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Kerry Conran.

View Finder. Director Kerry Conran lines up a shot on a blue screen set.

Among the many wonders of director Kerry Conran’s debut feature movie, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” none is more remarkable than how he tried to make it — on a single desktop computer, in 1994, before desktop computers were ready to fully cooperate.

“I actually sat down to create a whole feature film, by myself, on a Mac IIsi,” says Conran. “And I didn’t care in a way how long it was going to take, because I knew it was possible.”

The Vision

Because it was easier to imagine than to actually film his world of tomorrow — set in a 1939 that never was but might have been, where a daredevil pilot and his ex-flame chase flying robots and the evil genius who created them from a noirish Manhattan to a Technicolor Shangri La — Conran needed to find another way.

“I actually sat down to create a whole feature film, by myself, on a Mac IIsi. And I didn’t care in a way how long it was going to take, because I knew it was possible.”

“Up until now it’s been difficult to bring the look and feel of the pulp works of the 30s and 40s to screen,” says Conran. “Given that the locations and the characters that might appear in these things are so fantastic, they’re well beyond the reasonable grasp of an independent filmmaker.”

Backstory

Conran acquired his taste for pulp in Flint, Michigan, where he grew up watching too many Sunday afternoon serials with his brother. Objects culled from his prodigious explorations of comic books, science fiction novels, films and TV shows, and from a favorite sourcebook, “The Book of Marvels,” turn up in “Sky Captain” like exotic souvenirs: a cowling hook on the Empire State Building built to enable dirigible docking (it really did exist), the Hindenberg III (only I and II were ever built), giant flying robots and palm-sized elephants.

“Ever since I can remember, I was running around making Super 8 movies and that kind of thing,” he says. “I wasn’t specific to one genre. The film that I ended up making suggests my interests as a kid.”

Means and Extremes

The film also drew on techniques he’d learned from hanging out in the animation department while enrolled as a film major at CalArts, including his decision to shoot real actors with a DV camera against blue screens and drop them into computer-generated digital backgrounds.

“I tried what at the time was a fairly unconventional approach,” he says, “shooting a film entirely on a blue screen soundstage, fully intending to replace those backgrounds with things generated in the computer. It was more like using the computer as an optical printer. However the backgrounds were achieved, it was the computer that married them. And did so sort of affordably.”

With this method, and some help from his brother Kevin, a professional illustrator who became the Production Designer for the movie, he believed he could finish the entire film in his apartment in Sherman Oaks, CA. Conran points out that he had tools, as well as method, behind his madness. “Technology had started to trickle down, including the first version of After Effects. And the analog machines I’d had to use, like animation stands and optical printers, now had affordable digital counterparts. That’s when I knew that realizing the types of effects that I’d loved growing up was possible.”

Next page: Six Minutes in Four Years

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