#215. Digital Backlot

With the increasing capabilities and power of computers, Hollywood has started to forego traditional sets in favor of a digital backlot. There can be many reasons for this, including cost, the fantastical setting of the film, or even a particular artistic style that is being recreated. Not everyone is convinced this technique is a good thing. Because the backgrounds are inputted separately from the actors, it can be an obvious distraction to the audience. However, some of the better digital backlots will appear to seamlessly integrate everything together for the desired effect. Of course, with Moore’s law doubling the computing power available to filmmakers every 18 months, these digital backlots will only improve with time. This week’s two films highlight some examples of digital backlots and how they are used to achieve a desired effect.

Sin CitySin City
Year: 2005
Rating: R
Length: 124 minutes / 2.06 hours

Adaptations of graphic novels can be difficult, not only because the source material may be prolific, but because the artistic style of these works can be challenging to recreate. The works of Frank Miller have been prime examples of using digital backlots to recreate the original style of the artist. Movies like 300 (2007) and The Spirit (2008) use the digital backlot to mimic Miller’s art, mainly because massive amounts of post-processing would need to be done to have the movie seem like it was pulled straight off the pages of these graphic novels. Of course, the Miller film that revealed how well digital backlots could be done was Sin City (2005). Not only did The Spirit use the same techniques when it was made, but the sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) did as well. Due to the mixed success of these films, it’s hard to tell if digital backlots will continue to be used in this way.

The dark, black and white world of Sin City is occasionally highlighted by a splash of color. Usually, this color is the red blood of a murdered Customer (Marley Shelton), a victim of a cannibal named Kevin (Elijah Wood), or an undercover police officer (Benicio del Toro) killed in a misunderstanding. Of course, in this town filled with vice, all the cops are crooks, the prostitutes band together as a violent gang, and the politicians make sure everything runs as corruptly as possible. Few saviors remain against these odds, not the least of which is police officer John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), the romantic roughneck Marv (Mickey Rourke), or the protective prostitute Gail (Rosario Dawson). Each life affects another in this entangled world of violence and debauchery, made all the more impactful by its visual style.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Year: 2004Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Rating: PG
Length: 106 minutes / 1.76 hours

Because of the new and unique settings proposed by the genres of fantasy and science fiction, it often becomes easier to construct these worlds on a digital backlot. One of the best films to use digital backlots successfully was that of Avatar (2009). The alien world of Pandora was made much more realistic because half of the actors were digitally integrated into the film by using advanced motion-capture techniques. In doing so, director James Cameron removed some of the dissociations between the digital backlot and the actors: blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. Similarly, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) adaptation had very few actors, but an abundant amount of digitally-created characters to fill out the trippy, Lewis Carroll imagery. And yet, the film that helped launch digital backlots was none other than Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004).

While most early digital backlot films were mostly independent, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was the first to be widely distributed (by Paramount). Scientists have started to go missing, and newspaper reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is on the case. As she secretly interviews a doctor who thinks he is next to disappear, robots sent by Dr. Totenkopf (Lawrence Olivier) attack and mortally injure the doctor. The savior of the robot attack is “Sky Captain” Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), who has Polly tag along to his air base since she might have some useful information. As more robots attack, it is found that the signal controlling them is coming from Nepal. Joe and Polly make their way there and discover Totenkopf’s lair, an island filled with a variety of creatures and rockets. What is the illusive Totenkopf’s ultimate plan?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 synthesized settings