Oct. 3, 2004
Before you ask -- no, I haven't seen Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
I confess, I haven't seen a movie in the theatre since Alec Baldwin
donned The Shadow's cape and scarf (and proboscis) back in
1994. I don't know why. My absense isn't a reflection on
that film. I really enjoyed it. No, I just think the movies
are too honking expensive!
As a result, I tend to follow the pop cultural fabric with a sort of
time-delay (yeah, me and Janet Jackson), catching movies a year after
their initial release when they finally hit Cable. This has its
drawbacks, as you can imagine. About the time everyone else has
gotten on with their lives, I will finally see a blockbuster -- and
there's no one to talk to about it. On the other hand, in the
case of the Harry Potter films, this wasn't a problem. Just when
I got to see the first Harry Potter movie on Cable, the second movie
hit theatres -- and I felt right at home.
Anyway, like I said, I haven't seen Sky Captain, but I have seen the
commercials as well as the review by Ebert and Roeper, by which I
consider myself emminently qualified to discuss it as if I knew what I
was talking about. (Or, as my brother and co-editor likes to say:
"Nothing keeps a conversation going like ignorance.")
Sky Captain, as you
probably know, is a homage to the old Republic adventure serials.
Now, there's nothing new about that. Sky Captain isn't going anywhere Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark or even The Mummy remake haven't gone
before. What makes Sky Captain
ground breaking, however, is the way
it was made. Apparently, Sky
Captain was shot almost entirely in one room in front of a blue
screen, with everything -- every giant robot, every prop, everything -- created by
computer. The actors, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina
Jolie, were required to imagine the sets around them, miming actions
and reacting to stuff that was only added months later in
The guiding hand behind this experiment was director Kerry Conran,
fresh out of film school, where he had made a six minute "proof of
concept" short along
the same lines as Sky Captain.
He showed his short to producer Jon Avnet, who encouraged him to take
it all the
I don't have any intention of giving an opinion of a film I haven't
seen, but based on reviews as well as what little I've seen in
commericals, I fear I shall be somewhat disappointed when I finally do
get to see it. While the set design (by Conran's brother, Kevin)
certainly eye-popping stuff, everything I've seen looks strangely muddy
and blurry. I don't know why they did that -- maybe because it
better hides the matte lines around the images. Or maybe they
just felt it created a dream-like ambience. Whatever, I've
complained before in these editorials that I find computer effects hard
to "see". Doing it on purpose doesn't make it any better.
Then there's the question of the story itself. Most of the
reviews I've seen agree that there really isn't any. They love
the special effects, but complain it comes at the expense of the little
things like, oh, Angelina Jolie. Still, like I said, I
haven't seen it.
What I do want to talk about is what Sky
Captain may mean to the future of Film itself. I'm not
going to insult you with a lot of Gee-Whiz, the Future is Here!
malarkey. In some ways, Sky
Captain isn't really doing anything we haven't seen in films
like Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
There's nothing new about combining live action actors with animated
objects and backgrounds. But Sky
different, for two reasons. Firstly, because the animation is so
And secondly, because the animation is done by computer instead of an
army of animators.
Let me emphasize that last statement. ARMEEEEE. It takes
lot of people to turn out a cartoon like Roger Rabbit. Each "cell" has
to be drawn by hand. There is no short way to make a
cartoon. But using computers, it's a whole new ball game.
In theory, there is no reason a single animator working with a computer
couldn't turn out an entire movie on his/her own.
And that's the real message behind Sky
Captain. One which, for all the praise lauded on it by
critics, I don't think they've entirely recognized. Using
computers, it should eventually be possible
to produce a blockbuster motion picture with a single credit.
A single credit!
Understand, I'm not talking about the situation we have now where a
film will begin with "John Carpenter's", as if he and he alone created
the motion picture you are about to see. John can call it HIS
all he wants, but there's an army of credits at the end which say
differently. I've said before that nobody has a greater
influence on the shape of a film than the screenwriter, but even the
screenwriter has to accept that his vision will be filtered through the
visions of countless actors, the DOP, the make-up people,
the Sound Mixer, the Director, the Set Designer and a zillion other
professionals. No, Sky Captain is pointing the way toward
something else. Someday we may see a
single credit major motion picture which really was the product of a
single vision. One filmmaker, one movie.
Artistically, there's nothing bizarre about this. After all,
that's what a novel is. When Stephen King publishes his latest
opus, it has his name on the cover and none other. And, while
there may have been one or two editors helping him out a bit, basically
this is the truth. He sat down and wrote his novel by
himself. Every character is the way he wanted it to be.
Every line of dialogue is spoken as he wishes it. He and he alone
is the "author". His vision isn't filtered through the visions of
the binder or the type-setter or even the publisher. One author,
Back in the 50s, a bunch of French intellectuals decided it was high
were taken as seriously as literature. They wanted to
analyze movies the same way they might analyse, say, War and Peace.
To do that, it was first necessary to see each movie as the creation of
a single coherent vision. If it wasn't the product of a single
coherent vision, how could you say it "meant" anything? Just as
with a novel, each film, they
claimed, was the product of an "auteur". Thus it was necessary to
choose from among the army of professionals working on any film and
that "auteur" was. Who has the most control over the final
vision? Naturally they settled on the director -- and
screenwriters have been cursing them ever since.
But that was just playing with words. Now, though, with Sky Captain we are finally faced
with the possibility of a film that really does have a single
"auteur". But wait! What about the actors? I hear you
asking. After all, Sky Captain
still had a cast of real actors, no matter if the sets were computer
generated. And that's why I say Sky
Captain points the way, but we still have a long way to
go. In fact, this idea of a single credit film hinges on one,
perhaps shaky, assumption -- that we can someday create actors in the
Certainly, we've taken steps in that direction, with, for example,
the eerie computer drawn people in Final
Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Then there was Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Jar Jar
Binks in Star Wars, and The Hulk. None of them were
entirely convincing, but they were a first step. As I see it,
there are two hurdles to be overcome if we want to create believable
computer generated actors. Firstly, there is the physical
appearance of the "actor". Does it look like a believable
Secondly, there is movement. Does it move like a believable
Movement would be the easiest hurdle to overcome. Reportedly
the Hulk's movements were created by dressing Ang Lee, the director, in
a special suit with sensors. He moved as he wanted the Hulk to
move, the computer sensed those movements and animated the Hulk
accordingly. Using this method, there is no reason a single
filmmaker couldn't animate an entire cast of computer generated actors,
one at a time, doing all the movements himself.
Alternatively, film companies might keep memory banks of prerecorded
movements which could be applied to computer generated actors.
Every now and then you might notice a distinctive gesture cropping up
on different actors. In fact, we've already started down that
road. Reportedly, when George Lucas added a big
creature to the Mos Eisley scene in his redone Star Wars, he used the
Brachiosaurus program from Jurassic Park. No one knew the
The more difficult hurdle to overcome would be the physical
appearance of computer generated actors. Gollum, Jar Jar Binks
and the Hulk are all non-human. We don't expect them to look
entirely real. To create a truly believable "actor", so realistic
that we believe it is real, may be more than just difficult -- it may
The problem is that the human eye is remarkably effective at
noticing subtle differences between a real face and a drawn face.
We've all seen those eerie paimtings by Bateman which look almost like
photographs. But, even with those paintings, if you look closely
enough you can spot tell-tale give aways. The grass maybe isn't
ruffled properly where a sign post touches it. Whether computers
can eventually overcome this barrier and create "actors" realistic
enough to fool the human eye remains to be seen.
But if they can...
Think what this would mean to the future of filmmaking. First
off, as I said, we would begin to see blockbuster motion pictures which
really do have a single "author", just like literature. No longer
would it be necessary to assemble an ARMEEEE of professionals to make a
movie. Now the search would be for those rare, extremely
multi-talented individuals capable of a) writing a script b) operating
a computer and c) acting (since the filmmaker would do all the voices
himself, altering his voice through the computer). One person
capable of all three chores would then shut himself away in a computer
room for several months and, when he came out, voila! One
blockbuster motion picture, coming up!
This raises interesting questions. For example, how much would
such a film cost? Would we continue to see 150 mil
blockbusters? The only real cost would be for time on the old
Cray. And the filmmaker? Would he be paid an astronomical
fee, seeing as how he's doing everything himself (and is, as we said, a
very rare, multi-talented individual.)? And think of the Dark
Side. We may see a day when actors -- real flesh and blood actors
-- are no longer needed to make a movie. Think about it. No
more cattle calls. No more movie stars. No more Mel Gibson.
When you go to a movie, you'll be going because of the filmmaker, not
because of the cast. The same way you pick up a Stephen King
novel because it was written by Stephen King.
Thinking about all this, it occurs to me that it's all eerily
familiar. Back in 1981, Michael Crichton's underrated movie Looker came pretty close to
anticipating all this. Before anyone realized you could use a
computer to duplicate reality, Crichton was talking about scanning real
women (specifically a very scanable Susan Dey) into computers and using
those images in place of the real thing. In fact, the climax
virtually duplicates the process behind the making of Sky Captain, as Albert Finney finds
himself fighting baddies on an empty film set in which computer
generated people are being added in for the mindlessly watching camera.
Now, I don't know whether a single credit motion picture would be a
good thing or a bad thing. All I know is that Susan Dey wasn't
smiling when she was scanned into the computer. And when Susan
Dey isn't smiling, you know there's something wrong somewhere...
Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate
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