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Archive for Thursday, July 12, 2001

Artificial life

Final Fantasy’ marks a bold step in computer animation

July 12, 2001

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She was on the cover of Maxim magazine and included in Entertainment Weekly's It List. Hollywood talent agencies are clamoring to represent her. She's beautiful, popular and stored on a hard drive.

She's Dr. Aki Ross, the star of "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," a new animated feature based loosely on the "Final Fantasy" video game series. Creating Aki, her co-stars and the futuristic landscape they inhabit took four years and more than a $100 million, and the result is a giant leap forward in animation technology. Recently, a few of the flesh and blood humans behind "Final Fantasy" gathered in Los Angeles to talk about the art of creating a whole new digital reality.

Scientist Aki Ross, left, Capt. Gray Edwards and Dr. Sid help
combat an alien menace in the animated feature "Final Fantasy: The
Spirits Within."

Scientist Aki Ross, left, Capt. Gray Edwards and Dr. Sid help combat an alien menace in the animated feature "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within."

The idea to turn the "Final Fantasy" series into a movie originated with the Japanese game's creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi, who was looking for a way to push the limits of CG (computer-generated) imagery.

"I felt that, No. 1, a feature film is a good testing ground for these CG technologies," Sakaguchi says, speaking through a translator. "And not only that, (but) at the time, creating a realistic human character was generally known as the most difficult thing to do in CG, thus I had to take on that challenge."

The real world

With the help of producers Chris Lee and Jun Aida and screenwriters Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar, Sakaguchi developed an original screenplay about Aki, a young scientist, and her efforts to reclaim a fragile future Earth laid waste by alien attackers. The team then began work on the lengthy process of bringing it all to life.

A $45 million studio was built in Honolulu, and artists and programmers from 22 countries were brought in to lay the movie's virtual foundation. They discovered early on that, while creating the movie's "sets" was challenging, it was nothing compared to making photorealistic humans. The fundamental look of the characters was based on their personalities military commander Gray Edwards was given strong, square features, for instance and animators did everything from studying the shape of each other's ears to tearing apart clothing so they could learn how to make it move properly. Eye movements were observed closely and copied, right down to the dilation of the pupils. Even individual strands of Aki's hair, 60,000 in all, were animated, each with its own lighting and shadows.

The result is as close to the real thing as the technology would allow, and even that improved as the filmmakers developed new tools over the course of production. The whole experience was rather nerve-wracking for animation specialist Andy Jones, at least early on.

"At times, the closer you get to real, the scarier it looks," he says. "It has something to do with the fact that the skin and the flesh start to look real, but it doesn't look like it has a soul."

Animators spent three years perfecting the detailed look of "Final
Fantasy: The Spirits Within" lead character Aki.

Animators spent three years perfecting the detailed look of "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" lead character Aki.

There's also tremendous added pressure when working with human characters.

"It's still an area that's so scrutinized, just because we're all human, we talk to each other, we look each other in the eyes," he says. "We know how it should look, and when it looks wrong, we know it. Even though it's still animation and it's somebody puppeting a face, our movie's getting kind of compared against live action. That can be painful for us because, bottom line, it's still animation."

This simple fact was something Sakaguchi kept in mind creatively, despite his desire to make the characters lifelike.

"I believe we've pushed it really to the limit as far as how much detail you can put in the human face," Sakaguchi says. "But beyond that, there's a certain point that, stylistically, artistically, I decided to go not quite photorealistic. I wanted to leave some traces of the artist. Basically, I wanted it to look like someone had worked on it with their hands."

To that end, traditional artists (some of whom had never used computers before) were brought in late in the process to add fine touches to the characters' features, who ultimately ended up looking both more and less realistic.

"The paradox of working with computers is they give you completely pristine images," says producer Lee, "and in fact, out stars in the movie, Aki and Gray, have flawless complexions and square jaws and perfect hair. It's just how we think of a movie star. Our character actors are allowed to have wrinkles and age spots and look like they've had a few drinks or something and lived life. So they become more interesting to our eye, quite frankly, because you can put more on the screen."

Finding their voice

Some of the characters' nuances came from the actors, who were videotaped as they recorded their lines. Ming-Na ("Mulan"), who voices Aki, sees some of her own expressions and gestures in the finished film, even though she didn't always know how her dialogue was going to come across on screen. There were times when she had to deliver the same line with several different inflections, so the directors could later choose which one they wanted to use, and she simply had to trust their judgment.

"They record it all," Ming-Na says, "then whisk it off to Honolulu and try and piece it all together, like a giant jigsaw puzzle."

For Peri Gilpin (TV's "Frasier"), who plays a member of Gray's military unit, this trust in the directors was even more essential, since she was playing an action heroine merely by speaking into a microphone.

Ming-Na

Ming-Na

"How do you stand quietly in a booth by yourself and make it sound like you're running through a battlefield with aliens chasing you and phantoms coming at you, and a big, huge, 80-pound gun you're lifting, and you're running and jumping?" she wonders. "But it wasn't hard, because I worked with this (animation) director named Jack Fletcher, and he really helped me keep it alive, and I felt really energized. (I) felt like an idiot half the time, but it was fun to just kind of let go and do it."

Veteran actor Donald Sutherland actually found this type of acting less difficult than it might seem on the surface. In playing Aki's mentor, Dr. Sid, Sutherland was helped by the fact that his words would eventually be matched to a moving image.

"It's different from radio, where you do literally have to use (just) your voice," he points out. "I don't know whether I'd be any good at that. But when you use your voice knowing that a character is going to represent it, that's different. I'm working off a script into a microphone, but the life and the intent was there and the passion was there."

Ultimately, what interested Sutherland most about "Final Fantasy" was not the acting challenge or even the film's stunning visual style, with which he was quite impressed. The big draw for him was the message of the story, with its notion that the Earth has a spirit that must be protected from harm, a concept that reminds him of the work of poet Walt Whitman.

"If you look at 'Leaves of Grass,' at the beginning of it, his vision is that each of us is composed of similar atoms, so that, materially, we're all the same," Sutherland says. "We're the same as those leaves and whatever. That was what they were searching for in this film, and that, too, was where he came from."

Donald Sutherland

Donald Sutherland

Culture clash

This need for a strong theme and story was important to the filmmakers, especially given the movie's derivation from a video game, which can take 80 hours or more to complete and has multiple possible outcomes.

"It's a totally different approach," producer Aida points out. "In the movie, we only have 100 minutes of the audience's time. It's really a one-way street."

When Sakaguchi first began work on the film, he brought up this dilemma to Lee, who thinks they came up with the right approach.

"You have to find a way to emulate that (interactive) experience through emotional engagement with the audience," Lee says, although he admits that the movie's inspiration is still visible. "We go in and out of different realities. We go to dream sequences. We go to other planets. She's collecting things collecting is a big game thing. So you can see the antecedents of what comes out of a game in the story itself."

However, Aida is quick to mention that the screenplay is entirely original.

"It does not refer back to any of the previously made 'Final Fantasy' series of games," he says. "So you don't have to know anything about the game or have any interest in the game to be able to understand the story.

Another possible stumbling block for audiences is the film's Japanese cultural sensibilities, which prompted the producers to hire writers Reinert and Vintar, who are both American. Despite this early concern, however, Lee doesn't see a problem with selling it to Western audiences.

"I think if you look at popular culture today, so much of it is driven from the East," Lee says. "I mean, who would have thought 'Crouching Tiger' would do $125 million domestically? It's not even in English."

Lee also points to the huge success of "Pokn" in the United States, as well as the Asian influences in movies like "The Matrix."

"(Even) gaming itself is often very Japanese, particularly the more story-oriented games," he says. "So, aesthetically and storywise, I think there's an entire generation that basically says, 'You know what? We embrace this culture as our culture as well.'"

Solution to an actors' strike?

If "Final Fantasy" does catch on with American audiences, Sakaguchi hopes to continue using the film's characters, possibly as "actors" in different types of movies. While things like dramas and romantic comedies haven't been ruled out, Aida says the likelihood of doing them is pretty slim at this point, given how expensive the process is for most movies, the budget would be much smaller to use real sets and actors.

"You have to think about what you accomplish for how much," he says. "Until our budget to produce this kind of feature comes down drastically, we'll be focusing on stories that (have) more spectacular action sequences or take you to a place that you can't really go in a live-action environment."

All this begs the question that's been on everybody's lips: Will CG actors someday replace the living, breathing kind? After all, they don't age or argue, and they can be manipulated to look any way the director wants. The voice actors for "Final Fantasy" express no particular concern about this, and even Jones, who was partly responsible for the characters' realism, doesn't think it will ever happen. On the contrary, he thinks the increasing verisimilitude of animation may eventually wear itself out.

"Some people have been referring to (this) as a kind of renaissance in animation, and it seems like it's kind of getting that way," he says. "When you look back at the Renaissance, everyone was striving to make the painting look exactly like reality. Once they reached that point, they were like, 'OK, now where can we take it?' and, all of a sudden, you had this explosion of creative art. I think we might see that in this industry. People are going to keep striving to make it even more real than this film, and at a point, it's going to be like, 'OK, we've done that. Now let's explore.'"

"I've been working on Aki with them for three years now, off and on," Actress Ming-Na adds.

"For me, (lifelike animation) is just a new way of being entertained. It's the fascinating element of this CGI, where the complexity of the human face and expressions and the nuances of our skin can be duplicated this way. I don't think they've lost the integrity that it's an art form. It's not so realistic that you think that it's truly a human being walking around. The integrity of animation is still in this."

But in fact, when the animators put together Aki's photo spread for "Maxim," they learned that their work was already too realistic for some tastes.

"(Aki) was perfect," Lee says of the finished photos. "But they still air-brushed her. Their version of her is less life-like than the one we gave them, actually."

Apparently, no matter how advanced the technology becomes, one thing will always be true: In show business, reality is overrated even when it's virtual.

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