Kerry Conran is the second big-time filmmaker to come from Flint, Michigan, and he couldn't be more different from his fellow Flint-ite, Michael Moore. "He lived not too far from me while I was growing up," Conran recalls. "I didn't know it at the time, obviously. We do slightly different things."
By his own account, Conran's childhood was drenched in movies (both contemporary and classic) and the pulps - science fiction, fantasy, and adventure - and he started making his own super 8 home movies before studying filmmaking at the California Institute of the Arts. That's where he discovered the tools of computer animation and digital effects. In 1994, eager to find his own way into the film industry, he set up a blue screen in his living room and began developing the tools he needed to create an independent epic. Instead, Jude Law saw his test short and signed on as star and producer. Conran's experimental indie project turned into the multi-million Hollywood production Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a high concept adventure picture starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, and Angelina Jolie, and the first film shot completely without standing sets. All this in his first time at bat.
I had the opportunity for a one-on-one with Kerry Conran while he was on the road promoting the much anticipated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It's September 8, the morning after a rousing advance audience screening at the Cinerama Theatre in Seattle and nine days before its wide release. He has every reason to be exhausted, but he's up, engaging, and happy to be talking about his debut film. I figure it's genuine because he's new to the hype business - the guy comes off as too sincere to be going through the motions. With his full face, thinning hair, and enthusiasm for movie history and pulp nostalgia, 40-year-old Conran comes across like a computer programmer with a streak of the film buff. He wears his nostalgia for Saturday matinee serials and yesteryear sci-fantasy, like George Lucas before him, as a kitschy badge of honor. You'd never guess this guy has just been handed the keys to Hollywood. He's already at work on Princess of Mars, another high concept pulp adventure, previously in development under the guidance of Robert Rodriguez. But first he has a film to sell.
Is your background computers and computer animation?
Sort of. I grew up just like the normal dorky kid that wanted to make movies, with a super 8 camera and that sort of thing, and then went to film school. It was really there that I recognized that I could use the computer for a production tool. But that didn't come first, that wasn't my background per se. I never had any formal training in computers; it was sort of a hobbyist's interest that I adapted to film.
So you were making short films long before then?
Very bad ones. But yeah. I think anybody that's starting out young and wanting to make films [goes] through that. These days it's with mini-DV and that sort of thing. But that's what I did and I actually used one of the films I'd made to submit to CalArts with my application, and then, of course, I continued to make films there as well.
Did you make any commercial work before embarking on Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow?
Zero. You have a long time to think about those things while you're going through school, and I was out for a couple of years before I did anything. There's choices you can make and I didn't like the path I'd seen other friends go down, which is where you try to work your way through the system, do other jobs and work your way up. And I just didn't see that as being the path for me. I didn't want to go that route and I didn't see that there was a lot of success with that. And at the time, there was a resurgence of the notion of the independent filmmaker. It probably started around the time that Soderbergh made Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which reenergized and reignited the whole independent filmmaking experience.
So I set out thinking that there was an opportunity here - this was almost eleven years ago - to make a film using some of these new emerging tools, that would allow you to make an independent film unlike perhaps anything that had ever been tried before, because you simply weren't capable of it for that money. So that's how it evolved in that regard. After I got out of school, I spent four years trying to develop the technique that we ultimately used on this film, as well as the story and the characters.
Did you have to develop new software for it as well?
No, I was able to use off-the-shelf software that was freely available. The software I used at that time was generally version 1.0 of programs that have now become quite polished and widely used. We did create some proprietary tools and software once we started making the actual feature. There were some things that were specific to this film that there just weren't tools for. They're not important except that they help the process. They make it faster and more refined, so we did a little bit of that later on.
Would you describe the film as an animated film with live actors, or a live action film with animated backgrounds?
I've described it in the past as a live action cartoon. I don't know where that falls on the two sides of the description but that's what it is to me. My approach was to apply the same principles that creates Bugs Bunny, using the computer to do for live action what has been traditionally been done through cel animation. So it's sort of a live action cartoon, for lack of a better word.
Robert Rodriguez used some of these techniques for a significant part of the Spy Kids sequels. He's said that he really liked using CGI sets because he could let his imagination go crazy in the post-production part. Did you find the same freedom to keep adding elements and details?
Yes, but we were pretty planned before we went into it and I think that was part of what made this film possible and enabled us to pull it off, given the complexity and the amount of CGI that we used. It also helped the actors to know what was going to be around them and ultimately what it was going to look like. I really tried to approach it the way you would a traditional film. In a conventional film, you design and build sets and that's it. In this film, we designed and built sets in the computer and shot on essentially digital sets, in a fashion. But absolutely, we took advantage of the fact that, since nothing had been written yet, even after we shot it, we could manipulate it, we could alter it and enhance it. And we did that all the time.
Did you have to restrain yourself from just going crazy with more and more stuff? Was it a struggle to keep the CGI from overwhelming the actors?
Honestly, that was a concern at some point, that the world would become so cumbersome, so visually striking, in a good or bad way, that it would almost make the film feel oppressive or distancing, and it was really once we started putting it together and putting the actors in it that they brought back the humanity to it. It then just became keeping control of our appetite. You're tempted. When you can always add and manipulate and change, you want to do that. Once you've achieved something and done a shot, it's good for about a day or two, and then you're bored with it, and the only way not to be bored with it is to tweak it and add more to it. We did have to just step away from it at times and say, "It's finished." We created what we called CBBs, which stood for "could be better." The CBB shots went into a pile. We didn't call them finished forever - we kept them in a separate pile, and when we finished our other work... It was almost like getting dessert if you've done your homework or eaten your meal. You can go back and bring out one of those shots and play with it a little bit, but ultimately, you run out of time, which is what happened to us.
The film was pushed back for months. Did that give you time to go back and keep tweaking shots?
It did somewhat. Obviously I'd love to still, to this day, be working on it, in all respects, but it allowed us to really finish it. I think the film would have been compromised had it come out when we were originally slated.
What did the shots look like during production as you looked through the viewfinder? Did you see a blank set or was the digital set superimposed on the viewfinder so you could see how the actors would interact with the set?
We didn't on this film. I think in the future, when and if I ever reuse this technology, I'll feed it through the viewfinder so the camera operator can see it. That will allow the camera operator to frame against objects, because you have these very skilled artists as operators and typically, if they're in a room like this [gestures to the hotel room] where they see the physical space, they'll compose the shot based on the objects that are there. Here there's just blue, there's nothing to go on, so they had to stick to the game plan that we put forth. What we had was similar to that, though. The camera was feeding our monitors, so while the camera operator couldn't see it, I could watch the actors and look at the monitor and see the virtual world around them. So even as Jude and Gwyneth were moving through this environment, I could see exactly what they were moving through, even if they couldn't, and could help them along the way as we shot it.