In 2003, creative partners Chris Delaporte and Patrick Daher released France’s first feature-length, computer-animated film Kaena: The Prophecy to average and mixed reviews. The two unknowns from the video game industry had still surpassed all obstacles and expectations even with their film’s lackluster reception. Their team of novices created a CGI film unlike any seen before by taking inspiration from video games rather than western 2D animation - a vision sparked by a chance meeting with Steven Spielberg. Its video game influences, however, didn't doom the film and its creators to their current obscurity. Trouble plagued Kaena's development, and its amateur team ultimately produced what critics called a world-heavy story told through ugly graphics. Regardless of the results, video games nudged Kaena into its unique place in the history of computer animated movies.
Kaena: The Prophecy takes place on a dying world that evolved around a giant tree called Axis. When the tree’s life-giving sap begins drying up, its people refuse to accept that their so-called gods, sap creatures also struggling to survive on the opposite side of the planet, won’t help them. The protagonist Kaena sets out to save her people. She meets Opaz, the last member of an alien species known as the Vecarians, while on her quest. Through him, she discovers the origins of her planet and how to save it.
The film’s history begins at Amazing Studio, founded by Eric Chahi and Frederic Savoir. At the time, Chahi was well known for Another World (AKA Out of this World), a cinematic platformer inspired by Prince of Persia. Chahi and Savoir founded Amazing Studio in 1992 to create their next ambitious platformer, Heart of Darkness. Chris Delaporte and Patrick Daher served as additional team members in the studio with Delaporte creating backgrounds and game screens and Daher contributing to the game’s many pre-rendered cutscenes. Daher was a self-taught 3D animator and video game designer. Delaporte was a graffiti artist and painter until Starwatcher, a canceled film that was slated to be the first feature-length CGI movie, inspired him to become a 3D artist.
A pre-rendered teaser for Heart of Darkness appeared at E3 1995 attracting the attention of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas among others. This teaser showed a sample of the game’s 35 minutes of pre-rendered, computer-animated cutscenes. It impressed Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founders of DreamWorks, so much that they invited the Amazing Studio team to DreamWorks’ offices in California to propose that they abandon the game and make a movie instead. Chahi and his team refused, wanting to stick with their original vision and complete the game even though development had dragged on for three years and would continue for another three.
Not all of Chahi’s crew agreed though. Disappointed with their team’s decision, Daher and Delaporte left Amazing Studio the same year to begin their own video game project. The idea of creating a feature-length film with computer graphics intrigued Delaporte. At this time, the first film of its kind, Toy Story (1995), hadn’t been released. Delaporte and Daher hoped to create their own game like Heart of Darkness with a strong story and nice graphics to attract Hollywood’s attention again. For the next year, they worked without pay on a demo for Gaina, the game that would eventually become Kaena: The Prophecy. Delaporte created the story and world while Daher developed the game system.
In 1997, Delaporte and Daher pitched Gaina to Denis Friedman, the project’s destined producer. Friedman also had a background in the video game industry. Starting in 1982, he worked as a game programmer for Atari until Jack Tramiel, the founder of the Commodore computer company, purchased it. During this transition, Friedman survived as one of 50 out of 3000 employees that weren’t laid off. From then until 1997, he moved between the United States and Europe as a game producer and general manager for Atari, Brøderbund Software, and Sony. Friedman then left his job as general director for Sony Computer Entertainment France to found Chaman Productions and pursue his interest in producing animation and franchises that spanned multiple mediums. When Friedman saw the demo for Gaina, he not only took it as Chaman’s first project but also proposed to produce a television movie based on it. Delaporte and Daher readily agreed. The two of them created a two minute cutscene to pitch the game and 52-minute movie based on it to 200 professionals at MIP TV. The demo received such praise that Friedman decided to expand the TV movie into a feature-length film. He set its budget at 18 million francs, about $4.9 million. The team also renamed the game and movie project from Gaina to Axis to better appeal to English speakers and a more global audience.
Chaman was ready to assemble a crew to create Axis, the film that would become Kaena: The Prophecy, but this was a major feat to accomplish in Europe at the time. Unlike the American film industry, Europe didn’t have established animation studios like Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks. Computer animation experts were also uncommon in France. Despite these difficulties, assistant director Virginie Guilminot accepted the challenge of building a crew of 3D artists from across Europe. With ages ranging from 20 to 30 years old, people with more talent, versatility, and motivation than experience ultimately made up the motley crew. Artists from the video game industry formed the team’s core, and beginner graphic designers and professionals from the audiovisual industry joined them.
Delaporte originally filled the role of writer and artistic director, but after several months of confusion he realized that he would need to step up as the film’s director if he wanted it to reflect his vision. Friedman gave him permission to direct provided that he worked with a co-director. This would be Pascal Pinion, a traditional animator and storyboard artist for various American, British, and French television shows and films including Doug and the computer animated series Insektors. Patrick Bonneau took the role of animation director. In favor of finding a job in France, Bonneau had just ended a six year contract at George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Music where he contributed to films like Men in Black and Star Wars: Episode I. Starting with a team of 10, film production on Axis formally began in 1997.
Over the next three years, Delaporte and the team wrote and polished the script to ensure that it targeted its intended audience and completed pre-production on the film. The script went through twelve versions in a year and a half. Japanese anime such as Akira greatly influenced Delaporte, who found it amazing that animated films could target adult audiences. Most western animated films at the time didn’t do this. Delaporte, 25 when he started writing , determined that he would create a film that he as a young adult wanted to watch. Axis’ success would rely on an audience segment of 15 to 25-year-olds that larger studios in the animation industry had mostly ignored. Importantly, this segment also consumed the largest amount of video games and comics. Delaporte and the team targeted that demographic, creating a Lara Croft-like protagonist with an exaggerated feminine form and scanty clothing. The themes of the film also focused on the transition from childhood to adulthood, a relatable concept for teenagers.
While the film originated in France, Delaporte and Friedman wanted to produce it in English. The team felt that Axis’ universal coming-of-age theme would be best portrayed in a more globally known language than French. The assembled cast included Kirsten Dunst, who played Kiki in the English dub of Kiki’s Delivery Service, as Kaena and Richard Harris, the original Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, as Opaz. On a side note, Kaena: The Prophecy, as Richard Harris’ last film, is dedicated in his memory.
The production phase and animation began in 2000, and the inexperienced crew quickly realized their weaknesses. Their 3D character models had too many polygons to render in a reasonable time, requiring that the crew remodel all of them. Most prominently, however, Friedman grossly underestimated the film’s original budget. Because they didn’t have the money to invest in custom-made tools and plugins for special effects and animations, the team relied on commercially available software, often using them unconventionally to attain the desired results. The team used software meant for fabric, for example, to create hair. This would later make Kaena: The Prophecy the first computer-animated film of this scale to use only out-of-the-box software and hardware. The team also didn’t have the luxury to update the film as technology improved throughout its development like larger production houses commonly did.
Its ambition made the novice studio the laughing stock of the industry, but that only made its team more determined to succeed. In the wake of the failures of other adult-oriented animated films, including Titan AE and the box office bomb Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, no one believed Axis would pay off. Its original science fiction story and unconventional art style, mixing Japanese anime-like artwork, European imagery, video game-reminiscent characters, and sepia tone realism, also made Axis a risky venture. Combine these factors with a crew that spent as much time botching and redoing as they did making the film, the studio looked both incompetent and naïve.
Chaman Productions forged on, however, even beginning production on the accompanying Axis video game for the PlayStation 2. Twenty members of Chaman co-developed it with an additional team of five from Namco in Japan. Friedman also discussed tentative plans for releasing the game on the GameCube, Game Boy Advance, and Xbox and future plans for more Axis games and movies with Gamespot in 2001. Later that year, the project went through its final name change. The Axis video game became Kaena, and the film became Kaena: The Prophecy. At the height of the movie’s production, the team swelled to 70 people, which included members of Canadian studios who would animate 70% of the movie. At the midpoint of the property’s production in January 2002, Friedman promised that Kaena would appear in the prestigious Cannes Film Festival as Shrek had.
Two months later, disaster struck. Chaman Productions, weighed down by an unrelated multiplayer online game project that it was also producing, filed for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy took the team completely by surprise, its unexpected nature rendering it even more devastating. Delaporte, Daher, and Friedman dreamed of Chaman becoming the European DreamWorks and looked forward to continuing to work together. Those dreams were over.
The next chapter of Kaena: The Prophecy’s development began at Xilam, the studio that would complete the production of both the film and companion game. Xilam, founded by Marc du Pontavice, was one of Europe’s leading animation companies best known for Space Goofs and Oggy and the Cockroaches. It was about to start production on Stupid Invaders, a computer-animated movie based on Space Goofs, when Pontavice heard that Chaman filed for bankruptcy.
Pontavice found Kaena fascinating, its story inspired, beautiful, and dense with an intelligently constructed universe. The half complete film, however, suffered from an underdeveloped studio with no experience in animation. As co-founder of Gaumont TV, founder of Gaumont Multimedia, and founder of Xilam Animation, Pontavice had extensive experience in computer graphic, cartoon, feature film, and video game production, but completing the project would still challenge him. The budget for the film and game lacked an estimated 5.3 to 6.1 million euros, about $9.5 to $11 million, the film’s investors threatened to cut their losses, and the crew felt similarly disillusioned. Over twelve companies inspected the Kaena property, but only Pontavice had the resources and experience to make an offer to take over the project. Xilam bought the game and movie for a mere 150,000 euros, roughly $270,000, each. For the first three months, Pontavice directed the crew to create a new demo that would attract new investments and reinvigorate the team. Once he’d obtained adequate funding and improved morale, Pontavice reconstructed the full 70-person team and continued production in full force.
Kaena: The Prophecy arrived in France in June 2003, and the game released the following year. Despite its French origins, the film proved easy to export and sold in more than 40 territories. The film cost a total of 14.5 million euros, about $26 million, making it the most expensive animated feature ever produced in France at that time. It won as the first computer-animated, feature-length film in France, but the Spanish movie The Enchanted Forest (2001) beat it as the first such European film. Xilam also finished the Kaena video game in-house. Namco published it on the PlayStation 2 in April 2004 but, bizarrely, only ever released it in Japan. From the time Delaporte and Daher began working on their initial game demo to the PlayStation 2 game’s release, the project spanned nine years.
Since their release, the film and the game have mostly been forgotten, and the creators have moved on to new projects. The Kaena action-adventure game featured beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds akin to PlayStation-era Final Fantasy games, but its poor controls and limited release made it easy to overlook. The film had a slightly better reception, receiving a Golden Globe Award nomination, but the recognition was not enough to keep it out of obscurity. After the film’s release, with the crew eager to use all the experience they’d gained, Delaporte began work on a sequel. He didn’t get far before the project quickly and quietly ended. Since then, he has turned his focus to producing live-action and commercials. Information on Daher is elusive, but he appears to be an animator for commercials. Denis Friedman founded a new company called Denis Friedman Productions. Over the past few years, he successfully Kickstarted and created the pilot episode of his latest project Urbance, a hybrid 2D-3D animated series targeting 16 to 25-year-olds. Marc du Pontavice continues to produce mostly 2D- and 3D-animated series for children under Xilam.
Video games influenced Kaena’s development from its inception, but they shouldn’t be blamed for France’s first CGI movie’s poor reception. The novice video game artists that created Kaena: The Prophecy sought to capture the hearts of teenage and young adult gamers with a rich world, a mature story, and realistic but stylized artwork. Video games inspired, among all of Kaena’s other accomplishments, one of the first movies to explore the distinctive storytelling properties of feature-length CGI films. The creators dared to make a film for a mature audience with a unique story and an art style unlike any seen before or since. In an industry that to this day rarely ventures outside children’s and family comedies, they dared to make a film in a genre that no one has yet mastered in CGI film.
While the fact that its creators were ambitious novices working in a young art form may have doomed Kaena to mediocrity from the start, it took people who didn’t know better to try what more entrenched experts would never do. Kaena prophesized that CGI films didn’t have to be translations of 2D cartoons into 3D or live-action into photorealistic graphics; the fledgling art form had as many great stories to tell in novel ways as any other medium. The challenge remained figuring out how to use it effectively to tell them. Video games inspired the Kaena experiment and have since inspired some of the most flawed, unique, bizarre, and amazing movies CGI has to offer. Imagine the films to come when just the right games motivate just the right teams to fulfill the prophecy that Kaena foretold.