Animefringe Cover Story:
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
By Jake Forbes
Earlier this month, Square showed a 17-minute series of clips from their landmark film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, to an eager press audience -- and Animefinge was invited. What a treat it was! Descriptions of the footage have appeared around the web in the time since, but for those who haven't heard about it yet, here's the most complete description available anywhere:
Earth: 2065. The population of the world has been decimated by an alien race known as the "Phantoms" that suck the life energy from every living thing.
Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na) descends into the ruins of "Old New York" in search of a single life sign. Apparently finding this life sign is worth risking her life for, as the city has been declared off limits by the Earth military, and phantoms are sure to be around. Her holographic wrist sensor tells her which way the life reading is coming from and a shot from a flare gun which rains drops of light shows that no Phantoms are in the area... yet.
She has barely begun her search when a team of soldiers, led by Grey (Alec Baldwin), airdrop to the streets beside her. Instead of parachutes, they fire a device at the ground which creates a pillow of plasma which disintegrates after providing them with a soft landing. The soldiers demand that Dr. Ross leave the city, but she refuses and runs away; the soldiers chase close behind. None of them see the Phantoms which morph out of the walls behind them.
Dr. Ross follows her signal to a ruined building where a single plant is growing in the dead wasteland. The soldiers catch up with Dr. Ross, but it's almost too late. Phantoms have surrounded the building and are pouring in through the walls. They fire off their machine guns at the ghostly aliens, but with little effect. At the last second, the drop ship returns and the crew is lifted to safety. Inside the drop ship the soldiers remove their helmets (which open like the armor of the Batmobile) and question Dr. Ross about her little plant. What could be so important about that thing? From Dr. Ross and Grey's interaction, it's clear that the two have a past together.
Back at military headquarters, the zealous General Hein (James Woods) interrogates Grey about Dr. Ross. Apparently the young scientist has some kind of alien inside her, and at the slightest sign of an alien manifestation in Dr. Ross, she is to be terminated. Grey doesn't understand the General's fear of the girl, but the General makes it quite clear that the girl is dangerous and must stay under their watch.
Meanwhile, Dr. Ross dreams of an alien landscape. Huge cocoon-like structures open up to reveal thousands of alien creatures with exoskeleton armor. The creatures line up in two opposing rows, seemingly preparing for battle. They don't say a word and are completely oblivious to Dr. Ross's presence.
Cut back to the real world. Grey's crew of marines is heading to Arizona in search of the "seventh spirit." The dropship, piloted by the wisecracking Nick (Steve Buscemi) fires a decoy to try and distract the phantoms in the area. Unlike the previous phantoms, which ranged from human-sized to small building-sized, these new phantoms are hundreds of feet high. The decoy won't work for long, so they have to hurry. The small ground team tracks the signal to a human body on the ground. Is it alive? Nope, but it's carrying a canister which contains the seventh spirit. Suddenly, the huge phantoms sense the real life energies of the group and charge towards our heroes. They barely make it to the dropship, but they're not in the clear yet. The huge phantoms, one of them a lumbering giant reminiscent of the corrupt forest spirit in Princess Mononoke, the other a large-mouthed flying serpent, are attacking the ship.
Onboard, Dr. Ross goes unconscious and her lifesigns are giving off strange readings. Apparently the alien inside her is doing something. A member of the crew loyal to General Hein pulls a gun to terminate her before she can do anything dangerous, Grey tries to resist but the soldier holds him at gunpoint. When the ship is hit by a large phantom, Jane (Peri Gelpin), one of Grey's loyal marines, disarms the soldier, but not before Dr. Ross is shot. Before anyone has time to react, a phantom comes through the wall of the ship and rips the soul out of the gunman.
Back in the dreamworld, Aki Ross stands back in between the armies of armored aliens. Suddenly, a nuclear blast goes off, decimating the armies and leaving Dr. Ross alone.
Ming Na Wen (Aki)
Alec Baldwin (Grey)
James Woods (General Hein)
Donald Sutherland (Dr. Sid)
Steve Buscemi (Nick)
Ving Rhames (Ryan)
Peri Gilpin (Jane)
Director: Hironobu Sakaguchi (creator of FF games)
Producers: Jun Aida (Street Fighter) , Chris Lee (Godzilla, Jerry McGuire...)
Writers: Al Reinert (Apollo 13), Jeff Vintar (Speed Racer)
Director of Photography: Motonori Sakakibara (FF VIII)
Animation Director: Andy Jones (Titanic)
Staging Director: Tani Kunitake (Matrix)
Lighting Supervisor: Kevin Bjorke (Toy Story)
Assistant Directors: Michael Gibson, Takahiko Akiyama
Conceptual Designer: Patrick Janicke (The Cell)
Layout Supervisor: Takashi Kubota
VFX Supervisor: Neville Spiteri (Terminator 2: 3D)
Musical Score: Elliot Goldenthal (Batman Forever)
By now everyone knows it: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a visual tour-de-force. While the film never looks like the real world (not that it's supposed to), it does create an entirely convincing universe in which everything looks like it belongs there. From the ruins of New York to the deserts of Arizona to an alien dreamscape, this is the real world filtered through Square's video game aesthetic. And as Square makes the best cinemas around, this is a beautiful thing.
The people are a cross between Square's game characters and the cast of Aliens. Dr. Ross is very much in the tradition of Square heroines like Rinoa and Tifa, only she looks much more vulnerable. Her long black hair is remarkable to behold; truly the best looking CGI hair ever done. The rest of the cast has crew cuts to save the animators the pain of animating hair. The resemblance of the soldier hero Grey to Ben Affleck is quite striking, but the rest of the cast looks quite unique, if a little generic. The body movements are very believable, and the speech, while not yet perfected in time for this preview, is most impressive as is. Emotions as shown in the face are much more subtle than the over-the-top expressions we've seen in countless game cinemas. Still, while the characters of Final Fantasy are indeed "acting," first impressions leave me thinking of them as bad actors. Robert DeNiro has nothing to worry about, but the Baldwin brothers might want to watch their backs.
The dialogue, as many other sites have reported, is very stilted and unmemorable. It's as bad as Starship Troopers, but without the camp value. Of course, there are only a few minutes of dialogue shown so far, and this is mostly in combat situations with soldiers. Hopefully the rest of the script will be sharper with at least a few memorable lines.
Based on the 17 minutes shown so far, Final Fantasy is going to be a first rate sci-fi action film, but whether or not it will deliver a moving, epic story in the tradition of the games is yet to be seen, but it's looking doubtful. There's a new 17-minute press preview coming out soon, and the full trailer will appear in little more than a month. Then I guess we'll see if The Spirits Within has earned the right to bear the name Final Fantasy.
Following the screening, Animefringe got a chance to speak with Final Fantasy producer Chris Lee about the film. Here's what he had to say:
Animefringe: From the footage I saw, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within looked very much like a sci-fi film in the tradition of Aliens or Starship Troopers, both very American films. In fact, aside from the heroine's name, the Film looked thoroughly American. While the Final Fantasy games have never used Japanese characters or settings, they were firmly grounded in the Japanese Console Role-Playing Game tradition. In FF:TSW, was Director Sakaguchi trying to make a film for American audiences?
Chris Lee: Anytime you're making a movie that's a studio picture, you're trying to make it for a global audience. So it wasn't in Sakaguchi's mind a choice between a Japanese film or a global film, but it was always going to be for the largest audience possible. I suppose that yes, this film is closer in look to a Jim Cameron film, but at the same token there'll be no doubt of its pedigree when you see the finished film, because the whole concept of the dreams, and the whole spiritual nature of the film, the Gaia theory, that everything has a spirit, that's basically an animist religion that you find in Eastern cultures. So much of popular culture is driven out of Asia to begin with -- The Matrix and much of Star Wars takes from Asia as well. This movie has 200 people from 22 different countries working on it, so it's truly a global collaboration. So I think it's both, and I think it's very smart that way, but it was very important to take Sakaguchi's 12 page treatment, and then work with people like Al Reinhardt, who did Apollo 13, in creating a story that will play for a global audience.
AF: What would you say to people who say that this movie isn't really Final Fantasy because it's so different from the games?
CL: It certainly doesn't look like Final Fantasy 7 or 9 -- there aren't people with big, misshapen heads and they're not casting spells and there's no dragons. I think it looks a little more like FF8, which had more of a techno-future feel to it. But I think what Sakaguchi wanted to do in his evolution as a filmmaker was to try to create people that we recognize as a reality, have them act like people we recognize and look like people we recognize. We don't even have the crazy haircuts like they do in Final Fantasy 8. For this particular Final Fantasy he decided to set it on Earth for the first time. As you know, all the other Final Fantasies take place on other worlds at different times with different characters. There's a Cid in all of them, but it's always a different kind of Cid, and in this version we have a Dr. Sid. We don't really have the big chickens, the chocobos, but we did hide one in the movie and you'll have to see it to find it. So it's all around a different kind of Final Fantasy.
AF: In the footage shown, the action is sometimes followed by simulated hand-held camera. This tricks the viewer into forgetting that no actual camera was involved, further immersing him or her into the simulated reality. Does FF:TSW use the freedom of animation to show action in ways that traditional cinema cannot, or does it strive for believability throughout?
CL: There was definitely a conscious decision to not use many camera angles that aren't possible in real life. We wanted to emulate what is possible with cranes and dollies and things like that. We worked in the language of film, and we spent a lot of time making the movie look like a movie. The computer image can have crystal clear focus everywhere, but that's not how film works. There's a foreground image that's in focus and a background image that's not in focus. And if you noticed any of the shots where the camera rakes across the sun, we added lens flare. Now your eye has never seen a flare, but a lens always sees a flare -- it's something that filmmakers usually try to avoid -- but we wanted to give viewers the type of experience they are used to seeing when they watch a movie shot on film. We go through a lot of effort on our composite layers to make it look imperfect, because that's what our eye is used to.
AF: The humans in the film are amazingly realistic. When the marines first remove their helmets to expose their beautifully detailed faces, I forgot for a moment that they were animated.
CL: Yeah, that's one of the reactions we get. It's kind of unfair when you're watching a few scenes strung together like that. What seems to happen is that 10-15 minutes into watching the film, people forget they're watching a cartoon. That's our goal, to tell a good story with this technology.
AF: What was the most difficult part about animating the people?
CL: I think it's probably Dr. Aki's hair. It's the hair and the clothing. With the movement, there's a good deal that's motion capture and a good deal that's not motion capture. All of the close-ups are done by artists. We don't do any sort of texture mapping or digitizing or scanning.
There's a couple things that were challenging about creating people. First is that you have to come up with new people. We don't scan people into the computer, we have a group of artists who sit around and say "I think her eye should look like this" or "I think his mouth should move like this." Inventing somebody isn't easy. Secondly, movement, and how people act is very well known to us. We don't know how a dinosaur moves or how an animated toy moves or a talking mouse. We don't have any sort of analog for those in real life, but for people, we certainly do. When we're talking, if you saw that I was moving herky-jerky, you'd know something wasn't right and I was some kind of spaz. And so the audience can be hypercritical, which is one of the reasons we don't say that we're making a photo-real picture. Sometimes we call it hyper-real, but for me, it's a convergence of movies and gaming. We're taking a good deal of the video game aesthetic and applying it to filmmaking. Who knows, in 5 years perhaps we could create characters that look exactly like humans. This is the first film to attempt anything like this. The other CGI companies, Pixar and ILM, they're content to make dinosaurs, and I think they do very good work. It's natural that a gaming company would be the first to try and bring this to the screen.
AF: Do you know if the film will be subtitled or dubbed when it shows in Japan?
CL: It will definitely be subtitled. I don't know if there'll be a dubbed version. We wouldn't have our performances with out our actors. All of the emotional resonance comes from Alec Baldwin, Ming-Na, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Donald Sutherland, Jimmy Woods... They are absolutely essential to the process. When we're working on the film, the steps are let's write a script, then let's make the propriety software to make this thing possible, then get the artists to decide what these characters should look like, and then we said, if we were doing life action, who would we cast? So we got the best cast we thought we could get. The characters we designed were not meant to resemble their voice actor. Well, Ryan was always going to be black and Aki was always Asian. It was like a traditional film because we were trying to get the best actors we could get. The change is that we are creating a virtual actor.
AF: Was it difficult for Sakaguchi and Square to work in the Hollywood system after having worked exclusively with video games in the past?
CL: The movie was made pretty much outside of the Hollywood system as Sakaguchi and Square were financing the picture themselves and they're set up in Honolulu so they're kind of left alone to do their thing. I think there was more of an intersection between movie culture and gaming culture because our animation director Randy Jones, who was responsible for creating the "synthespians" on Titanic, and did the movements on Godzilla, our staging director who's kind of our production designer storyboarder, Tani Kunitake had just come off of Matrix and Fight Club, and then we had other people who had worked on animated projects like Toy Story, but then we had a lot of people, [like the director of photography, Motonori Sakakibara] whose experience was mostly in gaming. The demands of gaming are somewhat different from the demands of movies, but it seems to me that they are the two major storytelling methods of today, particularly for this generation. The gaming industry in this country is a 7 billion dollar industry, as is the movie industry.
AF: How will Square and Columbia convince non-game players to see the Final Fantasy movie?
CL: We assume that people know nothing of the game and we approach it on the one hand as a revolutionary theatrical experience in terms of what's been accomplished technologically, but the main thing is, do they think it's an interesting story, do they want to go see this movie. And I think that when you see some of this new material that'll be coming out, you'll know what I mean. There'll be a new trailer attached to Mummy II, coming out this May, and then I think you'll get a good sense of how we're positioning the film.
AF: The romance, betrayal, hope, and friendship that are key elements in the Final Fantasy games make them into epic melodramas. Characters dramatically sacrifice themselves then come back from the dead. Love and hope ultimately conquer all. Could FF:TSW be described as a sci-fi melodrama?
CL: Just as in the games, Sakaguchi was not afraid to brings characters lives to an end. But also as in the games, there's a belief system that death is not the end, and that's where I think gamers will recognize the Sakaguchi influence. It's not that the non gamers won't get it, and it's not as if we're going to have people riding around on giant chickens and things like that, but I think they will definitely recognize the spirituality that Sakaguchi brings to his games, and as you mention the emotional, melodramatic nature.
AF: There are already talks about possible sequels to FF:TSW. Should they happen, will they be direct sequels to the film in the Hollywood tradition, or will they be stand alone films with new characters and worlds as the games have always done?
CL: No decision has been made at this time. It's ultimately up to Sakaguchi. I told him I'd love to work on a Final Fantasy 9 style movie, but it's all up to him.
AF: Is Square Pictures planning on making films of any other games?
CL: Not on this particular moment. I'd love for them to do a Parasite Eve. I think that when you talk about this particular format, you want to do the big canvas pictures, the visually driven pictures, where you're going to worlds that don't exist doing things that you can't realistically do with live action.
AF: Square has mentioned that when the DVD of FF:TSW is released, there might be Playstation 2 components. Any idea what we can expect?
CL: We're working on it. All I can say is that it's going to be a 2 disc set, and I think it'll be pretty amazing, and we'll certainly maximize what DVD technology is capable of doing at that time.