In lighting every shot, Adkins’ first consideration was the bluescreen. “Of course, you have to light the bluescreen cyc and floor, but we didn’t want all of the light on the actors to be toplight,” he says. “However, that’s not to say you couldn’t use some of that toplight if you wanted to. For example, there’s a scene in a scientist’s laboratory where our set consisted of a complete floor, lab equipment, stairs and a door. It’s a pretty complex shot and fairly wide, because it starts with Sky Captain and Polly walking in the door and then pans to reveal the entire lab. We placed that set on our grid so that one of the space lights was directly above Jude and Gwyneth at the door; that way, we could dim it to add ambience if we wanted to.” (See diagram on page 39.)

Although Sky Captain’s lighting was inspired by film noir, Adkins used large sources to light the actors. He explains, “Video likes soft sources, but we wanted to avoid flat lighting, so we used large, soft sources and then cut that light down so it looked more directional. I was always trying to create a more stimulating look.

“In fact, the week before we were to start shooting, we decided to shoot a test of the scene where Sky Captain goes into his office and is reunited with Polly for the first time,” Adkins continues. “We wanted to get the actors accustomed to our shooting style and the bluescreen environment. On set, there were a door frame with a frosted-glass window, a desk, a couch and a filing cabinet set against our wraparound bluescreen. The scene has very moody lighting, and it was a great opportunity to play out our noir look and see what the actors would do with it.

“In the preceding scene, we’d seen Sky Captain for the first time, and this scene begins with him coming into his office from a dark hallway. It seemed like a great time to play Jude’s silhouette against the frosted glass as he enters, so we backlit him with a softened Nine-light. Inside the room, I had a couple of 5Ks cross-lighting the doorway from his desk, and we cut the light off of him down to his stomach. You just see the highlights down below, but as he walks up to his desk, the light from his desk lamp, the only known light source, fills in from below. He then walks around the desk and sits in the chair, moving fully into the light from the desk lamp, which on this angle was a low 2K bounced off of beadboard. There were areas of blue framing the door that we let go darker than we normally would so we’d just be able to key it. But still, it was a high-contrast silhouette of Jude, so if they couldn’t pull a key, they could pull a difference matte or a luminance key. For a test, it was pretty bold lighting, but I wanted to establish early on that I didn’t want to sacrifice lighting the actors [creatively] in favor of the bluescreen.” [Ed. Note: This “test” ended up in the final film.]

To light a large-scale scene, Adkins needed to know exactly what would be in the virtual environment so that he could not only light the actors, but also create a tonal interaction with those non-existent elements on set. “In preproduction, we had to figure out what structures were going to be ‘there’ in the virtual environments, but on set we had to imagine the rest,” he says. “You’re in a big blue room, so you have to imagine the details of the environment that will surround the actors [in the final image] in order to give your lighting a sensibility.

“In one shot, Polly comes out of an elevator into the lobby of the building where she works,” Adkins continues. “When we shot that, I had visual-effects stage coordinator Jim Tharp bring in a few big blue blocks to act as [lighting] barriers to provide a transition from the ‘elevator’ to the ‘hallway,’ even though Gwyneth was basically walking in a sea of blue. We had toplight from one of our space lights on her in the ‘elevator,’ and she then walked out into a black zone, becoming a full silhouette, and then finally stepped into heavy sidelight, which represented light in the ‘lobby.’ We had to envision that lighting transition when we laid out the shot, and using those blue blocks not only helped with flagging some of the ‘hallway’ light from spilling into the ‘elevator’ area, it also helped Gwyneth have a frame of reference for where she was in the virtual set.”

With almost every shot an effects composite (except for a few small scenes and a handful of inserts that were shot practically), Adkins made himself available as the 2-D and 3-D background environments were integrated and lit in the computer domain. “Right after the shoot, I spent about six weeks helping the compositors and CG lighters understand what I was going for,” he recalls. “Then, when they brought in CG lighting director Michael Sean Foley, I talked him through my work because he was so involved with how the images were being created and processed. Still, it felt a little odd to let go after being so involved in the development of the film, the extensive prep and then the physical shoot. All I could do at the post stage was try to transfer my knowledge [to the effects team].” Fortunately, Adkins was able to spend four weeks supervising the digital intermediate at EFilm, where, with colorist Steve Bowen, he made one last pass at the look of this unusual project.

“After all those years of planning and plotting, to see what Kerry’s project became is just incredible,” he remarks. “When we finally had the actors on set for the first time, we were standing there wondering how it was all going to come together, and Gwyneth suddenly stood up and turned into the light, and it picked up her new Veronica Lake hairdo. Our jaws dropped open, and we knew it had all been worth it.”

Christopher Probst was a camera operator and second-unit cinematographer on this project.


1.85:1 (16x9 native capture)

Sony CineAlta HDW-F900/3
Fujinon lenses

Digital Intermediate by EFilm

Printed on
Kodak Vision Premier 2393 and Vision 2383

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.