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Square Deal

Animation company Square USA’s president says he wants the company to stay here.

Square USA president Jun Aida anticipates that the Honolulu movie-making unit will continue to do "business as usual," even after parent company Square Co. announced plans last year to sell the facility and concentrate solely on its video-game production.

The announcement came only months after the subsidiary’s $135 million feature-length film, based on Square Co.’s role-playing Final Fantasy video game, failed to meet revenue projections, earning about $73 million worldwide.

Aida hopes Square USA will continue its current operation under the new owner. Details of the sale as of this writing in early December, were expected within weeks, but the likelihood of Square USA remaining in Hawaii to produce computer-generated (CG), animated feature films is very high, he says. "But it all hinges upon who the prospective alliance partner would be and also for our parent company in Japan to decide," Aida says. "Again, it’s hard to say."

Judging from Square USA’s current and forthcoming projects - all demanding long-term commitments - the almost 5-year-old facility has the reputation to compete with any CG-animated studio, he says. After four years of production, last summer’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within became the first CG- animated motion picture with photorealistic characters.

Future Fantasy: Square USA will continue what it does best, and that is, video games and software.

In January, the company expected to complete a secret two-year project to be used in conjunction with another studio’s "well-known feature property," due out later this year. Aida says the project, a stand-alone animation, will be released as a lead-in for a "major, major motion picture." Square USA also was negotiating with Columbia Pictures to produce a straight-to-DVD prequel to Final Fantasy. "It really validates our production capability, the kind of very experienced and capable talent that we have," Aida says.

Final Fantasy, which debuted on DVD and VHS in October, was the top-selling DVD in its first week. But the DVD’s continued success doesn’t erase Aida’s disappointment at the film’s poor box office showing.

"It helps, but it still doesn’t change the fact that we did have a rather soft box office," he says. "(From the) business perspective, that does hurt us for the whole production. " We still wish more people went to go see the movie in the beginning."

Square USA now has about 125 employees, slightly more than half the 220 workers it had at the height of production for Final Fantasy.

The sci-fi action film floundered among the likes of 2001 summer blockbusters Shrek, Rush Hour 2 and Pearl Harbor. The weak box office performance of Tokyo-based Square Co.’s first feature film led then president Hisashi Suzuki to step down in December, turning the post over to former chief operating officer Yoichi Wada.

Square Co. had announced in October it would abandon its movie-making venture and refocus its attention on making video-game software, mainly projects for Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 2 console. Square’s Final Fantasy video-game series has sold more than 35 million copies worldwide.

The corporation reported a $107 million loss for the six-month period that ended Sept. 30. In late October, Sony announced it would invest about $124 million in Square Co. for an 18.6 percent share in the corporation, a move analysts deemed a blessing for the financially troubled video-game maker. Aida says Square USA is managing well despite the turmoil, even continuing to entertain project offers for the next fiscal year. "As long as we get good projects in, we’re OK. "We are considering our projects very carefully," says Aida, adding that the company is uninterested in short-term projects, such as music videos or commercials.

Aida hopes the company will make significant steps in developing new animation software technologies in time for its next project. For the past two years, the company has worked at producing "real-time rendering" systems, which enable artists to view completed animation in minutes rather than hours. The company is also working to develop "global illumination" technology, which Aida says is a much more realistic and accurate approach to rendering light.

In the meantime, Aida hopes Square USA will remain at its current site, and it’s not just because of the stunning waterfront views provided by its 31st floor location in downtown Honolulu’s Harbor Court.

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