A few years ago I wrote a piece about the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi. The piece was about the production of the film, and the weird, cyberpunk, multimedia world that could have been. Spirits Within was a part of the first wave of entirely computer generated feature films, and possibly the first to attempt photorealism. The entire film rendered out over 15 terabytes of data (in 2001 keep in mind), and took a cumulative 120 years of production time, split amongst the staff of 200. The aim was to create a world indistinguishable from our own, inhabited by characters that could be brought to life in a way no artificially created character had ever been in the past. The goal was to have the characters, particularly the protagonist Dr. Aki Ross, to have a life outside the film, and be “cast” in future computer generated films, or even alongside actual actors in live action. The film flopped, and any hopes of this extension of the characters or set were squashed.
The only exception is in the segment The Flight of the Osiris in the Wachowski’s Animatrix, which utilized some of the same character models.
I am totally enamoured with this idea of utilizing digital assets beyond their designed use. For one, it’s a recognition that the digital world is not separate from the physical. That the human effort, the disk-space and rendering hours are not one-time use, and can be repurposed in the same way traditional film-making sets and props can be. Additionally, it could pave the way to rethink how we use computer graphics. At a time when we celebrate the return of practical effects, I think we are also due to re-examine our approach to digital effects. Sakaguchi didn’t elect to use an artificial environment to make grander explosions in a more forgiving medium— he wanted to open up the digital landscape to a broader form of story-telling, which we still don’t see today. That being said, there have been some interesting resurgences of the same digital-to-physical cross-matter media. One notable example being the Tupac hologram from Coachella 2012. Another—more morally grey—example is that of Bruce Lee and Audrey Hepburn being resurrected for adverts for Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey and Galaxy chocolates, respectively.
Disney is currently working on some very interesting technology that algorithmically matches the expressions of one digitally mapped actor to another, so that one might be seamlessly controlled in a post-production setting. This is some really interesting uncanny valley stuff right here. But my dream of a media landscape not tied to the physical bounds of our planetary existence seem far gone. We might be recreating our living actors (in patches and pieces—like Paul Walker for Fast & Furious 7, or Phillip Seymour Hoffman for the Hunger Games—or whole-cloth like poor Audrey), but we do not seem interested in bringing to life the magic of an artificial character. Or so I thought. The reason this has been on my mind again is because of a recent collaboration between Square Enix (the makers of Final Fantasy) and Louis Vuitton. The Final Fantasy XIII character Lightning has been “hired” to model a new line of handbags as a social media promotion. Message? Unclear. Target audience? Unknowable. But my vision of a weird, cyberpunk advertising landscape may come true after all, even if no one can really figure out why.