The new movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was shot entirely in bluescreen, and the production process made a Mac convert of special effects supervisor Darin Hollings.
When Sky Captain - hero of Paramount Pictures' hit film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow - swooped out of the sky in his P-40 Warhawk, protecting New York City from an army of giant robots, he wasn't just convincing moviegoers to suspend their disbelief. He also helped convince visual effects supervisor Darin Hollings that Macs could carry the load just as easily as, the UNIX-based SGI and Linux-based PC workstations he previously used.
Conran spent several years using nothing but a Mac to painstakingly create a six-minute short that became the springboard for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, so Hollings understood the director's tenacity and agreed to the task. With his PowerBook in hand, Hollings oversaw the creation of animatics - pre-visualized animations that would guide the filmmakers during production.
He then flew to London and worked with Jude Law (Sky Captain), Gwyneth Paltrow (intrepid reporter Polly Perkins), Angelina Jolie (British helipad commander Franky Cook) and the rest of the cast on the entirely bluescreen set. The visual environment would be added later, so Hollings was there to ensure that every shot lined up the way it should.
Two dual-processor Power Mac G4s were placed on the set - one for the actors to use as a viewing station so they could review footage and one that Hollings employed to place the shots over the animatics and double-check that the actors had lined up correctly with their virtual environment.
"I had the complete movie in animatic form on my PowerBook," Hollings says. "In fact, so did Kerry and a few other key people. We were all running around the set with our shiny silver laptops."
Three Xserves fed the digital artists their footage as they worked on it in Adobe After Effects, stripping out the bluescreens and replacing them with shots of New York City, Shangri-La, the Himalayas and other locations that the production never visited but was able to recreate in a stylized way.
"Steve Lawes was in charge of our compositing department and he did an amazing job," says Hollings. "He made sure every shot was handcrafted and set up a system for blurring the edges of people and objects just right. The compositors even painted out the parts that didn't integrate well so that the look was seamless."
One last performance
The film features 2,000 effects shots, but 900 of them had to be farmed out to other companies in order to meet the tight production schedule. Given Sky Captain's relatively modest $70 million budget, however, Hollings admitted that the bluescreen sets "were the only way to get the film made. We couldn't afford to fly all over the world, so it was both a huge challenge and a nightmare. It would have been easy to make a bad movie with this process."
One last logistical hurdle remained toward the end of post-production, however. The team had to fugure out how to integrate the image of Sir Laurence Olivier, whose estate had given permission for his image to be used posthumously, into one of the final scenes of the film.
Now that production is completed, Hollings admitted his Mac and PC sit side-by-side in his office. "And I don't go anywhere without my PowerBook," he said. "Between iCal, iTunes and my iPod, I organize my life through it. How can you hold an iPod and not want everything attached to it?"