Hironobu Sakaguchi Interview

hironobu

Hironobu Sakaguchi is a video gamer’s idol. He not only directed the first movie to feature realistic looking computer generated characters in Final Fantasy, he also created the video game upon which the film is based. More importantly, the film wasn’t all that bad, something that deserves mentioning when talking of films adapted from video games.

by Chris Neumer

Extra Information

My interview with Hironobu Sakaguchi was conducted through an interpreter. Mr. Sakaguchi was quite genial and easy to speak to. The only off-putting moments of the interview came when my questions would be translated to Mr. Sakaguchi and met with hearty rounds of laughter, before being answered in detail. Why is it when people talk in languages that you don’t understand you always feel as though they’re laughing at you and then telling you you’re an idiot?

CHRIS NEUMER: I recently screened Final Fantasy and enjoyed it. It had a very different plot structuring than most other mainstream American films. It was a nice divergence.

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: Thank you

CHRIS NEUMER: When were you first approached about adapting your video game into a movie?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: Four and a half years ago.

CHRIS NEUMER: When was the decision made to use CG actors instead of real humans?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: As far as that decision, it was decided in the very initial stages, I always wanted to go with computer graphic actors.

CHRIS NEUMER: Was there any reason for deciding to use CG actors?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: There were several reasons for that decision. Number one: this sort of thing, obviously, has never been done before and as far as posing a challenge for the studio, it started to develop–honing our skills as a computer graphics studio, I felt that would be a great test.

CHRIS NEUMER: What computer graphics studio was that?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: That would be the challenge to develop that technology in our studios.

CHRIS NEUMER: I meant name wise.

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: The production studio is Square USA.

CHRIS NEUMER: Was there any particular part of animating realistic looking humans that caused more problems that you imagined? I know hair has always been kind of difficult to animate in the past.

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: We definitely had problems with the hair–it was one of our most difficult aspects of animation–but, in addition to that, there were problems with the challenge of animating clothing and simulating the right texture as far as the type of clothing the characters wear.

CHRIS NEUMER: Like the difference between polyester and cotton?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: Yeah, or leather. Like a heavy leather coat as opposed to a cotton space suit or T-shirts. They all had to be simulated with proprietary software.

CHRIS NEUMER: How did you ultimately end up getting around the texture problem?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: We created our own software in house.

CHRIS NEUMER: Can you talk a little about the animation of hair or stubble or even the eyebrows?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: The process itself was, again, developed in the studio. It was actually pretty remarkable in that it represents, as far as a number of strands of hair for the characters, it’s really close to what a human being has. A human being has about 100,000 strands of hair and our main character Aki has about 60,000 strands of hair and each of which is actually generated by software that one of our programmers wrote. And once that’s generated, our animators would set the hair styles and the individual strands of hair would move, individually, so they could adjust it according to wind or gravity or motion or whatnot.

CHRIS NEUMER: You had just mentioned the gravity aspect of animation. Was that particularly hard animating no gravity sequences?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: One of the advantages to developing our own software was that once we have it, it could be used everywhere else in the movie, we had this hair generated by Kabe Cordan whose one of our programmers, that could be applied to different scenes throughout the film. So regardless of whether there was zero or normal gravity, it’s just a matter of modifying the software.

CHRIS NEUMER: Was it difficult animating the rest of her body movements in the no-gravity world, or was that done with motion capture earlier in the production?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: In that scene, all the body motion was hand animated.

CHRIS NEUMER: How much longer does it usually take to hand animate a second of film as opposed to when you have motion capture staff to work from?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: I think the amount of time is about the same because for motion-capture there’s always the prepping time and the processing time and for hand animation, it obviously takes a bit longer, but it’s direct so that you can see the result right away.

CHRIS NEUMER: How do you guys go about casting people to do the motion capture work? Were you looking for dancers or people with very fluid movements?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: Our producer Mr. Ido and Andy Jones were involved in selecting these motion capture staff, but their choice wasn’t for a dancer or any other occupation; they wanted experienced actors. So they found some actors from Los Angeles and we invited them over to do our motion capture.

CHRIS NEUMER: Did any of the motion capture work take place outside of a sound stage?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: All of that was done in our motion capture studio in Honolulu.

CHRIS NEUMER: With previous films adapted from video games being released to horrible reviews and box office takes, did you take any precautions or aim to avoid any certain pitfalls in adapting Final Fantasy into a feature film?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: I wouldn’t call it a precaution, but what we did do differently was bring in people who were directly involved with creating the game titles as well. And that hasn’t really happened in any other game to movie features.

CHRIS NEUMER: So they brought the same passion with them from the video game to the film and that translated through to the final on-screen product.

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: Yes, there were similar styles. This was definitely a different approach than past games.

CHRIS NEUMER: Did you ever feel boxed in while making the film, working with the rules that were set in the game?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: Not particularly because in the Final Fantasy game series each individual titles has an original title. And in that sense, we’re pretty free to develop different plot lines whenever we want.

CHRIS NEUMER: With the introduction of the Gaya, this was very similar to the idea of the spirit Princess Monoke… was this intentional?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: I would say that the concept of gaya and the way it is presented in Final Fantasy is a little different than what is presented in Princess Monoke, but I do feel that they are both influenced strongly by Eastern or Asian ideals.

CHRIS NEUMER: That was going to be my next question. Were there different regions or countries in the world that seemed to embrace Final Fantasy more so than others?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: Actually it has done well in Europe as a matter of fact, especially in France and Germany and Spain too for some reason.

CHRIS NEUMER: How has the Asian response been to this film?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: When we opened up in Asian countries, we opened up a lot in number one at the box office. So they seemed to embrace this movie a lot over there.

CHRIS NEUMER: Final Fantasy opened in America to decent reviews, but only got about an $11 million opening week, were you surprised at this somewhat some take?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: I couldn’t really go into the opening expecting anything because this was the first film of its kind–no one else has released something like this or done something like this–so I wasn’t surprised, I just had no idea what to expect.

CHRIS NEUMER: Do you think the fact that this was the first movie of its type had some impact on the poor box office?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: It’s difficult to say. Specifically because we didn’t have anything to gauge this with. It was based on a popular game series, but again, it was completely original with the content being, visually, something no one had ever seen on screen before, so it’s kind of hard to say “because of that, the film didn’t open to a huge box office.” So it’s hard to say ‘well, that is the reason, because it’s new or different or some other factor.”

CHRIS NEUMER: When the film did open though, it got a lot of press in America because actors like Tom Hanks or Kevin Spacey would jokingly make reference to the fact that they would be out of work soon because the CG actors were so much easier to work with and cheaper. Do you think that CG actors will eventually replace human actors or do you think they’ll work in harmony with them?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: First of all, it’s not that cheap to create CG actors, so that negates that point right there, but down the line, even if the technology becomes cheaper, I believe that the computer actors will not be able to replace human actors and actresses. They might come out more side by side with real actors in stunt scenes or scenes that are difficult with live actors, but I don’t feel that CG actors will ever replace humans.

CHRIS NEUMER: Insiders have gauged creating realistic human actors as the next frontier. Now that fairly realistic CG humans have been created, what do you think the next step in CGI is?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: I don’t know. I feel that the next step should be doing the same thing, creating realistic humans, better and more cheaply. There are a lot more things that we can do to improve the quality of the characters, but how do we go about doing it more efficiently? That’s the next frontier.

CHRIS NEUMER: Could you expand on that slightly, what improvements could be made to the characters?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: To be more specific, I see hardware rendering as the key to the next frontier. Being that there are so many more advantages to doing hardware rendering as opposed to software rendering because there’s going to be less time involved and will be, obviously, more cost effective because it is quicker and faster. This enables the creators to tweak the cameras or change the lights and look at their results in a short amount of time. This is all a lot faster in hardware rendering. That enables creators to improve the quality of the image as well. And not only that, but they’d be able to find other uses for it as far as taking in images and editing them as they want, as they go along.

CHRIS NEUMER: Could you explain the differences between software and hardware renderings?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: In a nutshell, the difference is whether you use an outside software, which requires an internal processing unit to do the rendering, or you basically integrate it as an inherent function of the machines themselves. I don’t know if you’re aware of a graphics accelerate called T4′s, it’s a graphics acceleration card, and what they do is enhance the graphics capabilities of the computer, but they’re not really software.

CHRIS NEUMER: Was it difficult to animate the phantoms in the film given that they were translucent?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: The animation was difficult, but it wasn’t because the phantoms are translucent–when they’re animated they were solid. That was sort of an after effect but the animations themselves were difficult because I didn’t want them to move quite like humans so the animators had to create a very unique movement which he thought they did very well.

CHRIS NEUMER: What kind of movement were you going for?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: Well, with the form of their bodies, the weight is off center, I wanted their walk and movements to reflect that and, of course, you find out in the movie that they’re ghosts and so I wanted to see more creepiness in their motion.

CHRIS NEUMER: Are you familiar with the film Shrek?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: Yes.

CHRIS NEUMER: Did you think that there were a lot of similarities between Final Fantasy and that film?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: First of all, they had their own internal techniques that they used, the process might be similar but the resulting images are definitely different.

CHRIS NEUMER: When you say that they’re different, are you talking in terms of realistic looking humans or just the fact that their lead was green?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: Not only the human characters, but the backgrounds as well. Since we were dealing with very photo-realistic characters, we had to make the backgrounds very detailed as well.

CHRIS NEUMER: Were there any sequences for Final Fantasy that were discarded because they seemed like too much of a hassle to animated?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: There weren’t any sequences, but there was a scene in the beginning where our main character Aki is sitting in a restaurant slurping spaghetti while running her hand through her hair. That obviously was too difficult to animate.

CHRIS NEUMER: Basically, minus spaghetti, the sky is the limit to what you can animate, correct?

HIRONOBU SAKAGUCHI: True. It’s really just a matter of time and resources… if you have those then anything is possible at this point.

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