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Finally, The Fantasy

After four years of production, Square USA releases Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

Although the post-apocalyptic film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within won’t arrive in theaters nationwide until July 11, already the lead actress Dr. Aki Ross turned heads last April when she flashed a string bikini and French manicure on the cover of Maxim Top 100.

The popular men’s magazine ranked her No. 87, bumping 13 female bombshells down the list. She generated enough interest that executives from Columbia Pictures and film producers in Honolulu and Hollywood over the past five months found themselves juggling last-minute deals with daily interviews with media.

Like the sci-fi flick itself, Final Fantasy’s final touches only could be described as surreal. “I never thought I’d be talking to magazines like Allure,” recalls Producer Chris Lee, about the beauty and fashion publication. Lee, originally from Hawaii, is president of Chris Lee Productions Inc., a multimedia entertainment company in California. He and other Final Fantasy executives touted the movie in the L.A. Times, New York Times, Good Morning America, as well as in technical publications Millimeter and Red Herring. When Teen People’s editors earlier this year asked Lee what was inside Aki’s make-up bag, he was caught off-guard: “I don’t know – WD40?” says Lee, as an afterthought.

Dr. Aki Ross, lead actress in Final Fantasy.

Slick answer. Here’s why: Aki isn’t a flesh-and-blood actress but an animated character rendered by state-of-the-art computer graphics and motion-capture technology. Special software was used to simulate textures — such as cloth, human hair and skin. In addition, the movie’s artists added cinematographic details, such as lens flare, camera shakes and simulated depth of field. Aki’s dark brown, shoulder-length hair alone (an estimated 60,000 computer-generated strands) demanded 20 percent of computing resources.

That’s no surprise, considering Final Fantasy was a four-year production. The first 18 months were devoted to developing SQFlesh, an in-house product that plugs into commercial software programs Maya and RenderMan. The following three years were spent on animating the characters, frame by frame. “The movie is a stepping stone. It’s the first of its kind that a lot of people will try to attempt later,” says Animation Director Andy Jones, who served as animation supervisor for the films Titanic and Godzilla. “Our film is closer to reality than other films. Some people call it hyperReal.”

Final Fantasy is the brainchild of Square USA, a film production company located in a $45 million studio in Harbor Court in downtown Honolulu. Square USA moved into the complex in 1997 and at one time employed up to 250 people from 22 countries. More than 90 percent of the movie’s production ended last January, and today there are approximately 100 employees who occupy four-and -a-half floors of the downtown Honolulu studio.

Deep Eyes Member.

Square USA’s parent company, Tokyo-based Square Co. Ltd., is the leading third-party publisher and creator of interactive entertainment software for PlayStation game systems and PCs. Annual sales for fiscal year 2000 were more than $687 million for the parent company and its international subsidiaries: Square Pictures, Square Soft and Square Electronic Arts in Los Angeles; Square USA in Honolulu; and Square Europe Ltd. in London.

Moviemaking was a natural evolution for the entertainment software company. “Initially the motivation behind the company was to build a high-level computer graphics studio,” says Final Fantasy’s Director Hironobu Sakaguchi. “Square, originally being a game company, could be applied to the movie.” Sakaguchi, who joined Square Co. in 1986, created the popular role-playing game series Final Fantasy, which has sold 33 million units to date. Final Fantasy VIII, written for the Sony Playstation system in 1999, broke industry records when international sales hit 6.1 million units. Final Fantasy IX was produced in Square USA’s Honolulu studio. The 10th game will be available July 19 in Japan and early 2002 in the U.S.

Hironobu Sakaguchi; director of Final Fantasy.

Although the games and the movie don’t bear similar plots and characters, they reflect Sakaguchi-driven themes of life, love, adventure and mortality. Final Fantasy takes place in post-apocalyptic year 2065. Alien creatures have forced surviving humans to flee to barren cities. Lead character Aki falls ill to an alien spirit, but through dreams and fantasies, she slowly learns the secret to fighting the enemies. Also battling the predators is the Deep Eyes military squad, led by Capt. Gray Edwards. The military’s top officer, General Hein, however, wants instant demolition — even if it means destroying alien-infected Aki. But Capt. Gray chooses otherwise. Obviously, he and Aki were linked in the past.

If the media and public’s interest over Aki and her co-stars is any indication, then Final Fantasy should be a box-office explosion over summer films. Movie executives won’t disclose dollars, but initial reports two years ago pegged Final Fantasy at $70 million. (See Hawaii Business October 1999). Square executives in Japan last January announced a price tag of 16 billion yen, or $140 million. “We did end up spending more than what we planned, but it’s not by any means a massive number compared to what other major studios have spent on similar features,” says Jun Aida, president for Square USA, who also produced the 1994 live-action movie Street Fighter. “I think the price is on a bidding war right now,” he says, referring to media reports that vary between $115 and $150 million.

Chris Lee, president of Chris Lee Productions Inc.

Final Fantasy goes to war against other summer flicks starring computer-generated characters. DreamWorks on May 18 released Shrek, the ogre-and-donkey tale featuring the voices of Mike Meyers and Eddie Murphy. The Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire debuted June 8, while Universal Pictures’ Jurassic Park 3 is scheduled to hit theaters July 18. The dinosaur sequel was bumped two days earlier than the original date, giving Final Fantasy a reason to also change its date from July 13 to July 11. “We’ll have eight days before Jurassic Park’s release,” Aida says. “We were moving so well that we were able to move up the release date. A production of this magnitude is always down to the wire. You’re always trying to find that extra date. We’re lucky that we’re able to meet our deadline comfortably.”

Aida and other executives are confident that Final Fantasy’s actors are superior to their cartoon competitors. After all, they’re just dinosaurs and donkeys. “Those films are more stylized. We made our characters look more like actors on film,” says Jones, animation director.

The anticipated revenues and raves this summer not only will come from video game and anime fans, but from non-traditional viewers, as well. “There’s no question that Aki has gained a following of her own,” Producer Lee says. “Women love her – she doesn’t take any grief from anybody, and she still has a relationship and a heart.” It also doesn’t hurt that her co-star Capt. Gray resembles popular film star Ben Affleck.

Jun Aida, president of Square USA.

Based on a Feb. 17 prescreening in Los Angeles, Final Fantasy appeals to 15- to-35-year-old males, even younger. “It has a mature theme, so we were surprised how well it played to the young audience, nine to 12 years old,” Aida says. The only other summer film based on a popular video game is Tomb Raider, the Paramount Pictures action flick starring Angelina Jolie as heroine Laura Croft. The movie hit theaters nationwide on June 15.

Final Fantasy’s U.S. launch will be followed by releases in 55 countries. Singapore and Malaysia tentatively are slated for July 12 and are to be followed by Taiwan, Puerto Rico, Israel and Australia. The movie opens in theaters in Portugal on Aug. 3. And in Japan, Gaga Communications Inc. will release Final Fantasy in September. Aida explains: “Along with all the blockbuster releases like Pearl Harbor, Jurassic Park 3, Pokemon and other Japanese feature animations, we didn’t want to be mixed in with all those movies.” Gaga Communications’ past releases in Japan include The Green Mile, Hannibal and Seven.

Another reason for the fall release: Japan’s summer film season is only about six weeks long. “That way, we’ll be able to really own the market (in the fall),” Aida says.

By the time the Czech Republic and Slovakia receive the movie in November, Final Fantasy will have been shown around the world for four months. “This is world-class entertainment. Animation is a big deal in a lot of foreign countries,” says Lee, who, together with Aida and Sakaguchi, spent the first half of this year touring major international cities to promote the film and finalize deals. Their agenda included 10 days with the London Symphony Orchestra to record Final Fantasy’s soundtrack. Sony Music has been licensed to distribute the Final Fantasy CD, scheduled to hit stores this summer.

Music mastermind Elliott B. Goldenthal composed the score. “What attracted me to request Elliot was that he has been known to use instruments in a very unconventional way, to achieve a new level of music,” Sakaguchi says. Goldenthal — nominated for Grammy, Oscar and Golden Globe awards – also created the tunes for the 1994 hit Interview with a Vampire and the No. 1 film in 1995, Batman Forever.

As the London orchestra recorded for the movie and CD, special-effect “squawk and splat” sounds were created in Los Angeles by the Academy Award-winning Skywalker Sound. Skywalker is a division of George Lucas’ company Lucas Digital Inc.

The release date for Final Fantasy’s DVD had not been announced as of late May, but producers say the two-disk set will be sold as a regular DVD and as a version compatible with SonyPlaystation 2. The DVD will allow viewers to recreate sequences and play with a variety of camera angles.

Will kids this summer play with Final Fantasy collectibles from fast-food restaurants? “We tried, but chains have decided to stay away from feature-film products,” Aida say. Aki and her co-stars, however, have appeared on hats, T-shirts and other items. In addition, six-inch action figures by toymaker Bandai America Inc. were scheduled to land on store shelves nationwide in June. The $10 dolls—Aki, Grey, Dr. Cid, Ryan, Neil, Hein and even the Phantom alien – come with their own weapon and collectible movie slide. Bandai also sells the Black Boa and Copperhead collectible vehicles for $15. They include one-inch mini action figures and display stands.

U.S. toymaker Palisade Toys is licensed to sell 12-inch Final Fantasy action figures, which first appeared at the American International Toy Fair in New York on Feb. 11 to 15.

And then there is the movie premiere: June 28 in Los Angeles and July 9 at Waikiki Theater. Details weren’t finalized as of late May. At the time, however, the Honolulu-based group that created Final Fantasy already had begun the next project, a family-oriented film scheduled for the 2003 holiday season. It involves a new set of characters – more stylized, rather than photo-real.

Square also plans to produce another animated science-fiction movie that tentatively is slated for 2004. Details again were sketchy. “We made an investment into building this studio,” Aida says. “The nature of the business is that some people would want to move on and get more experience elsewhere.” Square USA, however, isn’t going anywhere. The company is here to stay.

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