Macs help Sky Captain save the day, win converts

When Sky Captain -- hero of Paramount Pictures' hit film "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" -- swooped out of the sky in his P-40 Warhawk and protected New York City from an army of giant robots, he wasn't just convincing moviegoers to suspend their disbelief. He also helped convince visual effects supervisor Darin Hollings that Macs could carry the load just as easily as, or better than, the UNIX-based SGI and Linux-based PC workstations he previously used.

A veteran in the film industry with over a decade of experience, Hollings told MacCentral that when he first met director Kerry Conran, "he handed me a 15-inch PowerBook as soon as I walked in the door. He told me 'You're going to learn OS X.' Kerry was such a proponent of the Mac that he wanted to make the entire movie in Cupertino."

Conran spent several years using nothing but a Mac to painstakingly create a six-minute short that became the springboard for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, so Hollings understood the director's tenacity and agreed to the task at hand. PowerBook in hand, Hollings oversaw the creation of animatics -- pre-visualized animations that would guide the filmmakers during production -- before flying to London and assisting on the set as Jude Law (Sky Captain), Gwyneth Paltrow (intrepid reporter Polly Perkins), Angelina Jolie (British helipad commander Franky Cook) and other actors worked on a set that was entirely bluescreen, except for certain props. The entire environment would be added later, so Hollings was there to ensure that every shot lined up the way it should.

The Process

With only 26 days to shoot Law and Paltrow, whose characters are in almost every scene in the movie, Hollings knew he needed a process to make sure each day's goal of 40 shots was met. He kept the animatics, which were created on a PC with Maya but exported to QuickTime, on his PowerBook and referred to them when setting up each day's work slate with Conran. Two dual-processor Power Mac G4s were placed on the set -- one for the actors to use as a viewing station so they could review footage and one that Hollings employed to place the shots over the animatics and double-check that the actors had lined up correctly with their virtual environment.

"I had the complete movie in animatic form on my PowerBook," Hollings recalled. "In fact, so did Kerry and a few other key people. We were all running around the set with our shiny silver laptops."

The shots were recorded to HD tape and digitized on a Power Mac equipped with a Kona card. On the post-production end, Hollings' team started with Power Mac G4s but moved to Power Mac G5s as soon as they were available. Three Xserves fed the digital artists their footage as they worked on it in Adobe After Effects, stripping out the bluescreens and replacing them with shots of New York City, Shangri-La, the Himalayas and other locations that the production never visited but was able to recreate in a stylized fashion.

"Steve Lawes was in charge of our compositing department and he did an amazing jobs," said Hollings. "He made sure every shot was handcrafted and set up a system for blurring the edges of people and objects just right. The compositors even painted out the parts that didn't integrate well so that the look was seamless."

He added: "They worked on over 1,100 shots and were even able to use the same workstation to render completed shots and work on new ones at the same time. That's when I realized the Mac could be a pretty hardcore production machine."

One Last Performance

The film features 2,000 effects shots, but 900 of them had to be farmed out to other companies in order to meet the tight production schedule. Given Sky Captain's relatively anemic $70 million budget, however, Hollings admitted that the bluescreen sets "were the only way to get the film made. We couldn't afford to fly all over the world, so it was both a huge challenge and a nightmare. It would have been easy to make a bad movie with this process."

One last logistical hurdle remained toward the end of post-production, however: figuring out how to integrate the image of Sir Laurence Olivier, whose estate had given permission for his image to be used posthumously, into one of the final scenes of the film. Conran and Hollings eventually decided to on a holographic projection of his head, in a nod to The Wizard of Oz, and found footage of Olivier giving a speech at a fundraiser.

An editor dissected Olivier's mouth in Final Cut Pro, dropping frames to help it match the dialogue, and then fed the footage into After Effects, where scan lines were placed on his face to achieve what Hollings called "a glitchy monitor effect." The result was then projected onto a 3D model of Olivier's head in Maya on a PC before coming back into After Effects for the finishing touches. Just like that, an actor had arisen from the dead for one last performance.

Now that production is completed, Hollings admitted his Mac and PC sit side-by-side in his office. "And I don't go anywhere without my PowerBook," he said. "Between iCal, iTunes and my iPod, I organize my life through it. How can you hold an iPod and not want everything attached to it?"

This story, "Macs help Sky Captain save the day, win converts" was originally published by PCWorld.

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