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Analyzing Film

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Analyzing films is considered an art form that attempts to “break up the whole to discover the nature proportion, function, and interrelationships of the parts” (Boggs and Petrie, 2008). Final Fantasy, the first CGI (computer generated image) film featuring synthetic human actors, opens with its protagonist, Dr. Aki Ross, surveying her barren, alien surroundings. Aki wakes from the recurring dream and looks out at earth from the window of her spaceship. As the music swells, our heroine wonders if she will be able to save the world from the “phantom” spirits that have invaded it. Two scenes later, we learn that the phantoms also have infected Aki, effectively linking the fate of the devastated planet with that of a beautiful, young though entirely computer-generated into a female body.
I’m introducing the film by way of Aki’s dubiously raced, female body for two reasons. First, Hironobu Sakaguchi, its creator, director and producer has made it clear in press releases and the supplemental documentary on the special edition DVD that the film functions as a showcase for the protagonist. “Identifying the theme can be considered both the beginning and the end of film analysis” (Boggs and Petrie, 2008). According to Sakaguchi, Aki represents his mother (the two share the same name) and his coming to terms with her death (Pham, 2001). Second and more to the point of my essay, critical reception of the film places strong emphasis on the character, which often is treated as a metonym for the film itself. This relationship works for the most part. Both film and character are formal, national and cultural hybrids neither animation nor live action; neither videogame nor film; neither Japanese nor American. Both downplay their deviations from the dominant Hollywood paradigm in order to appeal to the widest, most “global” audience possible. Yet overall low box office and DVD sales clearly demonstrate the inability of the film and its star to find and grab that audience.4
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi and Moto Sakakibara, premiered in the United States on June 11, 2001. The film was co-produced by Chris Lee Productions, a subsidiary of Sony/Columbia Pictures, and Square Pictures, the film affiliate of Square Co., the Tokyo-based company that produced the popular Final Fantasy game series. Sakaguchi’s original story idea was adapted into a screenplay by American screenwriters Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar; Reinert had produced and directed the space documentary For All Mankind and co-wrote Apollo 13. It touted an all-star voice cast, including Ming Na, Donald Sutherland, Alec Baldwin, Steve Buschemi and James Wood and a hefty production budget estimated between $114 and $150 million (Gray, 1997). The difficult part of film analysis is being proficient to become “fully immersed in the experience of a film and maintain a high degree of objectivity” (Boggs and Petrie, 2008). The following plot summary in the Final Fantasy official website immediately categorizes the story as a science fiction action film:
“The year is 2065 and Earth is under siege. A met or has crashed onto the planet, unleashing millions of alien creatures which roam the Earth. Decimating field and city alike, these predators are threatening to extinguish all life on the planet. The survivors of the initial onslaught have retreated to barrier cities built to protect the inhabitants of Earth from the marauding invaders. But the few cities around the globe are in decline and time is running out. Yet, the spirit of humankind is resilient and embodied in the brilliant and beautiful Dr. Aki Ross. Determined and capable, Aki strives as Earth’s last hope against extinction. With the guidance of her scientific mentor, Dr. Sid, and the aid of the Deep Eyes military squadron led by the courageous Captain Gray Edwards, Aki races to save both the Earth and herself.”
Much more interesting than the plot to audiences and reviewers, the selling point of Final Fantasy was its revolutionary role as the first CGI film to contain photorealistic or “hypeRealistic” actors and actresses (McCarthy, 2001).
In order to make Final Fantasy and to expand eventually into the realm of movie production, Square Co. established Square Pictures under American affiliate Square USA. Sony invested approximately $30 million to the project (Brodesser, & Graser, 2001), and Columbia agreed to distribute the film internationally except to Japan and Asia, which were the province of Japanese distribution firm, Gaga-Humax. (Ryan par.4).
Production began in October 1997 on two sound stages at the Hawaii Film Studio in Diamond Head and the company headquarters in downtown Honolulu. Square USA built a $45 million production facility where a 200 member crew labored for four years to realize Sakaguchi’s original vision. The group consisted of well-known game and film animators, including lead animators from Titanic, Toy Story and Jurassic Park, as well as engineers and computer scientists. Honolulu was chosen as the production site because of its centralized location between East and West and its cultural familiarity for Japanese employees (Gray, 1997). One reporter described the location “as close to halfway between Tokyo and Hollywood as you can get without treading water” (Lyman, 2001) while others noted the close proximity of Square USA headquarters to Pearl Harbor – the preeminent symbol in the United States of Japan as an invasive threat to its political, economic and social infrastructure.
In this culturally liminal place, the diverse production staff painstakingly constructed the movie using the following process. First, frame-by-frame storyboards were scanned into a slideshow Avid system while the voice actors recorded the script.
Using a program called Alias/Wavefront Maya; the scenes were blocked and shot with virtual cameras, which moved like real cameras to provide the necessary cinematic look. Storyboards and layouts then were sent to the animation and motion capture departments; the former held the subtext and character emotions for the story while the latter contained camera moves and character blocking synchronized with the voices of the actors.
According to animation director Andy Jones, animators debated on what made a character more “human” – the way it moved or the way it looked – and finally decided to focus on its look, particularly the face and fingers. Also, due perhaps to Sakaguchi’s fondness for complex storyboarding, the crew paid more attention to conveying the emotional state of the characters through appearance rather than through dialogue.
The concern with the visual extended to the use of motion capture, which accounted for 90% of the body movements that were used in the film. In motion capture, body actors physically act out a scene, and their movements are recorded through ping pong ball-like markers that are placed at specific points on their bodies. For Final Fantasy each performer wore approximately 35 markers, including five in the chest to capture his or her breathing. In addition to large movements, motion capture was used to get the bodily nuances of performers when they were still – nuances that were difficult to animate but easy to record through the 16-camera optical motion capture system and the tracking software from Motion Analysis.
This data was fed into an in-house system that converted the performances into a recognizable form for Maya. From there, animators worked on perfecting the appearance and movement of the characters’ bodies and faces and later, of their skin and hair (Robertson). Often cited to demonstrate the meticulous craftsmanship of the computer animation in Final Fantasy was the fact that the 60,000 strands of Aki’s hair took twenty percent of the entire production time to create and render (Wilson par.14). Last but certainly not least, animators constructed visual and sonic environments – sets, props, phantom aliens, lighting and special effects -- for their new synthetic stars.
The result is a movie that looks and feels somewhere between animation and live film. Sakaguchi, Square Co. vice-president and chief architect of Final Fantasy sums it up in the following way: “We’ve created characters that no longer feel blatantly computer generated. If we press on, we can achieve the reality level of a live-action film, but I kind of like where we are now. It’s not anime; it’s not live action. It’s something people have never seen before” (Taylor, 2000). Sakaguchi was right in that CGI principles previously had not been applied to the creation of lead human-like actors. However, people had seen different elements of the Final Fantasy concept before -- in US animated features Toy Story (1995) and Stuart Little (1999); in digital backgrounds and special effects for Jurassic Park (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), Titanic (1997) and Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace (1999); in films based on videogames like Super Mario Bros. (1993), Mortal Kombat (1996) and Pokemon: The Movie (1999); and finally, in Japanese anime and videogames such as the series on which Final Fantasy was broadly based. It is to the last that I now turn.
How does this narrative structure translate from the screen of the private home console to that of the public movie theater? If the short history of movies based on video games is any indicator -- not very well. From Super Mario Bros. (1993) to Final Fantasy (2001), this subgenre of game-based action movies has not exactly stunned the box office. Exceptions include Mortal Kombat (1996) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), which grossed $70 million and $239 million, respectively, and most recently, Resident Evil, which bowed at theatres to an impressive $18 million (Graser. 2002).
Generally however, the transition from film to videogame has been much smoother formally and more lucrative financially.
In 1994 film historian Janet Wasko wrote of the then $5.3 billion dollar US video game industry as an important secondary market for blockbuster movies: “Video games have become an appealing and important product that corporations [such as Time Warner, TCI, AT&T and Matsushita] hope will attract specific market segments to the fiber-optic 500-channel systems of the future” (209). Since then, video game revenues have grown by 111% in sharp contrast to those of film, which have grown only 36%.
Indeed game revenues are now greater than global box office takings and video rental fees combined (Accountancy par. 5). Last year the videogame industry in the US generated $9.4 billion due primarily to the introduction of new consoles from Microsoft (Xbox) and Nintendo (GameCube) and the continued appeal of Sony PlayStation 2 (Graser, 2002). It has become a commonplace in Hollywood for videogames to be developed alongside feature films, to the point where certain scenes in the film are added or deleted from the script for more effective marketing of the videogame. This strategy perfectly complements the modus operandi of the “high concept” film, which took root in the late 1970s with Jaws and Star Wars and has since dominated the American film industry.
According to Justin Wyatt, the high concept film emphasizes visual and stylistic elements of a story over textual and narrative ones, syncopating music and visual spectacle to elicit a visceral response from the audience. Consequently, it usually involves minimal plot and little character development (1-20). Steven Spielberg laid the official dictum for this kind of cinema when he said, “If a person can tell me the idea in 25 words or less, it’s going to make a pretty good movie” (13). Spielberg’s formula continues to rule the conception, development and dissemination of most Hollywood movies. And the New Hollywood that churns out these films operates as one part of a vast web of distribution outlets and delivery systems (Wasko, 1-2). Richard Maltby gives the following description of how this global entertainment matrix operates:
Contemporary Hollywood is a fully integrated part of a much larger and more diversified entertainment software industry, the second largest net export industry in the US economy, dominating its global market to an extent comparable only with the position of Hollywood at the height of the late silent era … the major companies, acting primarily as financiers and distributors, have gradually come to terms with a fragmentation of the audience, a concern with ideas of demographics and target audiences derived from market research, globalized markets and new delivery systems (Maltby, 1998).
Poole likewise counters predictions of imminent convergence between films and video games in a chapter devoted specially to comparing the formal qualities of each medium. Of the several interesting observations he makes, I reiterate three here. First, spectacular sequences in films and videogames do not necessarily offer the viewer/player the same experience: for example, the pod-racing scene in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace differs from the same scene in its game version because the viewer in the former is not in control of the action whereas the player in the latter definitely is.
Second, camera movement in videogames is “player controlled” – a feature that allows the player to choose from a variety of potential visual perspectives – from follow cam and aerial cam to first person viewpoint and shoulder cam. Poole points out that the game camera helps the player to see as much of his or her surroundings as possible in contrast to the film camera, which does precisely the opposite. Instead of revealing the protagonist’s environment, the film camera keeps certain parts of it hidden in order to pace the action toward the anticipated revelation of climax. The dramatic irony so crucial to the logic and pleasure of film-viewing is neither possible nor desirable in the game playing experience where the protagonist and the spectator are the same person.
Finally, most films are based on the measured disclosure of information via editing or montage (the organization of time). Videogames, on the other hand, are based on continuous action; the principle of “replay” underlying game play elides time with space. To put it another way, time itself transforms into a kind of space once the ending of the story opens and proliferates. Contrary to conventional films, then, videogames might be said to operate more under the principle of mise-en-scene (organization of space) (Poole, 2000).
If we follow Poole’s argument, convergence, were it to happen at all, would not take an easily predictable or recognizable path. The box office failure of Final Fantasy provides a case in point. What the film’s producers and investors initially saw as the perfect blending of two different media amounted in the end to a tremendous loss of time and resources. This may have been due not only to the videogame origins of the film and the fact that it was computer animated (all other game-based films have been live action), but the controversial way that the film used digital animation -- to attempt mimetic representations of human beings.
The plot of Final Fantasy centers on Aki’s race to save the planet not only from the phantom aliens – who have no particular form or identity upon which the audience can project any concrete emotions – but from the “Zeus cannon,” an industrial strength laser beam that General Hein (voiced by James Wood) plans to fire at the earth in order to destroy said phantoms. He is opposed by Aki and her mentor, Dr. Sid (voiced by Donald Sutherland) who believe that the weapon will only destroy the earth and strengthen the phantoms. Instead, they posit an alternative, more ecologically friendly plan to construct an “energy wave” from eight “spirits” culled from once-living organisms on earth. Their plan derives from Dr. Sid’s philosophy-religion of Gaia (based on James Lovelock’s controversial Gaia Theory), which asserts that the Earth itself is a living thing, and that each organism on earth has a particular “spirit” that contributes to the overall “spirit” of the earth.
Aki was infected by a phantom while conducting experiments as a graduate student; consequently, she is plagued by dreams in which she learns that the phantoms themselves are wandering spirits who have not been able to find a home. Sandwiched between the abstract environmental and spiritual themes are the requisite love story (between Aki and former lover Grey Edwards); the “ticking clock” as General Hein prepares to unleash his weapon; and the camaraderie among Grey’s crew, which consists of the masculinized woman a la GI Jane, the wisecracking male engineer and the sacrificing African American man. The film ends with the crew dead, Grey dead, and Aki alone (again – as in the opening sequence) facing a new morning of planetary hope and rebirth.
Most reviewers based their critique of the movie primarily on its narrative strategies and the performances of its characters. Both aspects generally seemed to fall short of the viewers’ expectations. For example, consider the following evaluation of the plot in a review in Film Journal International:
The story continually has to make itself up as it goes along and thus feels terribly arbitrary, constantly doling out exposition-ridden speeches that attempt to justify whatever the heck is going on. And so there is little compelling cause-and-effect, the gold currency of any action extravaganza (Luty, 2001)
And a more culturally contextualized version of similar sentiments in the New York Times:
C.G.I. presents one clear and present danger: that film will soon be driven, not by story and character and sense of place but by the technology and the effects it can produce. Classical film style is based on a sense of integrity, an integrity that is at once psychological, dramatic and spatial.
When that integrity is ruptured – as it is routinely in music videos and in the films that imitate them (like “The Matrix,” “swordfish” and “The Fast and the Furious”) – there is a loss of weight and wholeness. The medium becomes little more than a comic book that happens to move and speak (like the anime the Japanese have been turning out for years). (Kehr, 2001).
Both reviewers find the movie inadequate structurally because it does not follow the Classical Hollywood mode of storytelling: an Aristotelian plot with a distinct beginning, middle and end; characters whose motivations and desires the audience can easily comprehend and identify with; well-timed plot points that lead to inevitable climax through causal, linear logic; and a satisfying sense of closure at the end when the central questions and problems that were posed at the beginning of the film are answered and resolved. As David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and Janet Staiger discuss in detail in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, the classical model became the dominant film language in the world as the Hollywood studio system gained economic and cultural currency at the beginning of the twentieth century (Bordwell, 1985). Even as it attempted to court a “global” audience familiar with and anticipating an action film based on the Hollywood model, Final Fantasy deviated from the classical formula in several ways.
Thematically the film bears no relation to any of the stories in the videogame series; the link, if any, between the film and the games is more stylistic than narrative in nature. Reviewers like the one above noted similarities in this style to that of anime, a distinctive form of Japanese animation that became internationally popular after the introduction of Akira (Katsuhiro Ôtomo) to western audiences in 1988. Todd McCarthy compared the tone of the film to that of Princess Mononoke in an advance review for Variety and stressed its leanings toward the contemplative: “the Eastern p.o.v is pronounced, and even the presence of Yank-speaking-and-looking characters isn’t enough to prevent this from feeling more like a Japanese film than an American one” (McCarthy, 2001).
Without a doubt Aki and the film “conceded” on the surface. Unenthusiastic decisive reactions and the official end of Square Pictures in October 2001 aside, the production crew hit a turning point in the history of computer generated animation (C.G.I.) with Final Fantasy. Nevertheless, fears of synthetic actors taking over the motion picture proved to be unwarranted when the film failed to “pass” on the non-illustration levels of narrative and presentation. This brings up several questions with which I would like to end. What different formal or cultural approaches, if any, might have made this movie successful? Should CGI remain reserved for nonhuman characters, special effects and background touch-ups?
Boggs, J.M. & Petrie, D.W. (2008). The art of watching films (7th ed). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Bordwell, David, Staiger, Janet, & Thompson, Kristin. (1985). The Classical Hollywood cinema: film style and mode of production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press. (Bordwell, Staiger, & Thompson, 1985)
Brodesser, Claude, & Graser, Marc. (2001, May 8). All eyes on pricey 'fantasy'. Variety, Retrieved from
Graser, Marc. (2002, April 5). H'wood's new big game hunt. Variety, Retrieved from
Gray, Timothy M. (1997, December 1). Square goes Hawaiian with studio lease. Variety, Retrieved from
Kehr, David. (2001, November 18). Film; When A Cyberstar Is Born. The New York Times
Luty, David. (2001, August). Final fantasy: the spirit within. Film Journal International, 104(8), Retrieved from
Lyman, Rick. (2001, July 8). Movie stars fear inroads by upstart digital actors. The New York Times, pp. Section 1.
Maltby, Richard (1998) ‘“Nobody Knows Everything”: Post-classical Historiographies and Consolidated Entertainment’, in Steve Neale and Murray Smith (eds.), Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, London, Routledge, pp. 21-44.
McCarthy, Todd. (2001, July 8). Final fantasy: the spirits within. Variety. Retrieved from
Pham, Alex. (2001, July 12). The realities of a 'fantasy' world. The Los Angeles Times.
Poole, Steven. Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Video games. London: Fourth Estate,
2000 ; (PDF Version)
Robertson, Barbara. “Reality Check.” Computer Graphics World. Aug. 2001. Expanded
Academic ASAP. 20 Mar. 2002.
Ryan, Tim. “Col inks distrib’n pact for computer ‘Fantasy.’” Variety. 5 Nov. 1998.
Variety Online. 15 Mar. 2002. “Screen Sirens.” Accountancy. December 27, 2001. Variety Online. 25 Dec. 2001.
Taylor, Chris. (2000, July 31). A Painstaking Story. Time, 156(5),9171,997597,00.html
Wasko, Janet. Hollywood in the Information Age: Beyond the Silver Screen. Austin: U of Texas P, 1994.
Wilson, John. “Artificial Creation.” Books & Culture. Sept. 2001. Expanded Academic ASAP. 19 March 2002.
Wyatt, Justin. High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood. Austin: Texas, 1994.

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