Virtual worlds: A $4 million dream

Digital tools are the talk at Sundance
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To capture on film what teems inside Dave McKean's head would normally take $400 million and a crew of 400.

Instead, through the wizardry of computers, the famed comic book artist's haunting imagery made the translation to cinema for just $4 million and with 17 artists.

His first film, "Mirror Mask," is a Sundance Film Festival premiere that defies categorization. It's a wildly visualized fantasy about an artistic teenage girl (Stephanie Leonidas) who is sucked into a dream world of her own drawings (which were created by McKean) populated by, among other things, cats with pale human faces. The movie, directed by McKean and written by him and his longtime comic book collaborator, Neil Gaiman, premieres Tuesday at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City.

McKean's stylistic, surreal visions in "Mirror Mask," similar to the art of the "Sandman" graphic novels he did with Gaiman, could only be brought to the big screen with computers. This emerging method of conjuring virtual worlds for film with digital tools is the subject of a Sundance panel discussion that begins today at 3 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre.

From the last two "Star Wars" films to 2004's "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," filmmakers are experimenting with computer graphics as a way to conceive entire sets and backgrounds, not just special effects shots. Need gigantic robots to crush a stylized version of New York City? No problem, just program it all in.

Most of "Mirror Mask" was filmed in front of a blue screen on which there was nothing for actors to react to because the computer-generated characters were put into the scene later.

McKean and a team of artists and technicians then spent a year using computers to draw the setting and the other-worldly characters. Nearly everything but the beginning and the end was filmed with a virtual backdrop.

Only the retro look of "Sky Captain," patterned after 1940s Max Fleischer "Superman" cartoons, required as much computer work. Both films took place in environments that were impossible to re-create in real life.

"I didn't want the film to look photorealistic, and that is what computer graphics are generally used for," McKean said from his home in Great Britain. "But that's very expensive, and it's a very narrow target when computers can do anything at all. I was keen on doing something completely imaginative and dreamlike."

While computer generated imagery (CGI) has been used before to re-create real-world environments and for real object special effects, that's nothing but "a technical exercise," McKean said. "The shine of that will wear off very soon. If you make these kinds of films, the onus is to use the imagination."

The only danger, says one Hollywood visual effects expert, is if the electronics override storytelling.

"What you find in 'Sky Captain' - as lovely as that movie looks - is that if you're not engaged by those people, you tend to not go and see those movies," said visual effects supervisor Rob Legato, who won an Oscar for "Titanic" and designed the effects for Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator."

"It becomes a stylistic choice of how you use it," he said. "But even if you can, it doesn't mean that you should."

McKean will always be more interested in using computers to realize his far-out visions.

"It's down to tastes and what the script demands," he said. "I prefer to make images that are imagined. If we want something that looks like a forest, I would rather just go out to a forest."