budget of $5 million, the filmmakers planned to continue using the method Conran and Adkins had devised for their six-minute demo — only instead of capturing live action on MiniDV, they would use high-definition (HD) video; and instead of Conran’s old PowerPC clunking away at renders, an in-house team of animators and compositors would use a network of up-to-date effects workstations.

This low-budget plan was short-lived, however. Once Avnet attracted Law and Paltrow to play the leads, more financing fell into place, and almost a year of extensive preproduction and testing commenced. “As the budget grew and actors of note starting signing on, we quickly determined that we needed to do an animatic for every shot in the film,” says Adkins. “Kerry wanted to have the shots all figured out before we began to shoot. He didn’t want to roll on anything unless he had an approved animatic for it. It was a way of both planning and controlling what we were going to shoot. We didn’t want to be in ‘wing-it’ mode on a vast, empty blue stage.

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.