Magnificent Hybrids
A Meeting of the Minds on Final Fantasy
By Kristinha McCort
 

Fantasy Meets Reality

 

Final Fantasy's character department created proprietary software for characters' skin, hair, and clothing. Pictured: Close-ups of Aki's detailed lips and eyes.
Click for larger images.
 

Capp's comment regarding live action vs. animation points to the film's most obvious hybrid: the union of photorealism with computer-generated animation. While the primary goal of the artists was more "hyper-realism" than photorealism, at moments the characters, props, and effects do appear and move with frightening familiarity. With characters, such complexity partially resulted from a synthesis of what motion-capture director Remington Scott calls the three stages of performance.

"First, we had the voice of the actors that bring the initial character to life," Scott states, referring to the vocal performances of Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Buscemi, among others. "Then the motion-capture actors supplied the technical element, where we created those characters visually through movement. That's usually where people tend to think it ends, but then we also had animators who spent a great deal of time working on these characters."

The role of the animation department was especially crucial, since Scott and his team, working with an optical, 16-camera Motion Analysis system, did not capture characters' facial and hand movements at the motion-capture stage in Diamond Head. Rather, once the team exported the body data to Square Pictures' downtown studio as Maya scene files, animators had to keyframe facial and hand gestures to convey subtle, detailed performances.

Animating characters' eye movements was particularly challenging.

"When you watch movies, you are actually looking at the eyes more than anything else on the character during a _performance," says animation director Andy Jones, who previously worked on Godzilla and Titanic. "I asked animators to watch peoples' eyes and study when, how, and why they move. You don't want it to look like someone else is moving them-you want the characters to look like they have a soul."

It was not just their physical movements that gave the characters their "soul." Also crucial were Square's extensive texturing efforts.

"We had no bar to go to, so we had no idea how far we could take it in terms of realism," says CG artist Kevin Ochs.

The character team pushed the CG envelop to the limit, creating proprietary programs for realistic skin, hair, and clothing textures and dynamics to work with their existing tools, Maya, Photoshop, and Alias' Studio Paint.

Animators also devised proprietary solutions for scaling inverse kinematics to motion-capture data, filtering and smoothing movement, and blending multiple passes. Artists created sets, props, visual effects, and lighting in Maya, and composited via Avid Media Illusion and Shake.

The Past Meets the Future

Motion capture was one step in the pipeline that brought characters to life.
Click for larger image.

While Final Fantasy has enjoyed a long existence _as a video game, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is the epic's first feature-film incarnation. As such, it departs from the past in a variety of ways.

"The film is a completely different presentation from the technology, to the look, to the story background," explains producer and president of Square Pictures Jun Aida, who formerly produced the feature-film version of Street Fighter.

Indeed, the Honolulu studio acquired hardware, software, and talent solely for feature-film production, not for game work, which is still handled by Square's Tokyo-based location. Aida, of course, hopes that the Honolulu studio's considerable resources will soon be used again.

"I hope that we will be producing Final Fantasy 23 with Columbia when I have much more grey hair," he jokes. "Hopefully, there will be many more projects out there."

At press time, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was set to debut in theaters on July 13.


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