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FINAL FANTASY

FANTASY FINALLY DELIVERS DREAM
Innovative use of various camera angles, lighting and special effects on the action scenes were all vital to the creation of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. “But most important, we were able to create a computer-generated human character. That’s the CG artist’s dream,” says the film’s creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi.

As a rule, films based on computer games are more concerned with pushing buttons than boundaries. An adaptation is usually judged on how successfully it transfers the adrenaline rush of playing the game to the big screen. But with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, director Hironobu Sakaguchi had more on his mind than mere thrills. “I have always wanted to create a new form of entertainment that fuses the technical wizardry of interactive games with the sensational visual effects of motion pictures,” he says. “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within takes us one step closer to that dream.”

Sakaguchi’s quest began in 1987 when he created the first Final Fantasy computer game. An instant hit, the game has so far spawned eight sequels, selling 33 million copies worldwide. Making a movie seemed a logical next step. “The games already employ a cinematic way of telling a story,” says Chris Lee, one of the film’s producers. “Most people don’t realise the power and impact of videogaming on popular culture, and on moviemaking. We owe much of the unconventional storytelling of films like The Matrix and The Mummy to videogames.”

Indeed, it is the quality of the storytelling that has turned the Final Fantasy series into a phenomenon. “What gamers have come to love about Final Fantasy is that Sakaguchi always raises the bar in terms of the images he produces and the storylines he creates,” says Lee. “Those are the same standards that were applied to making this movie.” The film’s heroine is Aki Ross, a physician searching for a way to battle an alien force that has invaded Earth and decimated mankind. Aki believes that she is close to finding the answer, a way of using spirit waves to neutralize the aliens. But time is running out. Aki is infected with an alien force and must also battle the hawkish General Hein, who favors a more drastic military solution.

“all-new storyline that expands upon territory familiar to fans of the games”

“It’s a very emotional story,” says Chris Lee. “It’s about how we’re all part of a whole. It’s very much in keeping with Sakaguchi’s philosophy, which is really a strong part of the success of the Final Fantasy game series. [But] the film’s subject matter and plot appeals not just to gamers but to a wide audience of moviegoers.” Just as each installment of the Final Fantasy series has started afresh, in order to present a self-contained and uncomplicated story, so the film presents an all-new storyline that expands upon territory familiar to fans of the games — the concept of creating an ultimate fantasy story about life and death.

In developing the screenplay, blending the screenwriters’ American sensibility with Sakaguchi’s Japanese approach to storytelling presented challenges. Like much of classic science-fiction, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within addresses universal concerns such as man versus nature. But it also borrows mythological themes from Eastern philosophy, like the idea that the Earth and all living beings have a spirit (“Gaia”) which can be injured or destroyed. “We had to fit these two philosophies together,” says screenwriter Al Reinert. “Sakaguchi would stand at a blackboard and draw pictures; he’s a very visual guy. It wasn’t like writing any other movie I’ve ever worked on.”

“What is fantasy?” says Sakaguchi, posing one of the questions that serves as a linchpin of his story. “Is it a genre, a structure, a state of mind or a technique? Fantasy invokes wonder by making the impossible seem familiar and the familiar seem new and strange. Experiencing fantasy, we explore the unknown. Fantasy gives a comprehensible form to the basic questions around life and death, good and evil, mystery and magic. I wanted to create a visual story about the emotion of the ‘heart’ and its existence at life’s most basic level — survival.”

“most important, we were able to create a computer-generated human character”

To tell such a fantastic story, Sakaguchi opted to use computer animation. “The stage is Earth in the future, where scientific advances during the second millennium have allowed the mysteries of life and death to be analysed as never before,” the director explains. “In order to express these subjects to the audience, we took a different approach in depicting ‘life,’ using a virtual platform.” Existing animation techniques would not suffice, however. Once again, Sakaguchi wanted to raise the bar: “By using CGI in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, we were able to be innovative in using various camera angles, lighting and special effects on the action scenes,” he says. “But most important, we were able to create a computer-generated human character. That’s the CG artist’s dream.”

Nearly four years was spent researching, developing, and creating Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. In Honolulu, chosen for its central location between Hollywood and Japan, the studio gathered 200 of the world’s top graphic artists and animators from 22 different countries. They included artists who had worked on Godzilla, Titanic, Toy Story and The Matrix. Their collective aim: to create something an audience had never seen before.

“Today’s kids are really past flat animation, and I think that has to do with the fact that they’re brought up not just with movies, not just with television, but with video games,” says Lee. “Final Fantasy [is] the first film with an entire cast of hyper-realistic computer-generated human characters, the ultimate integration of real-world images, human characters and fantasies into a complex 3-D space on the screen. It’s quite revolutionary.”

“we had to set those new standards”

The first step in the animation process was very traditional, however. Serious Hollywood talent was cast to voice the characters, including Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Donald Sutherland, James Woods – and Ming-Na as Aki Ross. “Anyone who’s watched a badly dubbed movie and seen bad performances knows the difference between what is an engaging character and what isn’t,” says Lee.

With the dialogue taped, the animators set to work, using motion capture techniques to create wire frame models from which they could generate realistic characters. The filmmakers and artists put extensive effort into developing their own, one-of-a-kind software to bring the film to life. “Since this is something no one had ever done before, I couldn’t just hire people to show us how to do it. We had to create the software,” says Jun Aida, another of the film’s producers. “Other studios have never done hyper-realistic human actors, so there was no ‘right’ approach. So again, we had to set those new standards.”

The accurate rendering of skin colors and textures and facial expressions, as well as hair details and clothing wrinkles as each character moves about, presented enormous challenges. “Technically, the natural human facial expressions were the most difficult aspect,” explains Sakaguchi. “Unlike bringing inanimate objects to life, it is an extreme challenge to simulate human movement, hair and clothing, because our eyes are naturally critical toward human movements — we observe them everyday.” Adds Chris Lee: “An audience knows when it’s false.”

“It’s gonna look like no movie you ever saw before”

Technical directors spent months ripping up clothes and learning to sew in order to faithfully render the hangs and creases of fabric in motion. Details as fine as freckles and pores were hand-painted onto characters faces. The most time-consuming part of Aki was her hair. There are 60,000 hairs on Aki’s head, and the computer has to look at each one. The software used, which also determines how the hair looks and moves, again had to be written in-house. “You could ask if it wouldn’t have been easier to shoot it as live-action,” says Aida. But we tried to set new standards and establish a new genre of feature films.”

“My goal,” says Sakaguchi, “was to create a film in which each scene embodies our artists’ spirit. To express a human’s spirit is expressing ‘life’ itself.” Screenwriter Al Reinert puts it more simply: “It’s gonna look like no movie you ever saw before.”

Published July 26, 2001

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