Battleships, Monkeys, & CG--oh my.

The first post of 2010 brings some potentially exciting news.

For anyone who grew up on animations of the late 70s and 80s, one should have memories of a series called Star Blazers, the Americanized version of a Japanese anime series "Uchuu Senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato)." It was one of my first exposures to Japanese anime and I still have clear memories of the impact it had on me because of the grown-up nature of the story. It was far far different from "Tom & Jerry" or "Looney Toons." The series has a strong following to this day, especially among men in the late 30s and early 40s—an important demographic for the film industry.

When word broke that a film adaptation of the anime was in the works, I naturally had my misgivings. The story of the series is long and complex, yet its timely message of Earth at a environmental crisis with a group of people heading out to space in a last ditch effort to save it would make a natural draw to contemporary theater-goers. However, there are reasons why anime adaptations have always been difficult; how do you boil down a 24 episode or more storyline down to 2 to 2.5 hours? It is no easy task. What will the filmmakers keep? What will they cut out? What will they add? Peter Jackson proved that an adaptation can incorporate edited, added, and reorganized elements and still hold true to the original source, but he, Fran Walsh and Philipa Boyens spent countless hours writing and rewriting the script, and refining it during the production. This is a practice not found in Japan where the first draft is what usually goes in to production. If they were planning a trilogy of films, I could feel some sense of comfort, but as of this writing, Space Battleship Yamato is a standalone with sequel possibilities depending on box office. I believe this will ultimately affect the quality of the story.
However, some doubts were alleviated with the choice of director: YAMAZAKI Takashi, the man behind SF cult hits Juvenile & Returner as well as the Always: Sunset on Third Street period family drama series. Yamazaki is an expert at subtle uses of CG as a tool to bring the world of his films to life; he is the antithesis of KAZUAKI Kiriya. At least visually, the focus wouldn't be on the FX, but on how the characters live in a world brought to life by SFX. Over the weekend, the first preview CM (commercial) for the film aired:

The production design seems well done, possibly borrowing from the design philosophy of the "Battlestar Galactica" series in the practical realization of the technology. Then there is the CG. On Youtube, it might look fine, but on a 15 foot screen, there is the potential for this space adventure to look immensely artificial. Japan, despite all its technology, is not adept at CGI effects, mainly due to the lack of investment by production companies in the proper equipment and software or to set a portion of the budget to outsource CGI effects to internationally recognized effects houses. In order to save money, producers usually gather a staff using largely off the shelf equipment and software for the duration of the production. In the case of Yamazaki, his production company is also a CGI effects company so he has a slight advantage, but comparisons to even second-tier Hollywood effects houses are not even possible.

Recently, news on the Chinese film news site MonkeyPeaches.com, brought word of a project entitled Da Nao Tiao Gong (Uproar in Heaven), which will be a new live-action film based on the "Journey to the West" fantasy novels. The most important point in the press release is the decision by production company, Filmko Pictures, to contract Weta Digital to animate the Monkey King and deliver other CGI effects. Unlike their Japanese counterparts, Filmko Pictures recognizes Weta Digital's leadership in the type of CG that would be required to bring their film to reality and have decided to earmark a budget to add Weta's expertise to the team.

I have always been of the opinion that Japan could be a leader in CG effects and visualizations. Their long tradition of visualizing fantastic characters, situations, action and effects from manga would be greatly sought after by filmmakers around the world. Sadly, there is no one in Japan's film industry who has vision and courage to invest in creating the infrastructure, training, and environment for CGI effects services. To this day, there are no specialized effects houses in Japan's film industry. There are companies like Yamazaki's, a film production company with a CG department, but a Weta or ILM type company does not exist. This remains one of the Japanese film industry's wasted opportunities...

No comments:

Post a Comment