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'Final Fantasy' Comes Alive With Digital Animation

Film: Details are important with computer-generated "synthespians."

April 06, 2001|ALEX PHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Columbia Pictures on Thursday gave the most extensive peek to date of "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," a potentially groundbreaking movie made entirely with computer-generated human characters.

Produced by Square Pictures, "Final Fantasy" is based on the hugely popular video game of the same name. The movie, to be released in July, represents the industry's best display yet of the use of cutting-edge computer animation.

In the 17-minute clip unveiled to the media, the film's heroine, Dr. Aki Ross, battles for her life against ghostly alien invaders and matches wits with the leader of a militaristic faction bent on destroying the Earth.

But her most amazing feat is her hair. Each of the 60,000 hairs on Ross' virtual head move independently based on environmental circumstances programmed in the scene. From skin pores to eye moisture, the designers of the movie have worked to achieve a near-photographic level of detail.

"This represents the future of filmmaking," said Chris Lee, one of the film's three producers. "No one has ever tried to do human beings this way."

Still, the producers of "Final Fantasy" realize their movie probably won't fool anyone. Promotional materials describe the movie as "hyper-real" as opposed to being photo-realistic. Lee said that the sensitive eyes of human beings can still see through the best that today's technology can dish up--most of the time.

Nevertheless, "Final Fantasy" is the closest Hollywood has come so far to having fully digital actors--so-called synthespians--that will unhesitatingly do the director's bidding.

The movie, which is being marketed and distributed by Columbia, took 200 people over four years to make. It is the first movie to come from Square Pictures, a wholly owned subsidiary of Square Co., a Japanese company that built its reputation and fortunes on the Final Fantasy video games. Square has sold more than 30 million copies of nine versions of the game, an astounding volume by video game standards.

Lee said that Square Pictures, with its state-of-the-art studios in Honolulu, will produce other films and compete with Pixar Animation Studios and other digitally based filmmakers. What's different about Square is that the company comes from a video game world, not films. That tradition, Lee said, will help Square, which for decades has told stories through purely digital means.

"The day of the computer-based character is upon us," Lee said.

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