Ink & Pixel: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I’m always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. If you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature animated films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can discuss it further.
I’m fairly certain that when FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN was first announced that conversations such as this had taken place:
“Dude, they’re making a Final Fantasy movie.”
“What? No way! Oh man, you mean like with Cloud, Tifa, and Aeris? Sephiroth, too?”
“Well, no. Not exactly.”
“Um, okay, but Shinra is obviously going to be a part of it, right? With dragons and magic and dungeon crawling and stuff?”
“Yeah, no. That’s not a part of it either.”
“Then what the hell, man? What’s it going to be about, space marines or something?”
“I hate you. My day is officially ruined”
“I know. You’re welcome.”
Back in 1997, word had gotten out that Square Enix, the company responsible for distributing the widely popular video game series, Final Fantasy, would be opening a new digital studio in Honolulu, Hawaii, in the hopes of becoming another titan animation company much like Industrial Light and Magic or Pixar. Square’s goal was to try and create a technology that would allow us all to take the next leap toward a more photorealistic computer generated future that would stand the test of time and the scrutiny of the big screen movie going public.
Armed with a team of 300 artists and crew members Square had set to work on what would surely be the dream film of every hardcore role-playing video game enthusiast for decades to come, a Final Fantasy film. Though I suppose if they’d wanted to get things right from the start the films director and writer, Hironubu Sakaguchi, probably shouldn’t have asked Jun Aida from Capcom studios to help produce the film. After all, Aida was responsible for that Jean-Claude Van Damme Street Fighter film, and we all know how well that turned out. Luckily Aida has more credits to his name than just that piece of cinematic garbage and the journey to bring Final Fantasy (or something that represented the franchise in no way whatsoever) to the big screen began.
Often hailed as a bigger deception and disappointment than the 1993 SUPER MARIO BROS film, FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN, during the many years of its production, was hoped to be the film that all fans of the long running and ironically titled gaming franchise were hoping for. Basement dwellers and cosplayers alike were amped at the prospect of getting a proper film starring their favorite characters and imaginative environments. But their dreams of combing materia to summon gods, ride a golden chocobo through the mystical plains of Midgar, or perhaps gamble away some gil while searching for Cait Sith would all be for not once the crushing reality of the films plot had surfaced.
Ignoring virtually everything that had given the franchise its popularity within the homes of gamers everywhere, FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN was set in the year 2065, where the plot focused on an unknown character by the name of Aida Ross (Ming Na), a young scientist looking for the secret that would help stop an impending alien invasion from a race known to the humans as “phantoms.” As an alien spirit grows inside of her, Aida races against the clock to find a cure alongside a military squadron who call themselves Deep Eyes.
Diving head long into danger, the members of Deep Eyes, Dr Sid (Donald Sutherland), Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), Ryan (Ving Rhames), Neil (Steve Bucsemi), and Jane (Peri Gilpin) strive to save their world as well as foil the evil intentions of one General Hein (James Woods). With the fate of the Earth as well as the spirit of life as we know it hanging in the balance, its up to Aida and her friends to bring interplanetary peace to the galaxy once more.
Needless to say, this was not the film that fans were hoping for. But in the defense of the film (which in all honesty I find to be overlong and perhaps even a little boring) the Final Fantasy franchise has always been about change. Perhaps nothing as drastic as this film had turned out to be, but the franchise is essentially about an infinite universe of stories and characters. So there’s absolutely no reason why this film could not exist within the franchise. Just because it’s not what everyone wanted that doesn’t make it any less of a technological marvel for the time in which it was made.
Originally titled “Gaia”, FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN was in one way a tribute to director/writer Hironubu Sakaguchi’s late wife of which the films title character, Aida, was named after. You see, some 13 years after her passing, Sakaguchi was still very grief stricken by the loss of his wife, and as such contemplated the fate of the human spirit after death quite often. It was through these plaguing thoughts that the idea for FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN came about. Sakaguchi, in his wanting to be at peace with the loss of his wife turned to belief known to most as the “Gaia Theory.”
The Gaia Theory holds that the life of a human being certainly must return to one singular point of origin. Call that place a phantasm, an alien or a phantom planet, the theory looks at it as a phantom star. That phantom star then feeds the continued growth of our planet. It rushes our rivers, it pushes our daisies, and marches our planet ever forward. Essentially, the dead return to the Earth to power it for another day. So we have a plot based on the opposition of the Earth’s Gaia, and the Gaia of the alien’s spirit star. Confusing? Yeah, it’s kind of a big theory.
Anyway, we usually talk effects first here at Ink & Pixel, but let’s shake things up a bit and first talk about the music for a change. With original music composed by Elliot Goldenthal with the help of The London City Orchestra, Goldenthal crafted an emotional and intricate score to play throughout the film. Anyone who is anyone can recognize when a large ensemble of talented musicians are forging epic soundscapes with their craft, but it takes a trained and sensitive ear to make the music rather emotional.
Within the world of music, instruments are never used without a specific purpose. Each one of them conveys a particular emotion that adds nuance and sensitivity to each scene. In the case of FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN, flutes were used for the much more sullen or “human” scenes in which the director was striving to convey a message of sensitivity or hope. In contrast to this were the instruments assigned to the more dour or dramatic scenes. Filtering in with a ghostly or ethereal vibe, organs and a arrangements of thick strings along with Japanese taiko drums were used when dealing with the films various enemy races, the phantoms. Essentially, music provokes emotions within the viewer. Open up your ears and allow yourself to be entranced within the moment.
FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN might not have been what fans of the series were hoping for, but there is no way that anyone could deny that the film in being a treat to experience visually. Square, after moving into their new home had acquired four SGI Origin 2000 series servers, four Onyx2 systems, and 197 Octane workstation’s for the films production. What does all of this mean? Only that Square was working with some of the most advanced materials available at the time to help them achieve their goal of creating one of the most photorealistic animated films of all time. Now, while the environments, planets, and outer space elements of the film were very much fantasy (Eh, see what I did just then? Bah dum tsh!) the human characters of the film were unlike anything anyone had seen in the industry up until this point.
Using the most advanced motion capture methods to date a total of 1,327 scenes were filmed in order to animate the digital characters once all of the actors movements were transposed into the proper format. Consisting of 141,964 frames of animation that would take on an average of 90 minutes to render, Square wound up with an estimated 15 terabytes worth of material to be used for the film. I suppose it helped that many of the artists, engineers, and contributors already had backgrounds in architectural and industrial design as some of the cityscapes created for the film were quite intricate and vast in their presentation.
Rather than talk about all of the righteous effects showcased throughout the film I kind of wanted to focus on just one in particular that I thought was rather cool. In the scene when the Deep Eyes team touches down inside of a futuristic and ruined New York City, the team can be seen zip lining down from their aircraft while deploying compartmentalized devices known as HDGs. HDGs are a fictional tool of the films military that start off as a gel contained within a small self-releasing pack. When shot toward the ground at a high velocity these HDGs then create a gaseous cushion upon impact with the ground. The cushion then softens the fall of the soldier, allowing for a safe landing. The material then dissipates into the atmosphere leaving no trace. Pretty cool, huh? It’s like landing atop a gelatinous marshmallow or something. Yum.
In order to create the stylish look of the HDGs functionality, the visual effects team traveled far out into the ocean, suited up with scuba gear, and took countless photos and video material of what it’s like to fall into a non-porous element. Paying particular attention to the way bubbles form around the body in varying splashdown scenarios the team was able to replicate what it might feel like to land inside of one of these neon snot-colored globs. I myself would not mind falling face first into the stuff if I knew it could handle the cannonball that I’ve been perfecting for nearly 26 years.
Oh yeah, before we get out of here I wanted to bring one more aspect of this film to the table that I thought was rather cool. Touching on both the visual and audio elements of the “phantom” races of the film, did I forget to mention that they used augmented animal sounds to voice these particular enemies? Yup, it was all lions and tigers and bears, oh my up Square Studios as they laid out the audio for the phantoms that were modeled after photos of insect X-Ray and directional photos. Simply by slowing down the sound of a lion’s roar, or the hiss of a mighty jungle cat, the audio team were able to craft some rather unique sounds to match the phantoms grotesque appearances.
Unfortunately, though the technology at the time was groundbreaking the film only managed to make $85 million worldwide at the close of its theatrical run. The film did not fair much better after being released onto DVD and later Blu-Ray, only to be cast into the $9.99 or below bin. Holding only a 43% Fresh rating on RottenTomatos.com FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN was viewed as a failure in both the eyes of the studio as well as Final Fantasy fans worldwide.
Though, one thing remains very true about the film and no amount of neigh saying could ever take away the fact that this movie paved the way for many more that would soon follow. The tech that was constructed as well as the advancements in the methods of animation that were used for this film were built upon by others and can be seen in nearly every CGI film that has been released since. Oh yeah, and for those clamoring for a Cloud Strife versus Sephiroth battle, there’s a little movie called FINAL FANTASY: ADVENT CHILDREN that might tickle your fancy … but that’s another Ink & Pixel all together.
|Extra Tidbit:||C'mon, you know you want to see the cast of this film re-enacting Michael Jackson's horror classic, Thriller!|