To plot out the shoot, Adkins and visual-effects supervisor Darin Hollings devised a grid map for each bluescreen “set,” both on the practical stage and on the virtual stage in the computer. In this way, they could place any shot from the animatic on the virtual Elstree set, slide and rotate it on the grid to fit the lighting/practical needs of the scene, and then generate a shot-specific printout (complete with all lens and camera/actor positional data) for approval.

With each shot plotted and staged, the production adopted a three-camera, tag-team filming strategy. The idea was to have two cameras tackle two of the planned animatic shots for a given scene at once — shooting a medium shot and a corresponding close-up at the same time, for example — while the third camera set up an entirely different shot on one of the adjacent bluescreens. This way, the production could leapfrog sets and keep rolling to maximize the six-week shooting schedule with Law and Paltrow. Integral to this plan was the use of some extraordinarily skilled stand-ins, Stephen Morphew and Colette Appleby, to facilitate the setting up and translation of the actors’ blocking from each animatic shot.

However, as Conran and Adkins can attest, envisioning the physical details of a scene depicted in an animatic while standing in a vast, blue space that holds only a desk, a lamp, and a chair was a daunting matter. “People always ask actors what it’s like to have no walls to act around,” says Adkins, “but imagine what that’s like for the director! Darin and I were the only ones on set who really knew the physical structure of the [virtual] set, because we had placed the setup on our grid layout the night before.”

“When we started working in London,” acknowledges Conran, “I was afraid enough to not want to veer away from our animatic game plan. So we took a very rigid approach, taking measurements to make sure we were exactly where we wanted to be in relation to the animatics. However, we came back to the States and ended up tracking a lot more of our shots than we’d anticipated, so locking things down to the degree that we did was probably unnecessary. Moreover, that rigidity may also have limited the camera operators, who might otherwise have been able to bring their intuition to bear on framing or movement; I think it would have freed up everyone to be a little more experimental or inventive. Had I known that it would still guarantee the look we were going for, that would have been a nice thing to incorporate.

“However, I was squeamish about deviating from the animatics,” Conran continues, “because if we moved the camera this way or that way, we were still only framing against a blank, bluescreen wall, and we had lined the shots up so that we knew what we’d be seeing in the [virtual backgrounds]. If we put the camera exactly where we’d planned to, we could predict what would be behind the characters, but if we weren’t in that position, the backgrounds would be slightly off. And if we did something different on set and later discovered we’d completely screwed ourselves, there might be no way to recover. So my reluctance to loosen up a bit was driven by uncertainty. From experience, I knew we could always rely upon the animatics.”

In creating the look of Sky Captain, the filmmakers referenced Mark A. Vieira’s black-and-white photography book Sin in Soft Focus, the films of F.W. Murnau and the noir classic The Third Man, as well as a number of 3-strip and 2-strip Technicolor pictures. “Sky Captain borrows its visual sense from the Thirties and Forties filmmaking style — we strove to maintain that pieced-together feeling,” says Conran. “In that regard, it’s not too different from what I originally set out to do on my home computer, but I got to work with a lot of extremely talented people who helped make it better. We fully embraced the idea of shooting everything against bluescreen and the limitations created therein so the visuals would have consistency.

“We originally planned to release the film in black-and-white,” adds the director. “There’s a quality to black-and-white that would be interesting and strange for a movie like this, and the idea that someone would go to all of this effort for a black-and-white movie perversely appeals to me. But obviously, color was a concern for distribution, so we tried to embrace color and use it in such a way that it would add to the project.

“Eric and I looked at the old 3-strip and 2-strip Technicolor processes, and there are elements of both of those techniques in Sky Captain,” Conran continues. “But when we looked at one of the crowning achievements of 3-strip Technicolor, Black Narcissus [shot by Jack Cardiff, BSC], we both loved the way the skin tones behaved and how the colors responded. To create that look for our picture, we spent many months developing the right technique for mixing color into the image. Stephen Lawes, the compositing supervisor, really spearheaded two departments: black-and-white compositing, which did the initial compositing, and the color department, which laid color over the composited black-and-white images. We always used the black-and-white composite as the master image and then added color.”

Lighting a feature film shot entirely against bluescreen presented both logistical and creative challenges. “When you’re lighting a scene in an empty, blue environment, you have to imagine what the actors are going to encounter in that scene, be it a tree or a building shadow,” says Adkins. “We shot one sequence set in a jungle, and we only had practical trees and bushes where we knew the actors were going to touch them. We didn’t know what the background was going to be because the storyboards for the latter half of the film were somewhat rough, but it was abstract enough that we decided to keep all of our key lights on one side of the actors and just create some dappled light from above, like it was filtering in through the trees.”

Adkins maintains that lighting actors for bluescreen work is far trickier than most filmmakers believe. “Everyone talks about lighting things flat and says they’ll adjust it [in post] to make it look good, but that is completely factitious!” he emphasizes. “That might be a producer’s dream, but in the long run that approach is more than a little costly. You can’t re-create the feel of back- and sidelight in post off a flat-lit image. Sure, you can add a slash of shadow across an actor’s face, but if you think you can make it look as though actors are interacting with lighting created entirely in post, you’re in for a lot of work. And on this film, the effects department was already tasked with a lot of work.”

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.