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Adam Jahnke talks Final Fantasy
Columbia TriStar's with Javier Soto

Final Fantasy

Movies based on video games don't exactly have a history of setting the world on fire, either creatively or financially. But Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within beat the odds last summer, winning praise from many top critics for its revolutionary use of CGI to create amazingly lifelike humans and landscapes. The fact that it failed to ignite the box office in the same way it did critics may say more about the public's growing love for DVD than their indifference in the movie itself. After all, if ever there was a movie that looked like it was made to be seen in an all-digital format, Final Fantasy is it. At any rate, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment is certainly hoping this theory is true, because they're releasing Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within as an elaborate two-disc set. The man responsible for this, and all of Columbia's exemplary DVD releases, is Javier Soto, Manager of Worldwide DVD Development.

Together with Michael Stradford, Javier has been behind the scenes of some of the best DVDs on the market today, including Men in Black, Hollow Man and Lawrence of Arabia. In order to create truly comprehensive extras, Javier becomes involved with a project extremely early in its inception. Among the unreleased (and, in some cases, unfinished) movies that Javier is already creating DVD content for are Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (a.k.a. Desperado 2), and Jet Li's The One. Javier took time out from what is evidently an extraordinarily busy schedule to talk to me about Final Fantasy, CGI, the spotty track record of game-based movies and all things DVD.

Adam Jahnke: There was a really short window between when Final Fantasy was in theatres and when it's coming out on DVD. What that says to me more than anything is you've been working on this for awhile and envisioned DVD as where it's going to end up.

Javier Soto: Well, definitely. I mean with all our projects, not just Final Fantasy, we're seeing that with our studio, and with other studios, that the video release window is shrinking. Where before it was six months, eight months, now it's down to four months, even as close as three and a half months from the theatrical release. So because of the content we're creating, we have to get started on the extra features and the commentaries and filming content while the movie is up and running. With Final Fantasy, we got involved about a year and a half ago as Square (Pictures, who produced the film) was finishing up the feature, doing the final sequences for it. So we've been working on this for about a year and a half. On a project like Spider-Man, from the moment that the movie is greenlit we're talking to the director to see what his ideas are for the disc. We come to the table with the content that we'd like to see on it, stuff that we want to push the format forward as we see in Final Fantasy. I mean, we have the interactive documentary which really hasn't been done before. It's taking the technology like the White Rabbit (the feature from The Matrix DVD that allowed viewers to branch off from the film and view behind-the-scenes footage) and implementing it in a way that hasn't been done before. So it's all about pushing the format forward. So once we meet with the director and the producer, then we have an idea of what the content is going to be on the disc. So it's a long process and as you get closer and closer to release, it's a mad rush to get everything delivered to our authoring facility at the same time as the movie is releasing theatrically. So by the time it hits theatres, we're pretty much done with the project.

Adam Jahnke: Wow. I was kind of curious since you're working on these so far in advance, do you see the way people are making movies in general is changing because of DVD?

Javier Soto: I don't think it's changing. I think directors are accepting the format a little bit more and are willing to exploit the capabilities of the format. We found this definitely with Final Fantasy. We found this with Men in Black, that directors who get DVD want to see their disc as loaded as possible. But with features that compliment the movie, but also push the format forward. It's always about inching the format a little bit more. Raising the bar with each disc. Which I think we've done with Final Fantasy. So it's about the content that they have in mind, the extra footage that they're willing to work on while they're working on the movie. Because, you know, the priority is to get the film done. So, it's not an afterthought, but DVD is in the back of their head, I think, while they're making the movie. But I don't think it's changing the way that they actually create their films.

Adam Jahnke: With something like this, did you from the start, a year and a half ago, always know this was going to be a two-disc set? Or halfway through, did you go, "Jeez, I've got a lot more stuff and I need another disc."

Javier Soto: No, definitely with this movie we knew we going to have a lot of ground to cover and the content would never fit on just one disc. And for us, paramount is the picture quality and the sound quality. We don't want to compromise the bit rate to include extra features. So definitely on titles like this, we know that we're going to break it out to two discs.

Adam Jahnke: On Final Fantasy, it's no surprise obviously that a lot of the extra features are really technical about how the movie was made. So it was kind of cool to see the isolated score with Elliot Goldenthal. How did that come about?

Final Fantasy DVD main menu

Javier Soto: Well, we always look at what's out in the market and what people really want. People want deleted scenes; they want commentaries that offer insight into the creation of the film. And a huge part of that with a movie like this is the score. So although we had features that were a little bit more technical or "techie", we definitely always want to include the content that's strong within any type of DVD. And any time we can get a composer in to talk about the thought process in creating the music, we're more than happy to include it.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, it's certainly something that I look for on a DVD and whenever I see it, I think it's just great to see.

Javier Soto: Right, and having the chance to view the film in its rough stages, the score adds so much more to this film. It really sets the tone and it captures the philosophy of what was the Final Fantasy game. Each game changes from release to release and I know that the creators of the film didn't want the film to look like the game or to follow the story from the game, but just capture the philosophy of the game. And the score really enhances that, I think, with this feature.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah. Speaking of the game, something that I noticed is that in the package or on the features, you don't really reference the game very much except for the little Final Fantasy X preview. Was that a conscious decision to sort of distance this movie from other video game-based movies like Wing Commander and that kind of thing?

Javier Soto: Well, definitely. I mean this movie stands alone as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I know that Square Pictures didn't look at it as an extension of the game franchise. They really wanted to create this film, use the technology that they had developed for the games and push it up another level, bump it up another level to this amazing photo-realistic CGI world that they created. So we're not trying to group this in with any other genre. This film really stands alone as the next step in CGI rendering of humans. It's all about the film. We don't want to reference the games in any way.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah. I mean to call this movie the best movie from a video game is really to damn it with faint praise.

Javier Soto: Exactly. I mean what do we have, Super Mario Bros. out there?

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, exactly.

Javier Soto: It's a shady past that video game movies have had. And the important thing is that the movie stands alone. You can go and watch the film and not have played the games and understand what's going on. You're not lost. You don't feel like you've walked in on the middle of an episode.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, I've never played the game before in my life. So watching the movie, I had no idea what, if anything, it would have to do with the game. But I could follow it completely and enjoy it.

Javier Soto: What the director brought to this was that same sense of responsibility to the Earth that the games have. I think that's the only overlapping theme from the games to the feature.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within - Special Edition

Adam Jahnke: And that's an interesting way to go about adapting the game to the movie is to just adapt the theme and not the specifics. Speaking of the director, I thought it was really cool that his commentary track is in Japanese and is subtitled. That's the first time that I've seen that on a DVD, I don't know if there are others, but do you think that's going to open the door for more foreign-language commentary tracks by foreign directors?

Javier Soto: I hope so. I mean it was definitely a conscious choice on our part to try to showcase the type of melding of cultures that went on at Square. What they did is they brought the best anime artists that were available in Japan and took traditional storyboard and production people from the US and brought them together to create this film that either couldn't do alone. I think if this film would have been made just in Japan, it would have had a different feel to it.

Javier Soto (continued): And I think if we would have made it here, it would have had a completely different theme to it. So when we visited Square, what they did was they set up a studio in Hawaii because in Honolulu it was halfway between Japan and the US. So while we were there, we would walk around the facility and find that the exit signs were in Japanese and in English. The kitchen had everything labeled in Japanese and in English. So what a great thing, to bring two cultures together and have them create this feature that would not exist without this melding. So we wanted to showcase that on the film and on the DVD release, so it made sense to include the Japanese commentary. And I think if you listen to it, I mean these guys are having so much fun that if you just subtitled it or you did a dub of it, you would lose that. So it's definitely something that we're looking to do when the feature's right, when the feature fits the film.

Adam Jahnke: That certainly makes sense and it was nice to see. The DVD-ROM stuff on the disc is really cool. The virtual tour of Square is amazing.

Javier Soto: Yeah, with ROM stuff it's difficult because so few people actually take the ROM content and put it into their computer and view the movie and play with the ROM stuff that I think there's been a stifling of creativity when it comes to ROM. So our approach to this was to look at stuff that was on the web, and look at stuff like I-Pix Views that you see on the web of sets sometimes and to bring that into the ROM content a bit, so that when you go into the… you know we could have just laid it out like "Click here, click there for how trailers are made or view some conceptual art". But to bring it into that kind of Quick-Time virtual room adds a nice feature to it.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, it's very nice. I read, I don't know if it's true because I don't have a Mac with a DVD player, but I read that it's compatible with both PC and Mac.

Javier Soto: It should be. I know that there were some postings that people were having problems with it and I don't know if that was in replication, but yeah, definitely. We have Quick-Time on there, which is a Mac-based program. We tried to push it with this one because most ROM content is just PC.

Adam Jahnke: Right. Well, assuming that it works for everybody, you should make a lot of people really happy with that.

Javier Soto: Definitely.

Adam Jahnke: As far as I can tell, Columbia has never really been known as a big animation studio. Certainly not like Warner Bros. or Disney or something like that. Do you think Final Fantasy is going to change that in any way?

Javier Soto: It's hard to tell what the studio is going to move towards. I know that on the home entertainment side we're looking to release more anime. That's something that has a large fan-base out there and I think there is a need to have new films and classic anime films on DVD. There's a demand for it. I know that we're looking to acquire some catalog anime and also some new release films to put out on DVD. I don't think on our upcoming slate we have any all animated… I mean, we have Stuart Little which has CGI in it. Spider-Man has a lot of CGI it, but I think in the next few years we don't have a fully animated movie coming out. And I think the studio looked at Final Fantasy as not just an animated movie but as an opportunity to break ground in the CGI realm. So the approach always with the movie was to see how far we could push it and to see what the outcome would be and I think the studio is very happy with what Square did.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, well, I think they have every right to be. I don't know if it's going to be this year or if it's in the next year coming up, but I know the Academy Awards just approved the Best Animated Feature award. Do you think Final Fantasy has a shot at that?

Javier Soto: I think so. I think looking at the animation that was released in the last year, in the animated films I think we're right up in there. Just to look at this movie, I sit in audiences, consumer audiences, not industry screenings, and half the people didn't know it was a CGI movie while the trailer was playing. So that's a testament to the creators at Square, to the artists and the animators, and I think Final Fantasy has a strong chance at being nominated.

Adam Jahnke: I'm sure that would annoy Disney to no end, if the first year the Animated Feature award was given out…

Javier Soto: …and it was a CGI film. (laughter) No, they're embracing it. I mean you look at movies like Tarzan and even as far back as Beauty and the Beast. They're seeing that animation evolves and CGI is just another step in that.

Adam Jahnke: Sure. Disney's certainly doing that but I think they would just want the award, no matter what movie it was for.

Javier Soto: At any cost.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah. Speaking of the trailer you just mentioned, I think that a nice feature on the disc was the exploration of the trailer. Because so many discs just sort of slap the trailer on and don't say anything about it but to see the creation of one was very interesting.

Javier Soto: Yeah, what we're trying to do more and more is provide insight into the marketing of the film. And I know that we're trying to do it on future releases where you'll also see explorations for the poster campaigns, for the outdoor bus standard campaigns. Because at the point that the DVD comes out, the icon for the film has already been created. Everybody's gone to see it at the theatre, you know what the strong image from the film is, and just as it's interesting to see what the making of the film is, it's also interesting to see what the marketing of the film is. And I know with one of the trailers there, the tone is very somber. I think it's the first trailer that was created for a presentation at SIGGRAPH (the annual convention for CGI artists). You know, it's such a serious film and to see that evolution to the action trailer that finally made it into theatres and onto TV, I think it's a great insight to the consumer.

Adam Jahnke: Yeah, definitely. Do you think if you do a marketing exploration like that with the Spider-Man disc, you'll get into the whole World Trade Center image poster and all that? (After the events of 9-11, Sony withdrew posters and trailers for Spider-Man that featured images of the World Trade Center towers)

Javier Soto: I don't know. You know, it's really a sensitive subject over here because we don't want to seem like we're trying to capitalize in any way on the tragedy. So I doubt that there'll be any mention of it.

Adam Jahnke: Is there anything else coming up that you're working on?

Javier Soto: Those are the big ones that are coming up. We have a bunch of catalog special editions that we're working on that are yet to be announced, but some really good stuff. Stuff that people have been asking for and again, we're looking to push the features to the next level.

Adam Jahnke: Looking forward to it. Well, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today, Javier.

Javier Soto: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

Our thanks to Javier Soto for taking the time to talk to us. Thanks also to Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, Square Pictures and Karen Penhale for making the whole thing happen. And be sure to read my in-depth review of the Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within - Special Edition DVD, now available here at The Bits.

Adam Jahnke

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