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Oct. 3, 2004

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  Sky Captain and the Moom-Pitcher of Tomorrow

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 post-production.

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 way. 

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) is 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 Captain is different, for two reasons.  Firstly, because the animation is so extensive.  And secondly, because the animation is done by computer instead of an army of animators.

Let me emphasize that last statement.  ARMEEEEE.  It takes a 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 film 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, one novel.

Back in the 50s, a bunch of French intellectuals decided it was high time movies 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 decide who 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 computer.

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 person?  Secondly, there is movement.  Does it move like a believable person?

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 difference.

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 be impossible.

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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