A zeppelin descending through snow and searchlights, docking at the tip of the Empire State Building in 1930s New York. For years, this image has drifted through Kerry Conran's mind like an untethered dirigible. Beats him how it got there. Maybe it was something he saw during his childhood in Flint, Mich., where every Sunday a local TV station would broadcast a day's worth of vintage Hollywood programming. Or maybe it was something he read. Young Conran was mad for comic books, too -- old ones, like the sleek sci-fi from legendary '50s publisher EC. However that blimp got into his head, Conran was determined to get it out: ''I just had to see it brought to life.''
A long, risky filmmaking journey later, Conran is finally seeing just that. With Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, opening Sept. 17, the first-time director has found an outlet for not only his zeppelin but every sepia-toned iota of his retro-lovin' imagination. ''Raiders of the Lost Ark filtered through Fritz Lang's Metropolis'' is how the 38-year-old describes his art deco action-adventure. Chockablock with giant robots, flying robots, underwater robots, and. . . well, a lot of robots, plus Angelina Jolie as a British naval officer with an eye patch, Sky Captain is indeed a paean to the whimsy and innocence of its pulp-pop source material. Yet the process that produced it was as modern as The Matrix.
Sky Captain started life as a one-man production. In 1994, Conran -- who graduated from CalArts' School of Film and Video with an emphasis in animation -- set out to make a live-action movie the way he would have made a 2-D cartoon. Instead of combining separately drawn backgrounds and characters to produce a single shot, he would use computer tools to meld film footage, photo reference, and animation. A scene in which, say, New Yorkers flee from a robot army marching down Sixth Avenue would combine footage of actors shot against bluescreen, doctored pics of Manhattan, and a variety of computer-generated effects (like coloring and lighting).
Working out of his garage with a Mac IIci and homemade bluescreen, Conran toiled for four years to produce just six minutes of footage. By this time, he was being assisted by his older brother Kevin, an illustrator, who suggested Kerry consider getting more money, equipment, and hands if he wanted to finish his movie before he was 50. So they worked the only Hollywood connection they had: Kevin's wife knew someone who worked with Jon Avnet, the producer of such sci-fi/fantasy landmarks as. . . Fried Green Tomatoes and Risky Business. ''I was blown away by their footage,'' says Avnet, who was intrigued by the film's technique and Indiana Jones-meets-Buck Rogers concept. ''This is a movie by the nerds, for the nerds, but just so happens to have non-nerd crossover potential. I'm the nerd-friendly emissary.''
After guiding Kerry through two years of screenwriting, Avnet used the script and zeppelin footage to land Jude Law (who also agreed to produce), Gwyneth Paltrow, and an estimated $70 million in independent financing. Paramount would later acquire U.S. distribution rights for an estimated $40 million. Avnet had originally considered setting Sky Captain up at a Hollywood studio, and was even close to a deal with one. ''But I just had this sixth sense that Kerry would be crushed by the experience,'' says Avnet. ''He had this very unique vision that could not withstand the ''explaining'' process. Not taking the deal was one of the tougher decisions we made, but we had to try.''