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  1. Since its release in 2005, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children has attracted negative reviews about its story, characters, fight scenes, dialog, and fan service. For fans of the film like me, defending it seemed an unthinkable, if not impossible, task. This made it all the more surprising when I dared to look closer at these criticisms and found baseless claims and exaggerations instead. The previous article in this series refuted arguments that Advent Children doesn’t contain a strong story or compelling characters by outlining the story it tells, examining the protagonist Cloud and his relationships, and exploring some of the film’s many themes. Critics may be quick to point out that even if the film contains a story, deeply flawed storytelling obscures it. They say Advent Children contains an excessive amount of meaningless action scenes strung together with weak and brief dialog. In reality, its action scenes are as important to understanding the story and world as the characters’ efficient and purposeful conversations. Many critics of Advent Children claim that the film’s excessive fight scenes contain only action-packed fan service. These visually stunning scenes allegedly have nothing at stake, no indication that characters can die, no physical limitations, no change in energy from fight to fight, and no purpose in the story. To the contrary, the fight scenes build the world, advance the story, and develop the characters in parallel with the battle. The visuals not only look wonderful but also contain a wealth of information. Advent Children doesn’t use the physics that we know, but it still has rules that it defines and follows. What the characters can do and their limitations are established in the fight scenes. In the first battle of the movie, the antagonist Kadaj sends his brothers Loz and Yazoo to fight Cloud. The combatants introduce motorcycle battles, summoned monsters, and physics-defying action. Cloud gets his goggles shot off his face at point blank, but the scratch it leaves behind hints for the rest of the film that he isn’t invincible. The following fight between Loz and Cloud’s friend Tifa demonstrates the characters’ high jumping abilities and super human strength. While Tifa can take wooden benches to the face, electrocution is her weakness as is being punched with enough force to destroy a concrete pillar. Next, Cloud has a mystical weapon battle with Kadaj’s gang where we see the magical and destructive capabilities of materia. Cloud blocks bullets and magic with a sword, but he tires rather quickly. These first three scenes also establish that the bad guys pose a threat because Cloud and Tifa lose them all. The tide changes during the fight with the monster Bahamut, which introduces friendship as an element of combat. Cloud’s friends demonstrate their differing skills and how they compensate for one another’s weaknesses. Cait Sith is quite useless, riding on Red XIII’s back the entire fight, but he provides moral support and comic relief. Barret saves Cloud’s foster son Denzel, but he can’t high jump and periodically needs to be saved himself. Red XIII saves Cid from plowing face-first into a pillar. Cid saves Yuffie from an energy blast. Cloud saves Barret from falling debris. And all of them together with divine assistance from Aerith help Cloud defeat Bahamut, the first win of the movie. Cloud, Loz, and Yazoo’s motorcycle chase and the following sword fight between Cloud and Kadaj cement these rules in place by using every element that we’ve learned about from all previous battles: high jumping, motorcycle battles, materia, divine assistance, friendship power, etc. In the final battle, Cloud’s true enemy Sephiroth reveals that he has abilities that we’ve never seen before. He can fly and apparently manipulate the weather without materia. Cloud, however, is still bound by the rules. He tires easily, feels afraid and uncertain, and requires his friends’ assistance to survive. The film doesn’t define how characters die, but it does use other means to endanger them. Because the characters don’t often give the bad guys the chance to injure them, danger mainly comes from their reactions and emotions. Falling debris scare Barrett and Cloud. Cloud fears separation from his sword in battles, and geostigma pains him. His friends flee and exclaim from various threats during the battle with Bahamut. These human reactions, the humanity of Cloud’s personality and struggles at the center of the film, the fantastic action scenes, and the lack of information combine to leave us in suspense. How human are these characters? Withholding violent acts actually makes Sephiroth stabbing Cloud and Yazoo shooting him at the end of the film more shocking. Even when Cloud survives, the movie heavily implies that it was only because Aerith helped him. Advent Children’s action scenes are scenes, integral to advancing the plot and developing the characters. Loz, Kadaj, and Yazoo introduce themselves in the first fight scene by toying with Cloud, which shows their childish personalities. By the end, Cloud still doesn’t know what they want, but he knows that they pose a threat. Tifa’s battle with Loz begins with neither of them taking each other seriously, but by the end, Loz easily outmatches Tifa and kidnaps Barret’s daughter Marlene. The next battle features Cloud trying to save the city’s orphans, but it ends in miserable failure, confirming to him his uselessness. After regaining his confidence in the fight with Bahamut, Cloud attempts to show in his sword fight with Kadaj that he doesn’t need his friends while Kadaj attempts to prove that he doesn’t need Sephiroth. Each battle also heightens the stakes. In the first action scene of the film, Cloud must fight only to save himself. Tifa then fights Loz to save herself and Marlene. After that, Cloud fights Kadaj’s gang to save the city’s orphans. Cloud and his friends fight Bahamut to protect the entire city. Then, Cloud chases Kadaj to prevent him from using Jenova’s remains to resurrect Sephiroth, which could lead to the world’s destruction. Finally, Cloud fights Sephiroth, a god-like being, to save the world. The cinematic choices during fights make the choreography a spectacle, which is an important aspect of any action movie, but they also define the characters’ locations in space, show what they’re doing, and convey their feelings and thoughts. Compare the shots in Advent Children to a bad action movie full of shaky camera angles, two-second-long shots, and close ups (e.g. Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV) where it’s difficult to tell what’s happening or why. Advent Children does use disorienting camera work, such as in Cloud’s battle with Sephiroth, but only to convey confusion and fear. Otherwise, it shows almost everything, including some imaginative choreography that compliments the characters and story. Combatants don’t shout cheesy catchphrases to announce what they feel or what they want to accomplish. They communicate this information almost entirely through visuals. The following are just a few examples. During Cloud’s attempt to rescue the orphans from Kadaj’s gang, Cloud shifts his attention from Loz and Yazoo to Kadaj, his true target. The camera zooms in on Kadaj’s face, and Cloud attacks. In the motorcycle chase later in the movie, Kadaj flees from Cloud with Jenova’s remains in hand. He takes the upper road when the super highway splits. Loz rides up alongside Cloud and attacks, preventing him from taking the same path. In the final fight scene, Sephiroth darkens the sky with a flick of his wrist; Cloud grimaces fearfully and grips his sword tighter. The characters seem to have conversations without saying anything at all. Only so much can be conveyed through facial expressions and body language, but they say more than: “I’m going to kill you!” “No, I’m going to kill you!” Advent Children explains what it can’t show with clever and to-the-point dialog that reviewers complain is terribly written. Sure, it has weaknesses, but overall, the dialog is some combination of real, efficient, informative, and thought provoking. The characters don’t sobbingly spew their backstory in a futile attempt to make us care, explain concepts that everyone in the scene already knows, inject catch phrases into everything they do, or announce what they will do instead of, you know, just doing it. Characters don’t have much chance to sound insincere because they rarely speak. And when they do converse, they do so purposefully. Make fun of “dilly-dally, shilly-shally” all you want; it’s part of a real conversation about a real-life problem said much more efficiently. The majority of the dialog in the film exists to explain Final Fantasy VII concepts, but it performs double duty by developing the characters at the same time. In a scene near the beginning of the movie, for example, Cloud and Rufus talk about the Shinra Power Company, geostigma, Jenova, and Sephiroth. The tone of the conversation simultaneously shows Cloud’s love-hate relationship with Shinra. Cloud treats Rufus coldly, constantly cutting him off and questioning him. He jabs at Rude and Reno, who seem like loveable goofs, and hesitates when Rufus suggests that Shinra wants to atone for its past sins. Some dialog simply provokes the audience to think about the film beyond its superficial action-oriented, Final Fantasy VII-enhanced plot. For example, Cloud’s friend Vincent asks, “Cloud, are you sure this is about fighting?” Sephiroth says, immediately before he disappears, “I will never be a memory.” And Cloud ends the film with, “I know. I’m not alone. Not anymore.” A film adorned in fan service almost requires lines like this if it wants to make the audience aware that it has anything important to say. The dialog stumbles most when it explains concepts and does nothing much else, but even then, it’s efficient. At one point, Kadaj obviously explains materia as if nobody in the scene knows already, but the film had to explain it at some point and doesn’t spend much time on it. Compare it to the director’s cut, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete, where this scene turns into two minutes of equally cringe-worthy dialog featuring Kadaj and Loz explaining everything that they’re about to do and re-explain. The overview of Final Fantasy VII at the beginning of the film receives criticism for existing, not explaining enough, and containing awkward dialog. Overviews are necessary refreshers for newbies and veterans alike and difficult to write well in general, not a fault of Advent Children in particular. Like the rest of the film’s spoken information, it provides the bare minimum needed to understand the plot. Advent Children’s fight scenes look spectacular because they contain so much information about the story, characters, and world. The script intentionally keeps the dialog short to highlight where the story really shines in the film’s visuals and the characters’ actions. This explains how Advent Children tells its story, but it doesn’t explain why it took over a decade for anyone to recognize it. Why has no one ever discussed Advent Children’s use of visual language if it’s as excellent as I claim? Is this film so opaque? The final part of this series will examine the misconceptions surrounding Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children that stifled the conversation about its story and storytelling techniques before it even began.
  2. Since its release in 2005, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children has attracted negative reviews about its story, characters, fight scenes, dialog, and fan service. For fans of the film like me, defending it seemed an unthinkable, if not impossible, task. This made it all the more surprising when I dared to look closer at these criticisms and found baseless claims and exaggerations instead. The previous article in this series refuted arguments that Advent Children doesn’t contain a strong story or compelling characters by outlining the story it tells, examining the protagonist Cloud and his relationships, and exploring some of the film’s many themes. Critics may be quick to point out that even if the film contains a story, deeply flawed storytelling obscures it. They say Advent Children contains an excessive amount of meaningless action scenes strung together with weak and brief dialog. In reality, its action scenes are as important to understanding the story and world as the characters’ efficient and purposeful conversations. Many critics of Advent Children claim that the film’s excessive fight scenes contain only action-packed fan service. These visually stunning scenes allegedly have nothing at stake, no indication that characters can die, no physical limitations, no change in energy from fight to fight, and no purpose in the story. To the contrary, the fight scenes build the world, advance the story, and develop the characters in parallel with the battle. The visuals not only look wonderful but also contain a wealth of information. Advent Children doesn’t use the physics that we know, but it still has rules that it defines and follows. What the characters can do and their limitations are established in the fight scenes. In the first battle of the movie, the antagonist Kadaj sends his brothers Loz and Yazoo to fight Cloud. The combatants introduce motorcycle battles, summoned monsters, and physics-defying action. Cloud gets his goggles shot off his face at point blank, but the scratch it leaves behind hints for the rest of the film that he isn’t invincible. The following fight between Loz and Cloud’s friend Tifa demonstrates the characters’ high jumping abilities and super human strength. While Tifa can take wooden benches to the face, electrocution is her weakness as is being punched with enough force to destroy a concrete pillar. Next, Cloud has a mystical weapon battle with Kadaj’s gang where we see the magical and destructive capabilities of materia. Cloud blocks bullets and magic with a sword, but he tires rather quickly. These first three scenes also establish that the bad guys pose a threat because Cloud and Tifa lose them all. The tide changes during the fight with the monster Bahamut, which introduces friendship as an element of combat. Cloud’s friends demonstrate their differing skills and how they compensate for one another’s weaknesses. Cait Sith is quite useless, riding on Red XIII’s back the entire fight, but he provides moral support and comic relief. Barret saves Cloud’s foster son Denzel, but he can’t high jump and periodically needs to be saved himself. Red XIII saves Cid from plowing face-first into a pillar. Cid saves Yuffie from an energy blast. Cloud saves Barret from falling debris. And all of them together with divine assistance from Aerith help Cloud defeat Bahamut, the first win of the movie. Cloud, Loz, and Yazoo’s motorcycle chase and the following sword fight between Cloud and Kadaj cement these rules in place by using every element that we’ve learned about from all previous battles: high jumping, motorcycle battles, materia, divine assistance, friendship power, etc. In the final battle, Cloud’s true enemy Sephiroth reveals that he has abilities that we’ve never seen before. He can fly and apparently manipulate the weather without materia. Cloud, however, is still bound by the rules. He tires easily, feels afraid and uncertain, and requires his friends’ assistance to survive. The film doesn’t define how characters die, but it does use other means to endanger them. Because the characters don’t often give the bad guys the chance to injure them, danger mainly comes from their reactions and emotions. Falling debris scare Barrett and Cloud. Cloud fears separation from his sword in battles, and geostigma pains him. His friends flee and exclaim from various threats during the battle with Bahamut. These human reactions, the humanity of Cloud’s personality and struggles at the center of the film, the fantastic action scenes, and the lack of information combine to leave us in suspense. How human are these characters? Withholding violent acts actually makes Sephiroth stabbing Cloud and Yazoo shooting him at the end of the film more shocking. Even when Cloud survives, the movie heavily implies that it was only because Aerith helped him. Advent Children’s action scenes are scenes, integral to advancing the plot and developing the characters. Loz, Kadaj, and Yazoo introduce themselves in the first fight scene by toying with Cloud, which shows their childish personalities. By the end, Cloud still doesn’t know what they want, but he knows that they pose a threat. Tifa’s battle with Loz begins with neither of them taking each other seriously, but by the end, Loz easily outmatches Tifa and kidnaps Barret’s daughter Marlene. The next battle features Cloud trying to save the city’s orphans, but it ends in miserable failure, confirming to him his uselessness. After regaining his confidence in the fight with Bahamut, Cloud attempts to show in his sword fight with Kadaj that he doesn’t need his friends while Kadaj attempts to prove that he doesn’t need Sephiroth. Each battle also heightens the stakes. In the first action scene of the film, Cloud must fight only to save himself. Tifa then fights Loz to save herself and Marlene. After that, Cloud fights Kadaj’s gang to save the city’s orphans. Cloud and his friends fight Bahamut to protect the entire city. Then, Cloud chases Kadaj to prevent him from using Jenova’s remains to resurrect Sephiroth, which could lead to the world’s destruction. Finally, Cloud fights Sephiroth, a god-like being, to save the world. The cinematic choices during fights make the choreography a spectacle, which is an important aspect of any action movie, but they also define the characters’ locations in space, show what they’re doing, and convey their feelings and thoughts. Compare the shots in Advent Children to a bad action movie full of shaky camera angles, two-second-long shots, and close ups (e.g. Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV) where it’s difficult to tell what’s happening or why. Advent Children does use disorienting camera work, such as in Cloud’s battle with Sephiroth, but only to convey confusion and fear. Otherwise, it shows almost everything, including some imaginative choreography that compliments the characters and story. Combatants don’t shout cheesy catchphrases to announce what they feel or what they want to accomplish. They communicate this information almost entirely through visuals. The following are just a few examples. During Cloud’s attempt to rescue the orphans from Kadaj’s gang, Cloud shifts his attention from Loz and Yazoo to Kadaj, his true target. The camera zooms in on Kadaj’s face, and Cloud attacks. In the motorcycle chase later in the movie, Kadaj flees from Cloud with Jenova’s remains in hand. He takes the upper road when the super highway splits. Loz rides up alongside Cloud and attacks, preventing him from taking the same path. In the final fight scene, Sephiroth darkens the sky with a flick of his wrist; Cloud grimaces fearfully and grips his sword tighter. The characters seem to have conversations without saying anything at all. Only so much can be conveyed through facial expressions and body language, but they say more than: “I’m going to kill you!” “No, I’m going to kill you!” Advent Children explains what it can’t show with clever and to-the-point dialog that reviewers complain is terribly written. Sure, it has weaknesses, but overall, the dialog is some combination of real, efficient, informative, and thought provoking. The characters don’t sobbingly spew their backstory in a futile attempt to make us care, explain concepts that everyone in the scene already knows, inject catch phrases into everything they do, or announce what they will do instead of, you know, just doing it. Characters don’t have much chance to sound insincere because they rarely speak. And when they do converse, they do so purposefully. Make fun of “dilly-dally, shilly-shally” all you want; it’s part of a real conversation about a real-life problem said much more efficiently. The majority of the dialog in the film exists to explain Final Fantasy VII concepts, but it performs double duty by developing the characters at the same time. In a scene near the beginning of the movie, for example, Cloud and Rufus talk about the Shinra Power Company, geostigma, Jenova, and Sephiroth. The tone of the conversation simultaneously shows Cloud’s love-hate relationship with Shinra. Cloud treats Rufus coldly, constantly cutting him off and questioning him. He jabs at Rude and Reno, who seem like loveable goofs, and hesitates when Rufus suggests that Shinra wants to atone for its past sins. Some dialog simply provokes the audience to think about the film beyond its superficial action-oriented, Final Fantasy VII-enhanced plot. For example, Cloud’s friend Vincent asks, “Cloud, are you sure this is about fighting?” Sephiroth says, immediately before he disappears, “I will never be a memory.” And Cloud ends the film with, “I know. I’m not alone. Not anymore.” A film adorned in fan service almost requires lines like this if it wants to make the audience aware that it has anything important to say. The dialog stumbles most when it explains concepts and does nothing much else, but even then, it’s efficient. At one point, Kadaj obviously explains materia as if nobody in the scene knows already, but the film had to explain it at some point and doesn’t spend much time on it. Compare it to the director’s cut, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete, where this scene turns into two minutes of equally cringe-worthy dialog featuring Kadaj and Loz explaining everything that they’re about to do and re-explain. The overview of Final Fantasy VII at the beginning of the film receives criticism for existing, not explaining enough, and containing awkward dialog. Overviews are necessary refreshers for newbies and veterans alike and difficult to write well in general, not a fault of Advent Children in particular. Like the rest of the film’s spoken information, it provides the bare minimum needed to understand the plot. Advent Children’s fight scenes look spectacular because they contain so much information about the story, characters, and world. The script intentionally keeps the dialog short to highlight where the story really shines in the film’s visuals and the characters’ actions. This explains how Advent Children tells its story, but it doesn’t explain why it took over a decade for anyone to recognize it. Why has no one ever discussed Advent Children’s use of visual language if it’s as excellent as I claim? Is this film so opaque? The final part of this series will examine the misconceptions surrounding Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children that stifled the conversation about its story and storytelling techniques before it even began. View full article
  3. 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 Axis, 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. View full article
  4. 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 Axis, 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.
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