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Paramount Pictures  /  AP
Gwyneth Paltrow, director Kerry Conran, center, and Jude Law talk on the set of “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” During production actors performed in front of the blue screen, left, which allows the director to project special effects into the film's background.
updated 9/19/2004 8:01:50 PM ET 2004-09-20T00:01:50

“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” is full of visions of the dark, soaring New York cityscape, dogfights in the sky and the majestic Himalayan mountains. But what was the movie set like for the actors?

A whole lotta blue.

That’s because “Sky Captain,” despite its grandiose appearance, was filmed entirely against a blue screen with digital effects filled in. Though real actors star in it, almost everything else is fake. Think “Roger Rabbit” in reverse.

While computer generated imagery has for years been a large presence in movies, “Sky Captain” is the first major motion picture made entirely digitally with living, breathing actors. Only what they touch is tangible.

The movie, opening nationwide Friday, is set in a late 1930s New York beset by hundred-foot tall robots. Soon reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) along with ex-beau Sky Captain (Jude Law) set off on a journey to stop a mad scientist’s plot to destroy the world.

Drawing from old ’40s serials such as “Flash Gordon,” noirish pulp fiction and the classic futurism of H.G. Wells, first-time director Kerry Conran has created a vintage-looking sci-fi film using the most modern of technology. The steps to this film of more than 2,000 effects shots, though, started in a California apartment with pen and paper.

Creating a digital world
Conran began working on “Sky Captain” in 1994 by designing stylish illustrations with his brother as storyboards, which he then converted to digital images on his laptop. Toiling away on his home computer, Conran eventually produced a six-minute short (essentially the first minutes of the feature film), which attracted producer Jon Avnet and, in turn, Law and Paltrow.

When production began, this transfer of drawings to computer graphics was done even more expertly — using a computer program that allows the designer to feel resistance, like a sculptor feels clay. Those still graphics were then animated to produce a rough, 3-D video (with digital actors) called an animatic.

After many processes of refining the lighting, depth and composition, a grid was created for each shot, and mapped out on the blue screen stage floor. Conran then shot the movie with doubles in a London studio, as a kind of dress rehearsal.

“We effectively shot the film twice,” Conran told The Associated Press. “I actually shot the film before I shot the film.”

Once the adjustments of angles and shadows were made to make a cohesive, cartoonish rough cut, the primary actors were brought in for just a month of shooting in the studio. Not bad work compared to the normal months on location.

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The animatic also served as a useful blueprint (no pun intended) for Paltrow, Law, Angelina Jolie and Giovanni Ribisi.

“What was valuable with the animatics is that it showed the actors what the shot was,” Avnet says. “There was enough detail for (Paltrow) to understand exactly what was happening and that when she’s stepping on dots, it’s actually an entire plane.”

‘A sea of blue’
And so the movie was shot in one room — one very blue room.

“It was a sea of blue, literally,” says Paltrow. “It was blue everywhere, blue floors, blue walls with various dots in places to orient the computer.”

The dots also oriented the actors, signifying things like a killer robot or an airplane cockpit. But the blue screen and dots did not exactly facilitate emotional performances.

“It was difficult at times, but at the same time you also kind of free your mind and your art follows,” says Law. “And the fact is, we were really in this kind of make-believe world, anyhow. You could say it was kind of similar to doing theater in empty spaces.”

Shot on high-definition digital film, Paltrow and others in “Sky Captain” are muted in a soft-focus to give them the textured look of old black-and-white movies.

Layers and layers of composites were done to each frame to add greater detail to each shot. The total amount of digital painting for the hundred minute movie is staggering.

Avnet tried to do the math: “24 frames, times 60 seconds, times 100 minutes, and how many dots in each frame? And then do seven, eight, 15, 20 iterations of each frame?” Calculator-less, he answers appropriately with a whistle.

Painstakingly put together
The result of all of these steps is a unique creation of futuristic retro where Jolie captains an air station and the New York streets almost look real. The experience of watching the film is a little jarring given the new melding of reality and fantasy. “Sky Captain” also has an odd, somewhat unsettling tempo because of the preordained, digital production.

“It’s so difficult to get the effects right, that you tend to celebrate every shot you get done,” Avnet says. “But you have to look at the movie and see if it’s any good. That was very challenging just to make sure that we didn’t have a technically proficient movie that nobody would be able to follow.”

More wholly digital films are on the way. “The Polar Express,” an adaptation of the children’s book to be released in November, was made digitally and uses representations of actors, including a cartoonish Tom Hanks designed directly from his movements and gestures.

Conran sees computer generated images as simply another step in a long line of film technology advancement: sound to color to digital.

“I use digital effects more as a tool, no different from any other kind of production tool,” he says.

It’s potentially a “world of tomorrow” unto itself.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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