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The Civil War

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From the moment I first saw the trailers for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I knew two things. One, that I would be seeing this film and the other, I pegged it as a tour de force of computer animation done by a pixel-head with a penchant for 1930s pulp science fiction cover art and Modernist nostalgia.

I told myself this trailer had probably been aired as a short at last year’s SIGGRAPH (The Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics, who’s stated mission is “to promote the generation and dissemination of information on computer graphics and interactive techniques.”) Once a year the members of SIGGRAPH convene to display their work, particularly at the Electronic Theater where the state-of-the-art in CGI is usually defined for that year.) There it was shown to an audience, half of whom would not get it, and half of whom (myself included) would suffer comic-book lust, our eyeballs extended and tongues rolling out of mouths like wet carpet. This was all speculation on my part, as I’ve not been to a SIGGRAPH in years. As it turned out in talking with Kerry Conran director of Sky Captain, I was dead wrong about the SIGGRAPH part.

Conran, it turns out, sees himself as a filmmaker first and his use of the computer as simply another tool in the art of film making. I take this as a good sign for CGI, as it means the artists are starting to master the tools and not the other way around. It had to happen some day.

In Sky Captain, Conran has electronically created a playful and imaginative world that is dense as a Persian carpet with film references and popular icons from the mid-20th century. This should keep those who like to tease minutiae from film busy for some time to come. Also, The World of Tomorrow seems to be scrubbed clean of irony. It is what it is, so sit back and enjoy the ride: it’s a gee-whiz doozy.

Kerry Conran on the set of Sky Captain
Kerry Conran on the set (such as it is) of Sky Captain

John Adams: Did you ever think to submit The World of Tomorrow to SIGGRAPH?

Kerry Conran: No, it never occurred to me to.

JA: That surprises me. So you don’t see Sky Captain as an animated film?

KC: No, I guess I do think of it as animated but SIGGRAPH to me represents the show to demonstrate technology. Electronic Theater is the application of that technology though it is very much driven by the computer and tools. I have always come at this from the perspective of filmmaking and developed the techniques used in this film out of necessity and never really sought to interest other computer aficionados. And so it never occurred to me to submit it. In retrospect... absolutely, but that’s separate from not regarding it as an animated film, because I would. Many of the techniques we did were animated but still coming from the perspective of an animated film rather than technology-driven animation. I guess I’d draw the line at what SIGGRAPH was and what Sundance or another film festival might represent.

JA: So you do see what you are doing as traditional film making

KC: Yes,

JA: And not a new genre or medium.

KC: That wasn’t really the intention. Wether or not that what evolved from this maybe... which is a possibility. The intention was to tell that particular story with those particular visuals that we used.... and if history says it’s something else....

JA: The story came first?

KC: Yes it did. I thought of it as a sort of bare bones story, a loose story of the characters and the idea to model it after a serial and also bring to life the visuals of 1930’s and 40’s pulp comics of that era, the science fiction comics.

JA: Why the 30’s? How did you get into the 30’s That seems strange to me.

KC: Part of it has to do with the fact that I grew up with those movies. Those are the movies I knew first. One of the first movies I recognized as having seen was King Kong. And that sticks with you as a kid. King Kong was a film that dreamed like a kid would dream in the sense that it didn’t limit itself. And even if some of the ideas were absurd, that’s what made it so great. King Kong in particular is probably why I like the 30’s 40’s because there was this sense of naive wonder to what they were doing at the time, particularly in the science fiction of the time.

JA: Is that naive wonder because the 30’s were pre-WWII, pre-atomic-bomb?

KC: That might be a little bit of it. Maybe that was a sobering effect on people that made the world more cynical which is where we’re at today.

JA: When I saw Sky Captain, I wondered if you had seen Things to Come. That it helped you to imagine The World of Tomorrow.

KC: Oh sure. Things to Come was not unlike Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Dr. Mabuse, and a lot of the films Murnau [made]. Those films helped to drive one aspect of it visually and from the storytelling point of view, in the sense of a forward-thinking futurism of that era. And to some extent I approached this film as if I were living in 1939 and I had these tools available to me. Then you wonder what kind of film you could make with them... almost as if this was a lost film from 1939.

JA: What do you think the makers of King Kong had in mind when they made their film?

KC: I’ve read so much on that so I know a little of it’s the origin. To some extent it started as a bet.

JA: A bet?

KC: Yes. Originally it was man vs machinery or nature vs machinery. They were trying to answer the question if we took the most modern technology of the time and pitted it against the most fearsome natural force, which would win? Strangely they came up with pitting King Kong against a biplane with machine guns.

JA: That’s a different take on technology that appears after WWII in Godzilla. Technology is then part of the problem. Try explaining that to someone from 1939.

KC: That’s why the science of the 30’s and 40’s was fun. They weren’t limited by what was practical and not practical. They simply allowed themselves to dream. These days I don’t think we would create the same things because we would limit ourselves based on what we know. Today we are almost too well informed... and more cynical.

JA: Perhaps you might be re-introducing ‘wonder’ into science fiction?

KC: Well... maybe a little bit of whimsy. That’s been missing a little bit, but that’s not to suggest that the films we’ve had today have anything wrong with them, that they are not entertaining and not great in their own right. It’s just that [whimsy] is missing, it’s not been done in a while. And it’s a different point of view that hasn’t existed for some time. That’s what makes this film feel so different, when in fact, if you step back in time a little bit, it’s not terribly different than what’s come before. You just haven’t seen it for a while. So I think this will appeal to younger audiences. It celebrates imagination.

JA: A thing that occurred to me while watching Sky Captain that seems real obvious, but I haven’t seen mentioned, is the comic book Black Hawk.

The funny thing is that Black Hawk came into the fray late. It would seem to be the natural influence and it really wasn’t. I’ve since looked a lot of Black Hawk stuff and the parallels are quite profound.

JA: It was a strange comic book. The idea that they had their own little private air force and private island... and you ask yourself, “Where does the money come from for all this stuff?”

KC: Exactly. That’s the thing I found out. We were going to design this base and in looking around some one mentioned it and — lo and behold — there’s Black Hawk Island. Because I was familiar with these sort of things while growing up, maybe less so with Black Hawk, I wouldn’t doubt that just through osmosis and exposure those things perhaps planted themselves in my mind.

JA: The only reason I ask is that I’m surprised at the reference. There’s no reason you should have been exposed to that unless you are some kind of comic book scholar.

KC: In truth the ‘team’... the Flying Legion... were more modeled after the Flying Tigers.

JA: Which is why Sky Captain flies a P-40.

KC: Exactly. I saw them more as mercenaries or the Flying Tigers, or a volunteer group. And in some sense [the comic-book] Black Hawk was an extrapolation of that as well. At the time I was looking for aviation based [images]... even serials, and that sort of thing... but hadn’t discovered Black Hawk. I found Tail Spin Tommy and all sorts of other early stuff... biplanes. Another thing we discovered late in the project was a comic called Air Boy. I think now I’ll take the opportunity to brush up on all those things... after the fact.

JA: And you are now in line to do Princess of Mars? Is that happening?

KC: Yeah. We’re actively working on the script.... that’s where it all starts.

JA: When I heard that you were involved in Princess of Mars, I wondered if you’d seen or would have referenced Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924, USSR, Director: Yakov Protazanov).... the costumes are pretty amazing.

KC: The thing I’m going to struggle with on Princess of Mars is the costumes.

JA: What are you doing to get ready for POM. Naturally, reading all the books.

KC: Obviously reading all that and trying to find parallels... like Sky Captain did. Strangely one of the things that most influenced World of Tomorrow and one of the films I most watched and not an obvious film for most people was Third Man in the sense of trying to capture the tone and it’s visuals. I think that was the film that introduced the dutch angle... which I abused. It was actually the film that I used to deconstruct... to figure out how to make this movie because we did everything on blue-screen. I’d look at a close up of Joseph Cotton and the background behind him and try to understand what is that background, and frequently for a close up it was just a wall with a nice little pattern of light on it that’s kind of ‘fuzzed’ out, and I’d recreate it — just use my own tools. That’s how I got about mimicking that look and style.

JA: The beginning of Sky Captain has a distinct look and feel that is different from the end of the film. But the transition is very smooth between the two looks. Was that intentional or something that happened over time?

KC: It was both. It happened over time because it was very difficult to maintain that style. Later on when we became involved with other companies and it was difficult to get them to reinterpret what you are doing... keep them on target. But there was also the idea to have the world evolve so that from scene to scene you weren’t seeing the same thing over and over. So the idea was to have this defined world but to have distinct worlds contained within that world.

JA: Well, when you see the first sequence in the Sky Captain trailer, you know you have to see this film. What did you use to render that first part?

KC: There was a program on the Mac called Electric Image. Which I still to this day and really like. It was kind of the only high end stuff built for the Mac at the time and it’s really great. I used Photoshop... an early version... and After Effects for compositing. That was version 1.0 and was put out by a company called Cosa (Company of Art and Science). That was before it it got bought by Adobe years later. And it was version number one. It didn’t have layers and all the different stuff you can have now.

JA: Last question. Do you still have time to do your own work. Do you still model and render?

KC: I still sit down and start that way. It’s almost like being able to sketch or putting your hands in clay. For me to think or describe things visually there’s no better tool. Now there’s people that can take that from me and enhance it and do a much better job, and who have those specialized skills as an animator or modeler. But I can get enough done to make the point and help define the style and look. Basically [get] what’s in my head out in some fashion so that I don’t have to describe it to people. They can just see it.

  • bijeto: I've always wondered if the beginning of Sky Captain was influenced in any way by Fritz Leiber's short story, Catch that Zeppelin. December 8, 2008 reply