An Interview With Motonori Sakakibara - Co-Director of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

with assistance from Hiroshi Tanaka and Yumi Ozaki

by Shane Lord

    Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within promises to be one of those movies that are just made for DVD. A computer game translated to the big screen, it didn't exactly set the box office alight when it was released, but it most definitely attracted a hard-core Final Fantasy audience, who are going to slaver over the DVD. We were honoured to be given the opportunity to speak with the co-director of Final Fantasy, Motonori Sakakibara, and Shane Lord had the pleasure of conducting the interview.

How did you get into computer animation?

I started in Japan 10 years ago when I joined the first CGI production company in Japan where I did some production work.

Which part of Square do you work for?

I work for Square USA, but before that I was from Square Japan.

How long have you worked for Square?

6 years.

Did any of your previous projects help with the production of Final Fantasy?

Yes. My entire career and experiences helped me in working on Final Fantasy the movie, but especially Final Fantasy VII & VIII because I was able to go through the experience of producing computer graphics of long length.

You are credited as the co-director of the film, but I am wondering whether you got involved in doing any animation yourself?

No. I was not directly involved in the actual hands-on CGI work.

It must have been difficult with your background not to get your hands dirty?

Initially I was given a choice as to work as one of the artists, or to work more in a directorial role, and at that point I had already made a decision to be co-director, so I had to live with that.

Do you wish you could have been one of the artists on the film?

Not really. I enjoyed being able to look at the overall process and be involved directing the whole process.

There was a reported 3 picture deal between Square & Sony. Are you aware if this deal is going to go ahead?

<Yumi> Yes, we are talking to Columbia for the next project.

Will Square Pictures be working on any future projects, and can you give us an insight into what they may be?

<Yumi> Right now we are working on not a feature film but a little bit smaller project. For the next project we are talking to Columbia Pictures and then evaluating several projects. And then of course in the future we are going to produce a feature film.

Is there any kind of information on what these future projects may be?

<Yumi> No I can't comment on that.

What stage are they in at the moment?

<Yumi> I would say they are in the very starting stages.

This was Square's first big budget, full-length feature film. Looking back, was it easier or harder than you first originally thought?

Much harder.

What are the similarities and differences between directing a movie compared with the games you have worked on?

The one big difference was having to maintain continuity in the images throughout the film. In game production, the CG movies inserted throughout the game are standalone on their own, so I didn't have to worry too much about maintaining consistency and continuity between each movie, whereas with a feature film the viewers are constantly looking at the imagery so that has to remain consistent throughout the film, and trying to maintain that was quite a bit different. As far as the production process, the process of creating a CG movie for a game is pretty similar to what is done for feature film work.

How many people were involved in the creation of the film?

Obviously it fluctuated at stages, but at peak time I believe we had about 200 people.

With films using human actors taking (at most) up to 6 months to complete, was it difficult to keep the momentum going, and the focus on such an enormous task over the 4 year period it took to make?

First of all I guess, the production period was 4 years, but the first year and a half of that was really spent on research and development, so the actual task really didn't start... so I guess basically it took two and a half years. Although that too is a very long time, I didn't really feel like it was a burden to remain focused because what we were doing was such an epic task, such a big & monumental thing that we were doing, I didn't feel the focus or concentration waning at all.

The film's script is not the standard kind a US movie would have, and it has many Japanese traits in it. Why was the decision made to animate and create it in English, unlike the majority of Anime films that have come before it?

Mr Sakaguchi could probably answer this better, but I believe a lot of business decisions were involved in it. Going in, we knew this was going to be a high-cost production, and if we were to create and release this in Japan, unfortunately the movie market there isn't very big, and we figured that it made more sense to make it in Hollywood and try and get a globalised distribution.

With very few films based on computer games doing well at the box office normally, in retrospect, do you think the film could have performed better if it had not been associated with the games?

I really can't say. One can speculate on a lot of theories as to why the film didn't do well, but as far as association with the game, I was producing the film without having that in mind, but because Mr Sakaguchi is really the creator of Final Fantasy, and he is just so strongly associated with the game it just became a natural progression that this movie was named after it and became what it was, which is Final Fantasy the movie. I guess as my motivation wasn't to turn the game into a film, I really can't say whether if we hadn't done that it would have done better.

Why was it decided to create the characters from scratch instead of starting from scans of actual people?

One of the reasons is that when we use humans and scan them in, you know, incorporate them into our imagery, we get into all sorts of issues with copyright laws and all that. Another reason is that the actual scanning process is in fact not a big part of the entire process of creating the characters, maybe 10-20% would be spent on scanning, but the bulk of the work would go into hand tweaking and hand modelling and texturing them. So the decision was that if we were going to put that much work in anyway, we might as well start from scratch so that we have that much more artistic freedom.

Each character in the film had a different team working on them. Was there a sense of competition amongst the teams as to who could make the most realistic character, and if so, who do you think won?

I am not sure if there was competition amongst the artists, but I guess in reality there weren't too many people involved in each of the characters anyway, so regardless of whether there was competition between them or not I think just looking at all of the characters that Dr. Sid is probably by far the top notch character. Not in the sense of any one artist or any other people, but just as far as the technology and skills that went into creating Dr. Sid just seemed to really stand out because it was just done so well.

Did the actual time period of the production when the character was developed have an impact on its realism?

That would be part of the reason. With the advantage of starting early some of the artists did have more time to work on their CG characters, but at the same time there are characters that are more difficult or easier to create than others, so someone like Aki in particular has feminine, smooth skin and has different traits that make it a little more difficult to create and in that sense, time is maybe not much a factor either.

Many fans of the Final Fantasy gaming universe were upset because there were very little fantasy elements in the film (such as magic, monsters etc). Can you comment on why these elements didn't appear?

One of the reasons goes back to my previous comment on the whole game to movie thing, where we didn't initially sit down and say let's turn the game into a movie. I guess the idea of the project was elsewhere, in that we wanted to push the technological envelope further for computer graphics, and show off Square's skill and the artists' skill on the big screen in Hollywood. So we didn't start out saying, OK, here's a game and we're going to put it on the big screen.

Final Fantasy is, and will continue to be seen as a landmark film for computer animation. Where do you see computer animation in films progressing from here?

As far as computer graphics and the role of computer graphics in cinema and in movies, I believe it all began with Tron, and now we have the Final Fantasy film that as you say is a landmark as far as what computer graphics can do in a feature film. I think that the role it plays in films has come to a plateau as far as how they can be used. In the future I guess more focus will be placed on how different types of media technology can be used, and once people begin to think about how to use computer graphics outside of feature films and special effects next to live actors in feature films, I think there will be far more interesting things coming out. The advantage that computer graphics has is that you have an image, but the image is created of pure data, and because of that there is far more that people can do if they use their imagination. So I think the future of computer graphics will move towards being used in whole different types of media that we haven't even thought of today.

How involved in the production of the DVD did you get?

My role was not very much. I oversaw the production of the mini-movie that begins the DVD, but I also did the commentary track recording with the actual movie.

As the film was produced, did you have the eventual DVD in mind?

Not in particular. The film was made on its own and because we were just so focused on getting the film done that no one had the thought that, "Hmm, we should do this for the DVD" until after we had finished the film.

How much additional material was available for the production of the DVD itself, and are there any extras you would have liked to have seen on the DVD that didn't make it?

In creating the movie, I got everything out of that that I wanted, and I also believe that everything on the DVD is very good.

Have you had a chance to sit down and look at the DVD and do you have a favourite extra?

Yes I have. The section called the Gray Project I which was our very early R&D project, which I really enjoyed watching because it took me back to the time when it all began.

The DVD packaging states that the DVD was digitally mastered from the film-less digital files. Where you happy with the result?

I am very happy with the result, and I think the image quality is excellent.

Was a new rendering done for the DVD, or was the original theatrical rendering used?

All of the rendering was the same as used for the original.

You obviously enjoyed doing the commentary track on the DVD, but did you do any particular preparation such as notes etc before sitting down, or was it all ad-libbed?

I drank a lot of beer <laughter>, but I didn't particularly prepare anything as far as notes.

How long did it take for the DVD to be put together?

The preparation began about a year ago, but the actual work began around January 2001.

The soundtrack of the film in theatres was outstanding, and it is on the DVD as well. Is there a reason why the DTS soundtrack wasn't included on the DVD?

I am not sure. Possibly a representative from Sony could answer that question.

There was news of a Playstation 2 version of the DVD movie being made. Is this still going ahead?

That was a rumour, but at this point we have no plans of doing that.

Other than Final Fantasy, what is your favourite DVD?

I really enjoy Japanese films on DVD. My favourite is Sonatine directed by Takeshi Kitano.

If given the opportunity, would you want to do a Final Fantasy sequel?

I am not sure if they said to me to do it tomorrow, but certainly in the future I would love to go back.

Is there anything else you want to say in regards to the film or DVD before we finish?

I would like to tell the readers to watch the DVD and see it over and over, and try to pay attention to the different details because there is so much more that you can get after the first look. It is not just the characters, it is far more involved. Look at the characters and the effects. I have seen this 20-30 times during the process of creating it, but whenever I look at the DVD I can always find areas and details that I haven't noticed before, so I would like the readers to enjoy this, and look for the sheer amount of details and quality that went into this film. Also go over the story as well, because I am sure many people were confused the first time around, but it does make sense so I would like to watch the film repeatedly.

Thank you for you time, it was very much appreciated.

Thank you.