Reel to Real

“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” is one of the current hits at your local metroplex. What’s the big draw to this movie? The film is a blast of fun, has great actors and is a dazzling piece of eye candy. What makes it unique is that it was shot entirely in front of a bluescreen: all of its backgrounds and scenery are computer generated. Only the actors, their clothes (at least most of them) and a few of the props are real.

Petro Vlahos won an Academy Award for developing the bluescreen process. This technique allows filmmakers to combine real and computer-generated images (CGI) into a single piece of film that looks very real.

The real background is filmed and the actor is filmed in front of a bluescreen. The actual bluescreen is a large, bright blue screen, backlit and featureless. Its size varies according to the shot needed.

Special filters are used to create two matte prints from each bluescreen shot. One print shows the actor’s silhouette and the other shows the inverse. The filmographer is left with four shots: the real background, the real actor in front of the bluescreen and the two matte inverses of the actor’s body. The mattes are combined to superimpose a “hole” upon the actual background scene and the actor’s image is then patched into the hole.

In order for a bluescreen shot to be convincing, the foreground (added) image must have the same levels of diffusion and brightness as the original background. In filming and finishing the shot, care is taken to ensure that the bluescreen’s color doesn’t overlap or reflect onto the actor or props. If it does, the actor will seem to wear a blue halo, which looks very artificial. Also, the actor cannot wear anything blue during filming, as blue will be taken up by the bluescreen, seeming to create a hole in that part of the actor.

The bluescreen has played an important role in many popular films. When you see the boy’s bicycle flying in “ET,” when you watch Luke and Leia zip through the forests on their landspeeders or even when you watch your favorite TV weather forecaster working in front of an animated weather map, you’re watching bluescreen technology in action.

“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” stars Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. In the film, Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) stars as an ace pilot who discovers that an army of giant, malicious robots plan to invade Earth. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Polly Perkins, a plucky newspaper reporter and past paramour of Joe’s. The two of them join forces with Captain Frankie Cook (Angelina Jolie) and work to hunt down the notorious Dr. Totenkopf, thwart the invasion and save the world.

Laurence Olivier makes an appearance as the film’s villain. But wait – isn’t he dead? Indeed he is. His role – 퀌� la “Forrest Gump” – is courtesy of the insertion of a CGI.

Film school graduate and Macintosh aficionado Kerry Conran directed “Sky Captain.” Conran dreamed of making a film that combined live actors with a completely digital environment and spent years using his Mac to create a six-minute version of the concept.

Eventually he showed the clip to movie producer Jon Avnet and the rest is history. Avnet convinced a major studio (Paramount) to finance and distribute the movie and hired Conran to write and direct. The film was shot with a $60 million budget – small by today’s standards. The resulting film is important because it is the first studio-backed, wide-released feature film with big-name movie stars, shot entirely in front of high-definition bluescreen.

The film’s bluescreen work encompassed more than two thousand separate images, captured over 26 days. For insertion during the editing process, Conran shot hundreds of extra actors in front of the bluescreen. Through the process of CGI, a combination of modern and archival photos and news footage added the Empire State Building and the Titanic to the film.

“Sky Captain” was originally planned as a black-and-white movie. Ultimately, sepia tones, dark lighting and hand coloring were added to create a retro, antique-photograph feel, suggesting films of the thirties and allusions of noir.

The film owes its existence to such CGI progenitors as “Tron,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Forrest Gump.”

And for all of you pop culture addicts, “Sky Captain” is filled with tips of the hat to many past works, including “Buck Rogers,” “Superman,” “Metropolis,” “The War of the Worlds,” “King Kong,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Island of Dr. Moreau.”

This film should be seen on the big screen. Enjoy the popcorn!