Kerry Conran Interview

Writer-director Kerry Conran created the first effects of his spectacular homage to '30s serials on a home computer

Writer-director Kerry Conran created the first effects of his spectacular homage to '30s serials on a home computer

(Some questions in this interview have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

Ten years ago, Kerry Conran sat down at his already-outdated Macintosh IIci and began creating, frame by meticulous frame, what is now the opening sequence of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," an ambitious, groundbreaking, retro-futuristic blockbuster modeled on 1930s adventure serials, but shot entirely on blue-screen soundstages -- with everything except sets and props to be added in later by computer generated imagery.

The fact that the film succeeds in seamlessly blending Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie into its fantastic, yet completely realistic world is due to Conran's vision from that day in his college apartment. Using nothing more than two commonly available programs -- Adobe's Photoshop and After Effects -- he created the six-minute first draft of a spectacular scene in which a dirigible docks at the top of the Empire State building.

A decade later that six minutes is on its way to becoming movie legend, and it has landed Conran -- an modest, enthusiastic Everyguy in his early 30s -- on the interview circuit to promote the film, something he says he finds almost as unbelievable as his first day on the set, a neophyte director instructing major movie stars to pretend they're being attacked by giant robots (to be added later).

Today he's at the swanky Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco, down the hall from a room where a flat-screen TV is showing a perpetual loop of behind-the-scenes footage showing, among other things, Law and Paltrow on the set, "driving" a pair of seats and a steering wheel on the end of a shaft (car to be added later).

How did he get from thanklessly meticulous CGI on an obsolete Macintosh to this? Producer Jon Avnet saw those six minutes of footage. So when I interviewed Conran, my first question was...

Q: How do you feel now about the 6-minute reel that got the ball rolling on this whole thing?

A: I look back at it now and it's sort of embarrassing because it was made so long ago. We've made such strides with this film and improved on it. I look at it and kinda cringe. But I have to feel decent about it in a way because it did sort of launch this whole thing in a strange way. Anybody seeing it now might feel buoyed to go out and try this themselves. I don't know what people would expect of it. To me it looks like it's ten years old, but you can also see the film that emerged from it.

Q: Well, I hope you're not too embarrassed to put it on the DVD.

A: They're putting a gun to my head.

Q: [Laughs.] Of course they are! And does the movie feel finished to you, or is the perfectionist in you still tweaking the film for the DVD?

A: We actually did the transfer for DVD. I had a chance to go back and touch it. But the funny thing was when it was finally finished, or when Paramount told me it was finished, told me to stop working on it [laughs] -- I think that's ultimately the way films get finished -- up to that point was my chance (to make any changes). That's the time I had and that's the movie I made. At least right now I have no interest in going back and touching it, even though there are many scenes, many things about it I'd love to go back and -- I'd rather be working on right now. I wish I had another year. But it's done. You could tweak it to death. In totality, I'm not displeased with it. I'll look away from the screen a couple times and go get popcorn.

Q: I think every director does that. You shot the entire film against blue screen. How big was your soundstage?

A: It was a pretty enormous stage. It was the only thing that felt physically enormous in the whole movie. Everything else was inside the computer. We shot on the George Lucas Stage outside of London. It was cool. Walking up to it was surreal. That's where they shot the original "Star Wars" and the original "Raiders." It was weird to know I was sitting in offices Lucas and Spielberg occupied all those years ago.

Q: Good karma though...

A: I think so! We all felt that way. But the stage itself was really quite enormous. We broke it up into three different stages, three different screens, so that we could be setting up one stage while we were filming on another. We had three separate camera crews, so we never had to move a camera from screen to screen, nor the lights.

Q: Did the actors have any trouble standing in front of one screen pretending to be underfoot of giant robots one day, then standing 40 feet a way the next day pretending to be in an ice cave in Nepal?

A: The funny thing is, one of the side effects of this whole process was speed -- the actors would have to make these big leaps. Gwyneth in particular is, like, rapid fire. She just wants to go, go, go. That stuff just suited her perfectly. You couldn't go fast enough for Gwyneth. Jude was so well prepared in his mind that it didn't really bother him. There was enough time in between things that they could kind of settle into it, but it wasn't the agonizing wait that's typical of movies where you're setting up scenes.

Q: How long was the actual shoot?

A: It was 29 days total. I had 26 with Jude and Gwyneth and three days with Angelina. It was a quick production cycle, but it was labor intensive on the backside.

Q: What was it like moving from a computer in your room to a movie set with major stars?

A: That, honestly, was the part that I most had to come to grips with. Initially, the first couple days, I would have liked to do another take of something, but I didn't want to push it. Who am I to go up and say, 'Gwyneth, ummm...'? But I found really quickly -- and was even told directly by Gwyneth and Jude -- that once they agree to do the movie, once they've agreed to take that chance, they're counting on me to be the one person to tell them what to do. If I don't do that, I think they would be more upset than if I went in there and said, 'You gotta do it this way.' They really are investing everything in you. You have to have the confidence to kind of know that. I got it, finally. And they were great about it.

Q: How did it come to pass that Laurence Olivier's head is your "Wizard of Oz"-like villain?

A: That was Jude Law's idea. I wish I could take credit for it. We were in London, shooting, and he came up and said, "I know who can play Totenkopf -- Laurence Olivier. It was one of those things where I could have killed myself for not thinking of it. In a way it was obvious. Not necessarily him -- it could have been Boris Karloff or something -- but it sort of made sense for the way the movie worked. But for Jude, it was clear -- he wanted to play opposite Olivier!

Q: [Laughs.]

A: ...and he created an opportunity for that.

Q: It is such a great idea too, because it gives the character an extra level of weight that would be impossible to get from a living actor. Did you lift his image and dialogue from a particular film?

A: No, actually we ended up recording it. We cast an actor and tried to emulate his voice. I think if we tried to patch something together, it would have sounded like a ransom tape or something. We were actually looking at several films, but we ended up creating a 3D model of him. We found some footage from the BBC of an interview that he had given, where he was virtually still and just looking at the camera talking. Along with some still photography we had, we just kind of projected it into this 3D image. If we'd just used video footage, we'd have been bound to just the front view.

Q: I assume it was, um, interesting getting permission to use his image.

A: That was the strangest thing. There was never really any resistance to it. The estate was very gracious in that regard. I think they must have known that we had the best intentions. We weren't opening up some ethical can of worms. It was just sort of a little tribute.

Q: I'm sure you sent them the six-minute film and the script, and it's not really sacrilegious like the vacuum commercial with Fred Astaire CGI'd into it.

A: It was definitely done out of respect. It wasn't trying to shill a vacuum cleaner.


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