Interview with Hironobu Sakaguchi

[10.04.01] » The renowned creator of the Final Fantasy series discusses what he learned making Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and how Square's movie endeavor will affect the games of the future.

The man, the myth,
the moustache.
    In the world of gaming, Square is a name associated with some of the most memorable and best-selling titles of the past decade. The Final Fantasy series has come to define the RPG genre to many while selling over 33 million copies worldwide.

    But in the world of movies, Square was a newcomer, releasing their first feature film this past July Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It was the first attempt to make film stars out of realistic computer-generated actors, and despite praise for the technology, the story was met with indifference by viewers and critics. Square reportedly lost upwards of 80 million dollars on what would become their only film project. (Shortly after the interview was conducted, Square officially announced they were leaving the film business.)

    FF:TSW was directed, co-wrote, and co-produced by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the man who created the Final Fantasy series in 1987 and has nurtured the games ever since. Despite the disappointing box office run, the home release will be packed with extras, including a pair of commentary tracks and new details on the animation techniques.

    As the DVD release approaches, the GIA talked with Sakaguchi about the challenges of movie making and how Square's new undertaking will affect the Final Fantasy games of the future.

GIA: After a career of making games, why was now the time to start making movies?

HS: Throughout those 15 years, the level of technology has been advancing quickly through game development. At this point in time, I felt we needed to push the envelope to discover more than what we had currently. I felt that best way to hone those skills, to test the technology and studio knowledge, was to bring what we have in games to the big screen..

A feature film is a whole lot more challenging, and further down the road our goal is to exact what is in the movies and apply it into even more advanced games and other kinds of interactive entertainment.

GIA: Did the Final Fantasy movie live up to your expectations creatively and technologically?

HS: Yes, in both regards. We were very happy with the results.

GIA: Role-playing games are known for lasting upwards of 30 or 40 hours. How well do those skills translate into a 90-minute movie?

HS: The 30 or 40 hours of gameplay primarily involves playing the game and not sitting and watching it. The goal is to let users take control and extend the experience.

But in a movie, I have to tell the entire story and show the audience what I want for the full 90 minutes. More so than actual running time, I had to be more conscious of that fact. Length is not as important, really. If you made the movie into a game, it would be just as long as usual and involve just as much visual stuff.

GIA: We know Square's artists were particularly proud of the hair animation in the movie. What kind of technical knowledge gained from making a movie will you take back into games?

HS: Yes, we will definitely take a lot back, and not just in terms of hair. (laughs)

The biggest gain was in the technology used for evolving of our graphic software, Maya. These advancements have allowed our game programmers and artists to write new scripts that modify the software for our uses. Several new ways of using Maya pioneered through this project have already been shipped back to our Japan office and the busy game developers there.

GIA: You have talked previously of merging the character detail possible in movies with the interactivity of games. How close does Final Fantasy X come to doing just that?

HS: With Final Fantasy X, visually it is not quite there. Graphically, there is still the need for the hardware to be able to show that level of detail. As far as the interactivity, the goal from the get-go for FFX was to blur the borders between gameplay and the story. We aimed to make the game feel really seamless, and we feel it has been done extremely well in FFX.

GIA: Foreign-developed games have long been the standard in the U.S., while foreign movies rarely become successes. Is there added challenge to be a Japanese company making movies for an American marketplace?

HS: As far as being able to distribute and present our movies, Columbia Pictures was very enthusiastic. We didn't feel any added challenge because we had the support of a major Hollywood studio.

GIA: Even so, U.S. critics and audiences were harsh on the movie how will that reaction affect Square's future plans?

HS: Well, I made it a point to not be affected too much by that. (laughs)

By the time we hear and see the reaction, the movie has been done for awhile. But as far as future projects, we try to develop them in a vacuum and not focus on responding to criticism.

GIA: What did you learn from working with Hollywood?

HS: A lot, but the biggest thing I learned was the diversity of this country and the people. I learned the importance of appealing and marketing to a variety of different types of people. We learned just how difficult a thing that is!

GIA: Do you think it was a problem that Americans are not used to animation telling a serious story, either standard animation or CG?

HS: Not particularly. While it is an animated feature, you are looking at very realistic human characters in a serious setting. As far general characters, the movie is an anime if it were, so I guess it isn't something natural to American audiences. The story is far different than what American audiences are used to, but we presented it quite differently and aimed at a different viewer.

GIA: While Final Fantasy recently had both a movie and multiple new games, other popular Square series such as Parasite Eve and Seiken Densetsu have been quiet. When can we expect to hear from them?

HS: There are certainly possibilities there. There is especially a possibility of turning Parasite Eve into a feature film. It could be on the horizon.

GIA: Are you ever worried that Square will become too heavily dependent on the Final Fantasy name?

HS: Avoiding that has actually been one of Square's goals for a long time. It is our aim to try and develop a few more major franchises for the company; that has always been on our minds.

But I do think we have variety. We have other titles that have sold a million copies or more, like Parasite Eve. Those are quite a success on their own, but Final Fantasy just gets all the publicity because of the sheer scale of it and all the copies it sells.

GIA: At E3 2001, Square said that Kingdom Hearts had the potential to be a bigger franchise than even Final Fantasy. What other plans are there for such a high-profile partnership with Disney?

HS: We definitely see further things, there is a possibility of that going into our next major project, PlayOnline. We have been exploring working with a number of partners and content delivering services. For instance, on PlayOnline, we have a significant deal with Japan's largest magazine publisher [Shueisha, publishers of Weekly Jump].

GIA: What does a company new to the movies like Square have to offer the DVD format?

HS: We are doing quite a bit, starting with the usual 2-DVD set. Our supplemental DVD will include not just regular making-of and behind the scenes features, but images that are from early projects. These are from before the movie was a Final Fantasy project, when it was still in the R&D stages. There is also a separate mini-segment on this specifically for the DVD release as well.

GIA: With the effort that has gone into making this movie, both the theatrical and DVD releases, what do you hope viewers take away from watching it?

HS: Everyone in the audience who sees it will take back various things individually, but what I hope is that people will look at what life is and how to move on after death. I hope they start to think about those things, even just a little bit.

Thanks to Karen Penhale and Elliott Chang for their assistance and to Hiroshi Tanaka and Grace McNamee of Square USA.
Interview by Ed McGlothlin, freelance.
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