Flash back to 1999. George Lucas steps back into the director's chair after two decades of absence and produces the critically derided Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Though its visuals are praised, many writers note the stilted acting and suggest that Lucas's extensive use of bluescreens rather than actual sets is partially to blame. In 2002, the second Star Wars prequel seems to bear that out, and the use of "virtual sets" starts to look like a bad idea.
Or does it? Lucas, as has been the case before, may have been ahead of his time. This year saw two wildly different auteurs use the blue- and greenscreen techniques to create two of the most expensive "personal" movies ever. Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow existed as a fully realized story inside a computer before a single actor was cast, while Robert Zemeckis's The Polar Express allowed actors to portray characters who transcend their physical limitations. Yes, there were accusations of stilted acting this time around as well, but more critics and viewers started warming to the notion of bluescreens, especially after viewing The Polar Express in 3-D IMAX, which revealed minute details that were invisible on a regular-size screen.
The real breakthrough is still coming. Now that Lucas, Conran, and Zemeckis have pioneered the technology, it's going to get cheaper and easier, and proof of that arrives in spring 2005 with the Henson Company's Mirror Mask, a computer-generated/live-action fantasy film by Sandman comic-book creators Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, shot mostly against a greenscreen for a paltry $4 million. Robert Rodriguez, who experimented with the style in Spy Kids 3-D, will follow shortly thereafter with Sin City, a highly stylized rendition of Frank Miller's hard-edged graphic novel series. Early glimpses of these flicks wowed the faithful at the San Diego Comicon last July.
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Also hitting the festival circuit in ö05 will be a remake of the classic German expressionist horror movie The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, in vintage-style sepia and white, but utilizing virtual sets to re-create the surreal look of the 1920 original.
Oh yeah, and there's that one with Darth Vader in it too . . .