Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

‘Sky Captain’ Interview, Part 3

I’ve been sitting on the last part of my interview with Art Director Kevin Conran and Lighting Designer Michael Sean Foley for a few years now, waiting to coincide with the long-delayed release of Kevin’s beautiful book, Sky Captain and the Art of Tomorrow. That day is finally upon us; the release date is today, February 23, and with it, here’s the conclusion of our interview.

‘Sky Captain and the Art of Tomorrow’ Standard Edition

(In case you need a refresher, or want to catch up, the first two parts of our interview are here: Looking Back at Sky Captain and Sky Captain Kevin Conran Interview, Part Two)

Jim: So, when it was going to be the little intimate 3 million dollar black & white movie with a cast of unknowns, did any of those unknowns go on to become somebody?

Conran: No, we literally hadn’t cast it. We were talking about unknowns; we knew it was wildly unrealistic, but the idea that it was this unearthed thing found in a sub-basement somewhere, we really wanted unknown unknowns. Like when it came out, people wouldn’t even know who these people are, except for their relatives, y’know? That was never going to happen.

Jim: So, like the Blair Witch Project.

Foley: I don’t think people gave it the fair shake that they should’ve, and as soon as they found out it’s genre or whatever, they were just like, “I’m not gonna go see this.” There’s something in there for everybody, and that was kind of the cool thing, that when I went in to talk to them, they were looking for a lighting director, or a CG supervisor, I guess, and I went in and just saw some of the beautiful imagery, I mean it’s just amazing stuff, it’s just, this is incredible. And from movies that I’ve seen, like Black Narcissus, I mean, just that color treatment, that whole, how that Technicolor, it’s just incredible. We talked about the “film noirness” of everything, like the stark halos, like how you can shoot this. I think I sat there with him for about an hour, two hours…

Jim: Your first day?

Foley: Yeah, my interview. We just sat in his office and talked about, first of all, the artwork; he had painted the logo on an exposed brick wall, fuckin’ awesome. And we talked about the art that he had up, and then we talked about our favorite movies, and he’s like, “a lot of this stuff is from this era, and I really like these ideas… when I walked away from there, I went back, I had just finished Master and Commander, and it was like eight days later, and this was totally in my genre, bailywick, this is what I want to do, I want to create this lighting style, all of these things that influence my photography from way back in the day, it was a great experience.

‘Sky Captain and the Art of Tomorrow’ Deluxe Edition

Conran: Kindred spirits. Michael Sean has become one my best friends on the planet. And I’ve got a lot of respect for him as an artist. He always brings… he’s kinda fearless, and Sky Captain was a very defined experience for me, like I knew what it was, and it was my job to convey that to everyone else in the building, to get in line with that, right? But other things, y’know, just throughout the year, whatever, I can be real cautious. And he’s not. He just kinda drags me in. We were, in fact, that same time I met him, it was very clear we connected, we just got excited about similar things and how our minds work… and there’s a… I’ve told this a number of times, but there’s a sequence in the film where Sky Captain walks through that giant map room, there’s a map on the wall. I’d always had that, it was an early image I’d drawn, and it was very clear what it looked like to me. So it makes its way through modeling and everything, and it gets up to be lit. And so he comes and finds me, and he says “hey, I got an idea for this thing,” and he shows me the map and it’s… I’d always just done it on a cinderblock, just a flat, you know… “but if you backlight it!” And I looked at it, and my first reaction, honestly, was like “Damn it! Why didn’t I think of that?” It’s so obvious. It’s so cool. But he’ll tell you, I’m not a jerk that way. I was like “that’s a better idea; we’ll do this one.” So we’ve always kind of functioned that way, and, on that film and everything we’ve done since then. That’s how you’re supposed to work.That’s how you’re supposed to do stuff.

Jim: That’s great. Not that you want to quote Ronald Reagan a lot, but it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.

Conran: That’s very true.

Foley: Yep.

Conran: And unfortunately, that was a piece of things we couldn’t avoid on that film, because it was a Hollywood movie now, so there’s lots of people queuing up to be the ones responsible for its success, and the minute it doesn’t live up to whatever you wanted, they’re bailing out and it’s your fault. Now, like I said earlier, me personally, I’ve never felt that, I didn’t become independently wealthy because of that film or anything, but I’ll own it, because I’ve never heard a bad thing about the look. In fact, all I hear is good stuff. I really thought I’d get calls on the regular from studios having me help design their movies, because I don’t think anybody’s ever done what I did before, meaning to the degree that I did it as one person. And that’s not to take away from the contributions of a hundred other people, that’s to say that the underlying themes these guys had to work with were mine, and I was the only guy because that’s all that movie had. My ability to communicate it to them, and allow for their creative input to augment it and make it better.

Jim: No, I’ve worked with enough people who will say “no, we’re gonna do my shitty idea, because I’m the boss.”

Foley: Nah, it’s never been that way with him, and actually it’s like he’s laid out so much of the groundwork, like from the costumes to type to everything, everything’s thought out throughout the whole, and he’s like, “here’s the groundwork, just, here it is, you don’t have to go outside of it, and if you do, have a justifiable reason, and then we’ll talk about it. Otherwise, here you go, because I gotta go do twenty other things…”

'Sky Captain' bonus prints
‘Sky Captain’ bonus prints

Conran: The joy that comes with that experience is, like, my job is such that you’re sort of looking at the overall totality of the thing, and you do your best to do that, and then Michael Sean takes his big chunk, and he goes off, and he delineates that to his guys. And then each one of those guys has X number of shots they’re responsible for. But he’s not really, he’s doing the big picture in his world. And then you got a guy like Bryan Thombs that’s sitting there behind a screen, and he’s working on three shots, so he’s looking at such exacting detail and such, every little pixel. So he’s seeing it differently than [Michael Sean’s] seeing it and he’s seeing differently than I’m seeing it. And you’re hoping they bring something to it that when he does show it to you, you go, oh, that’s great! Or yeah, doesn’t quite fit in with the bigger picture, can you hone this in? It worked great.

Foley: You know what, and I think one of the coolest things that I learned from Kevin was, never miss an opportunity to pay homage, to like, do something that’s like, “Hey, this is where this is from.” There’s a shot, as the underwater planes, and you see the [sunken] ship, that was the Kong ship; on the back of the ship is the cage. And as, as the girls were coming through, the pilots, it was so dark and dismal, like you couldn’t actually see anything. And I was like, this is such a cool thing, we gotta like, actually pay a little bit more homage to this. And so as one of the planes come by, I kept making this company, Luma, make the light go through the cage so that it actually makes this fan, so as you’re looking at it, it’s like the only thing moving at that point was the planes. And then you see the shadow go through where the bars were.

Conran: That was a cool shot.

Foley: Yeah. And I went back and forth, back and forth with these guys. And it was the one thing that I really wanted this company to do. Our visual effects supervisor was beating the shit out of them about bubbles, about the size of the bubbles coming out of the ass of the plane, that they were just like, aaaugh, we gotta worry about bubbles. I’m like, no, no, no, this is important. I’m just trying to get this thing. But if you go back and look at it and you see that fan, just for a brief moment, you’re like, what the fuck was that? Oh, that was the cage! That was King Kong‘s cage.
Jim: That’s fantastic.

'Sky Captain' bonus print.
‘Sky Captain’ bonus print.

Conran: I said earlier that I’m not gonna say negative things to anybody.

Foley: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Conran: And I don’t wanna really start now, but I, but to your earlier question about what concessions we had to make and what mandates are pronounced by studios. So we did have a few people that were suddenly part of the production and weren’t our people. And did feel very much like you’re from the outside…

Foley: Interlopers. Intruders.

Conran: Yeah. You know, and so they brought in some guys with some credits on a couple things, and it was so clear that this particular person was outta his depth on what we were doing. I mean, that’s not to suggest that he didn’t know what he was doing on a more conventionally made film, but what we were doing, he didn’t get, and he obsessed about stuff like that to the detriment of things that mattered more, so it was just a struggle and it was frustrating. Since Sky Captain, my brother and I have both sold things we’ve written, original ideas of our own, independent of one another. In both our cases, and this happens all the time to everyone, but the first thing they wanted to do was bring in another writer. It’s hard not to feel like, “but you bought this thing that I dreamed up out of nothingness, and spread across here for you guys, and, and now you want to put somebody else that doesn’t know anything about it into the seat.” And then that’s the person that actually gets paid to rewrite the script. I just get to watch him do it and not get a nickel for it. That’s happened to me on two different occasions, two different studios. It’s happened with my brother a half-dozen times. It’s like, look, am I the creative person that you sparked to or not? Or do you just want to take something that I came up with and put it in your cookie cutter.

Jim: Well, you didn’t hit the Hero’s Journey. Where’s where’s the Call to Action? Where’s the Refusal of the Call?

Conran: Sure. By, uh, by page 12, you better be into your, you know, story.

Jim: But, actually I was just thinking that aside from as a film, you made a hell of a portfolio piece for a whole lot of artists. A lot of people that worked in the film had to have gone onto a lot bigger things. This was a big part of a lot of people’s careers.

Conran: For sure. Plenty of people have gone onto to far better careers than I have. <laugh> no question. I think, you know, there were a hundred people, honest to God, if I could kiss every one of ’em on the forehead, I would, they were great. I was lucky to get to experience that with them one time before I die, but I got to experience it once. And, of those hundred people, we had a few heavy hitters sitting in particular chairs that were empowered with running departments like Michael’s lighting, you know. And Zack Petroc was our model lead and a great friend. Zack had never worked in movies before. He was a model maker. He worked for General Motors, but his personal work was…

Foley: Classically trained.

Conran: Classically trained. The guy went to school in Italy and carved stuff outta the same marble quarry that Michelangelo did. Talented, talented guy, just needed an opportunity. We had a lot of people like that, we were their real break, you know. I think we were smart in the people we hired. Michael Sean’s been on teams that have won Oscars before; he’s an Imagineer, and now he’s flying’ around the planet. I mean, he’s done a lot of things, and, and we knew he was good. Zack was a similar case, where like, yeah, he hadn’t made a movie, but, man, look what this guy can do, and listen to who he is as an artist, and now, he’s been the model supervisor on Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6, and camped out pretty good at Disney.

Jim: Not a bad gig.

Interior Spread

Conran: He earned it. We also hired a kid, Steve Meyer, God bless him. Everybody called him “Smeyer.” And Smeyer, I guess was just outta school. He was nobody, and he was from back somewhere in Midwest, St. Louis, I think. And he would send us stuff in the mail trying to get a job with us, and he was just persistent as hell. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and he’d send little silly, he’d send a little wind-up brain that you wind, the kind that walk, and had a note. He’d written a note outta his mouth or something. And we’re like, well, hell, we should at least fly him in and interview him, cause he’s just wearing us out. So we brought him in and he hadn’t ever worked on anything before professionally. And the guy was… Steve, I love you, but you’re a giant dork—in the absolute best way—and you know, we all just abused him and played with him, everybody loved him, and he was great. He worked like a dog, and Steve went on to have a great position as an animator at Dreamworks, and has continued to this day and done remarkable work, and he’s only gotten better and better and better. He’s a veteran now, a stud.

Foley: Steve Yamamoto. Unit 11.

Conran: Steve Yamamoto is as good as any animator working, he’s terrific.

Foley: He’s gone on to create Unit 11, which was pre-vis..

Conran: He’s Michael Bay’s go-to guy for all the Transformers. He was our animation supervisor. Fantastic.

Foley: Steve Lawes. Cantina, I think, was Steve’s company…

Conran: Same thing. I think he did all the heads-up displays, all the comp work and stuff for Iron Man. So all these guys have gone on to do lots of stuff…

Foley: Avatar

Conran: Avatar, sure.

Foley: Bryan Thombs, who’s an Imagineer, Creative Director, now doing Marvel shit in Hong Kong…

Conran: We had a guy, Matt Collorafice, who was just a, like a newbie rookie comper. He’s got his own company out there, doing stuff for people now.

Jim: That’s fantastic.

Conran: Yeah, it’s great. And they earned it, and God bless each and every one of them, but you know, they just needed an opportunity, and with us, they got the chance, and they got to show what they have, and they’re exceedingly talented people. Clearly.

Jim: I think the, uh, the first of the names… brain not work… um, coming outta General Motors,

Foley, Conran: oh, Zack.

Jim: That had to have helped… if you’re doing models for General Motors, and then you start designing, you know, Flying Fortresses and giant 90 foot robots and whatnot, they’re gonna have a veracity to them, that’s based in actually knowing how mechanical things work…

Foley: Practicality.

Conran: Zack’s a real artist. He really is. And he’s a thoughtful artist, like, you know, like all that stuff we were talking about earlier. Like my whole global look for this thing was like, I want to make a world where it wasn’t just built in the last 20 years all the buildings have been torn down. It was everything. Zack is a similarly-wired guy. He thinks through a justification for things and every little detail matters. He’s smart, and listen, same goes for all of those guys, he is a smart, talented guy. He can draw, he can sculpt, he’s talented in a conventional easy to recognize way, right? I almost don’t give a crap about any of that stuff. He’s a great photographer. He can light. He’s got great taste. He’s this and that. So are a zillion other people. I can draw and paint a little bit. So can a billion other people. Who cares? What really comes to life behind that stuff is problem solving, intelligence, and the smarts that justify decisions. I don’t know a lot of those people, they’re few and far between; (gestures toward Michael Sean) he’s one of ’em, Zack’s one of them, they’re out there, but they’re not commonplace, in my opinion. And that’s why films all do look the same, because every kid that’s grown up, has access to the internet now, can pull all this down and replicate it. Who cares? Make something new. Do something different. I don’t meet a lot of people like that. Even in the stuff we’re doing now, doing some 2D work, a pilot for ABC, and it’s different. And I think that’s what we’re interested in, excited about. It has nothing to do with genre stuff or science fiction. Couldn’t be further from the case, but what we’re doing’s interesting and different. And I haven’t seen it yet. I don’t need a lot of people willing to pursue that. It’s just much easier to follow suit….

Foley: Not, just not take a chance.

Jim: Do what they expect.

Interior spread

Conran: Hollywood is… you know, here’s my thing with Hollywood: More, more, more, more! More is easier than better or new. I can give you more. I’ll just copy the crap outta that. New and better? That’s hard.

Jim: I remember reading… this is probably in the nineties, so it was about 10, 15 years after Japan started really dominating the auto market. And the pundit explained the problem was that General Motors and Ford and Chevy went out into testing and focus groups and market studies and gave people what they wanted. And people said, “I didn’t know it was gonna be like that,” and they didn’t like it. Then Toyota said, “here’s something you didn’t know you could have.” And there’s the success; it’s, give them something they didn’t know they could have. “Oh, wait, you didn’t tell me you could do that!” You know, “what do you mean I can have Flash Gordon photographed by George Hurrell? Okay, I’ll take that.” You know, it’s a different thing,

Conran: But unfortunately, in Hollywood it’s all about gatekeepers. I think the biggest thing Kerry and I were trying to do way back then was, to remove the impediments to getting a movie made… look, we were never going to get to make a $200 million movie for Disney or Marvel. That was never gonna happen. But what if we can make something that looks like a 200 million movie for 20 million or 3 million, you know, then what? Well, let’s try doing that. And so, I think it’s that urgency to do something different, stake your own claim, that’s something you have inside you or you don’t, you know? Yeah. It’s great when it works, but it’s not easy, and it’s not the be-all end-all either. It’s, you know, a lot of sacrificing, a lot of difficult things come with that too.

Jim: That’s interesting. I don’t know… they gave Guardians of the Galaxy to the guy who did Slither, so, I mean, anything could happen.

Conran: I know. And you know what? I like both of those movies immensely.

Jim: Well, to me, Guardians of the Galaxy was a movie that, according to Hollywood, should never have existed. There’s not one single thing in it that a Wall Street executive would say, yes, this is a viable film. Well,

Foley: Well, they said the same thing about Deadpool.

Jim: Exactly. It’s the same thing. But maybe it’s just that Disney can tell Wall Street to shut up and take their check, as opposed to anybody else, that the investors get to say, “well, that star’s not really bankable, so we need you to…”

Conran: See, Michael Sean and I won’t likely be around, or we’ll be addled at that point, but I think at some point that won’t matter anymore. I mean, it’s all about distribution and yeah, that’s already beginning to happen, and Hollywood can’t control that. And the point that you don’t need Paramount or Sony or any of these other people anymore, and you can get your stuff out there. Great. Screw ’em.

Foley: Those who are clutching at all the creativeness that’s coming out and the diversity, they’re gonna be gone, and it’s gonna be just like, everybody, you can watch anything, and if it’s popular, people are gonna follow that.

Jim: But there’s a lengthy shaking-out process.

Conran: Oh, it’s gonna be a while. Unfortunately.

Jim: Back in 1986, I’m graphic designer paste up artist, wax and X-acto knives and a stat camera…

Conran: I did the same thing, and Rubylith…

Jim: Hey, I am a whiz with the X-acto, with the swivel knife. And I cut like nobody’s business, I can still do that. But I knew, the day that Adobe Illustrator premiered, I said, that’s where I gotta go. But what I didn’t expect was that in 1990, any idiot who owned more than 35 fonts could claim to be a graphic designer, and we had 10 solid years of distorted type with a drop shadow and gradient fill. It took 10 years for the buyers to go “we need somebody who actually knows something.” And then it happened to music. And then it’s happening to film now, where, yes, you can be a one-man studio and make a movie at a subway station on your laptop.

Foley: But it’s still got to be good.

Jim: That’s the democratization of the arts.

Foley: The good will always rise to the top. I mean, there’ll be pure shit out there, look at all the TV, look at all the… everything…

Jim: But that’s the one function that studios do serve, is that they’ve got 15 levels of people whose job is to say no, they can say no, or talk to him.

Foley: But at the detriment of something that is really cool, like Sky Captain, or Star Wars.

Conran: Ten years they ran that thing around.

Jim: And if American Graffiti hadn’t made more money than God, he probably never would’ve got it. I’m still waiting for a good Howard the Duck movie. So what do I know?

Conran: And you can wait over there on that side, ‘cause that movie…

Jim: Read the comic.

Interior spread

Conran: So our buddy Zack was at Disney pre-Lasseter, he went through that whole transition. So when Lasseter actually, physically came down the campus and it’s all formalized, Zack told me a story and it’s just so awesome and sickening at the same time. Lasseter came in, he gathered everybody together and said, “It’s been brought to my attention that we’ve been making films that require seven levels of approval above the director.” Imagine that, seven. And that is how this stuff works. I’m directing something right now. And, you know, I’m the director, but I don’t have the last say on this stuff. Seven levels of approval above the director. And so Lasseter takes a dramatic pause and says, “Yeah, we’re not gonna be doing that anymore.” And everybody went crazy <crowd cheering noise>.

I mean, how cool is it, but how messed up is that, at the same time? I mean that he ever had to say anything like that? It’s troubling. And I worked at Dreamworks on two feature films and then did two years of television. I was  on the campus one day, having lunch with people on the show I was working on, when one of our studio executives, a nice guy, really good guy, all a sudden sits down to eat with us. And then he says, to no one in particular, something about studio executives, and he’s like, aah, we’re the worst! We suck. We don’t do anything. We just take up space. And what do we really contribute? And it was awkward as hell, because nobody really knew if he was being sarcastic or if he really felt that way. I took it more that way, like I think he really felt that. There’s a lot of bullshit artists in those jobs. And he really is right. They don’t contribute a lot in many cases, and so we all sat there, uncomfortable, and kind of giggled and said no. But we’re all thinking the same thing. You’re right!

We see it today. I work on relatively small potato stuff compared to big studio movies, but it doesn’t matter. Egos are malleable, and they conform to fit the space available to them. So if you’re in a little world on a little 2d show and there’s just this much room, then that ego above will grow to fill that up. And it’s the same issues. It’s like, I was starting to tell you earlier about producers. I don’t know how that terminology even evolved in Hollywood, I’d love to know, because, I come from a factory town, and if you produce a piston or a spark plug, you actually made it. And you handed it to somebody.

Jim: “and I shipped 380,000 units last year.”

Conran: Yeah. You produced that. So I get here and producers don’t actually make anything. Ever. They hire a bunch of people that they hope will come through for ’em. And if they do, great, they’re visionaries. And if they fail, it’s <pointing at others> their fault, you know? And I mean, I just don’t get, I don’t get it. It’s hard to be a creator on something and get a producer credit on your own work as a new person. That’s the thing that’s gonna change, because you know what, hey, I don’t need you. I’m just gonna release this into the wild, let people find it, and recognize that I have something to say, and I’m a talented person. And when that next opportunity comes along, I can dictate my terms a little better maybe, and that’s what’s gonna happen. And the studios can’t control that. They know, it’s inevitable.

Jim: It’s the same problem that the record industry has. They’re not manufacturing and shipping units of physical disks to the degree they were before now, their job is just to…

Conran: You know what? Even this is awesome, I hadn’t talked to you about this yet, but so I’m a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, comic cook fan, you know, the whole thing. And it really bugs me that for the last decade or more, people in this town are now, all “oh, I love comics.” And you know it’s some jerk, who never read a comic in its life. I was a comic book nerd. I remember going across the street to Mark Westphall’s house, and his older brother was a comic book guy. We were little kids and we’d get his hand me downs, and Mark and I would go into my garage and we’d read comics. And we were nerds and it wasn’t cool to read comics then; you didn’t tell the girls you did, and people thought you were a dork and beat your ass or whatever. You know, you earned that. Like now nerds rule the world. And every Ivy league guy in Hollywood is “Oh, I’m a huge comic nerd!” No you weren’t. I was. You’re not that; you don’t know.

Jim: Who’s your favorite Legionnaire?

Conran: Exactly. Funny you should mention that; that was exactly the books we were reading; Legion of Superheroes s my favorite comic book and we were doing all that stuff. And so it’s earned. And I see all the phonies in Hollywood. So here’s the thing. They’re just bleeding comic books dry — option, option option. Well, what are you guys gonna do when there’s no more comic books and you gotta come up with something original? They don’t have a hope in hell. And you know what? Back in the day, in the sixties and seventies, comic books sold at the newsstand, if it sold a million copies, it was like, eh, we might have let that one go. It’s not performing up to what we need it to. Now, they sell nothing. I mean, they’re making movies based on them, but the comic books don’t sell. I mean like titles sell less than a half of, you know, 50,000 issues nationwide, for name properties. Right? They don’t sell. So what now, guys? You’ve tapped this thing out. You’ve bled this thing, that the nerds all actually really cared about and invested in and gave a crap about, and you drained it like a vampire. And now you’re looking around for the next thing, and there’s no superheroes and, what am I gonna do? So that’s the way it is. And that’s why if artists controlled their own stuff, if they could do something more. With Sky Captain, the brand would’ve continued on, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have giant tentpole blockbusters that have to make a half a billion dollars to be successful. That’s asinine, that’s the GDP of some countries. I mean, seriously, you gotta make a billion dollars before you amount to anything? I would’ve loved to have been investing time in comics, animated series and toys and stuff.

Jim: It would’ve been spectacular.

Conran: But maybe we still will get a chance, because I never really thought about until recently. It’s like, it’s still a property, and people do remember it, and we should take another run at it, you guys.

Jim: I think people not only remember it, another generation is discovering it.

Conran: Right.

Jim: Sometimes something like that comes back and they go, what about this really cool thing that everybody overlooked the first time around?

Conran: Hey, you know, not that Fargo wasn’t a hit movie, but people seemed to love the television series.

Sky Captain and the ornithopters in flight.
Sky Captain and the ornithopters in flight.

Jim: And it took 15 years to get there. So, yeah, it could be a TVs series now. Or you do a Kickstarter for Sky Captain 2…

Conran: Well, it’s funny, you should mention that, ’cause I actually was thinking about that the other day.

Jim: I think the response would be “shut up and take my money.”

Conran: I think it would be more like, Hey, here’s a guaranteed box office and then we actually go…

Jim: It’s a pre-sale.

Conran: Yeah, exactly.

Jim: And with good incentives, if you can get a cool t-shirt out of it or whatever…

Foley: And we can turn it to like, hey, you know what, if we make this movie, you’re guaranteed to make your money back.

Jim: And if I give a thousand dollars, can I have a part in the movie?

Conran: Well, unfortunately for us, we no longer control the fate of Sky Captain. Honestly, making the movie was fun. I think if we could have done a season or two of animated adventures, I’d have enjoyed that even more. I’d still love to do it, but it’s not really our call. That’s part of the problem. So when people say, Hey, what happened to those guys? Well, what happened to those guys is they got sidelined, like every other person in Hollywood that comes up with an original idea. Somebody basically takes control of it, and they don’t have an ounce of creativity in their bones. Unfortunately for us, they took the thing that we could continue to breathe life into, and we can’t do that on our own now. That’s why there’s no comic books. That’s why there’s no animated series. That’s why there’s no toys; every toy company in the world wanted to make toys from that movie, and people that controlled the money couldn’t decide the percentages between them. So they let it all go away rather than do anything. That’s why. There should be toys. There should be an animated series. There should have been a video game. Those opportunites were offered up. But that wasn’t in our control and that’s how it happened. So when this animation studio in Japan wanted to finance a series, we didn’t have any ability to tell them “yes.” So that’s hard. That’s the hard thing to live with.

Jim: That hurts.

Conran: Yeah. It hurts. So, to any young kid out there with an idea, I would tell them to value that idea, hang on it. Don’t give it away. Don’t trust anybody. Make your thing, put it out there. Let it find its audience and dictate your own terms. We couldn’t do that then because the world was different. And it’s a bummer, but that’s the truth. Yeah. And, and I don’t care if you tell people that story or not.

Jim: Sadly, it’s not an uncommon story.

Conran: No, it’s the history of this town, pretty much. And by the way, don’t believe any of the garbage you read about our budget. I’ve disputed it 20 times over the years, when they act like this thing lost money and it cost nothing… that’s BS. They sold this thing worldwide for like 90 million dollars before we ever released it. We made it for about 17. How’d you lose money? That’s before one ticket is sold, okay?

Kevin Conran’s concept art for ‘Sky Captain’.

Jim: Well, that’s the lawsuit that Art Buchwald filed against Paramount over Coming To America.

Conran: It’s the same thing. Nobody lost money on that film. In fact, certain people made boatloads of money on that film and that’s the truth.

Jim: Somebody literally got a boat from that movie.

Conran: There’s no question. There’s no question. Our operating budget going into this thing was 17 million dollars. That’s it. That’s what we were gonna make the entire movie for. And certainly more money was spent; Paramount did put money in, because they opted to move our schedule up, our release date, up six months.

Foley: Oh and by the way, when he sold it…

Conran: Once it was sold to Paramount, they pushed our release date UP six months. We suddenly needed to finish six months ahead of our schedule. And it was like, “Oh, but you don’t get any extra help internally.” That’s when we distributed to 13 outsource companies around the globe, which nobody had ever done before, by the way. And I didn’t know, Rick Heinrichs, who’s an amazing production designer, on some great movies, Captain America, all kinds of stuff. In fact I emailed him when Captain America came out and said, man, I thought it was great. I loved it, whole thing made me happy. And he sent me nice note, said, man, coming from you, that’s awesome. I asked him about how they outsourced the film, he said he’s worked in this town for 30 years, he said that I did more of that on one movie than he’d done in his career. But we didn’t know, we just were doing it because we had to. But that was all because Paramount said no, it’s coming out in September instead of next spring. Those were things we couldn’t control. So that’s the truth of the matter. However much money they put into outsourcing, I don’t care. We were more than half done and well on schedule for our delivery date. If they spend any extra money, that’s on them. That’s not on us.

Foley: So, when they accelerated our schedule and actually, after the, what did they call it? They opened it up to the whole of Hollywood. They had, like, a fire sale. What did they call it?

Conran: I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t remember.

Foley: There was like a weekend. He said, I’m gonna show the whole movie.

Conran: We went to England and shot everything and then came back over, finished a couple, three, four or five scenes or something. A bake sale, maybe?

Foley: I can’t remember.

Conran: But like everybody in town came in to look at it. It was in this little screening room on Ventura Boulevard and everybody, every big wheel in Hollywood came in and looked at the movie, and it came down to Universal and Paramount bidding against each other. Paramount had the highest bid. They got the movie. So John sold it for like 90 million bucks…

Foley: With the caveat…

Conran: …on a 17 million dollar budget.

Foley: With the caveat that you gotta accelerate it six months, because we want it for this tentpole release.

Conran: But no one made any money.

Foley: uh-huh.

Conran: It lost money.

Jim: uh-huh.

Foley: And then at that point, because we had everything in place and we were chugging along, we were doing our little thing, 125 people in Van Nuys, this shithole thing. I think we had maybe a hundred processors to do our rendering.

Conran: Two toilets.

Foley: And he comes back and was like, yeah, you have half as much time. Go.

Conran: But we didn’t get to double our team in-house to do that. We suddenly, the answer is to farm it out to everybody around the globe.

Foley: Well, so within a month they invoke the bond. The bond is the bond company got involved. And then things started kind of going off track where like we were in control of our destiny at that point. So they brought in a visual effects supervisor. They brought in a woman who, let’s call her “the Soft Hammer,” who started cutting up the movie, and saying that we’re gonna send it out to all of these other places who were just bidding on it. They were just like, yeah, we could do that. Nobody vetted them. Nobody took a look at their stuff and said, yes, for that sequence, those people would be great. No, it was just pretty much lowest bidder, take whatever they wanted. And it was up to us, the core people, to make it work. Steve Yamamoto, Kevin, Zack, Lawes, all of us to like make sure that our shit didn’t get watered down or twisted out.

Dex tries out his new ray gun.

Jim: It’s funny. It sounds exactly what happened on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, from Paramount again, where, literally they were, honest to God, the final print was coming out of the machine, still wet on the reel and getting handed to a motorcycle courier to take it to the theater where, the first reel was already screening for the premiere, because they had farmed out all the effects to various companies that blew through the budget and produced nothing, And then they had to start over. It’s a nightmare story.

Conran: I’ve even forgotten some of this shit. This is a book. We should do a book. This is a book.

Foley: We had thirteen outsources and they were teamed up with compositing houses and 3d visual effects houses. So we had…

Conran: One or two of whom didn’t cut it.

Foley: We had companies that worked together on the, on certain sequences. We had daily sessions. Our dailies would start at, I don’t know, three o’clock in the afternoon and run until 3:00 AM in the morning. Cuz we kept going around the world. Like we’d start in Montreal and then we’d work our way to Vancouver. And then we’d end up in Australia at three o’clock in the morning. So I think, at that time we were the only company using that many… didn’t we have the Guinness book?

Conran: We were in the Guinness Book of World Records; world records for two different– for most visual effects shots in a movie and most visual artists…

Foley: I thought… has anybody beaten that?

Conran: Oh, they crushed it by now, undoubtedly. But nobody was close then. We put the flag out there, you know.

Jim: Pioneering work.

Conran: I mean every shot in our movie was a visual effect shot.

Foley: We might still be; there were 2200 shots. It’s amazing.

Jim: But the story about not losing money… I met Andrew Stanton at Disneyland a while back, we ended up standing in line at Cars Land for a while. And he was very, very insistent and proud that John Carter came in on time and under budget and nobody lost a nickel on that movie and everything you heard is bullshit.

Conran: I’m sure he’s right. I don’t doubt that for a second.

Jim: He gets tagged with this being this big mega flop because..

Foley: Because it made back… because it was projected here (hand at eye level) and it came in here (hand at chest level)…

Conran: We were talking about this the other day at work. Marvel’s play now is, they hire these kind of, on the come, young director types, and stick ’em on a Marvel movie. Cause they basically strip their power away and control ’em and tell ’em what to do anyway. And if they don’t like it, they fire ’em.

Jim: Right, or they walk.

Foley: Which is funny. They just fired the next Star Wars director. That’s twice in six months.

Conran: They’ve had more fired directors on their Star Wars than full-time directors.

Jim: Because you have to, on Star Wars, if you’re the director, you are the Muppet into whom Kathleen Kennedy sticks her hand.

Conran: I don’t know, why aspire to that? We tried to make our own thing. Scoring a Star Wars gig was never the plan. We just wanna make this quirky art movie would appeal to a certain amount of people.

A dirigible is moored on the Empire State Building in ‘Sky Captain”.

So that was my conversation with Art Director Kevin Conran and Lighting Designer Michael Sean Foley. And now you should pop over to Amazon and buy yourself a copy of Kevin’s book, Sky Captain and the Art of Tomorrow (Deluxe Edition).

As always, if you follow a link from here, we get a little percentage of whatever you purchase, so why not go ahead and load up on Sky Captain stuff?


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