Ten Famous Science Fiction Properties That Would Make Great VFX Movies — Part 2 ‘Erma Felna EDF’

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This is a series of posts discussing ten existing science fiction properties (from literature, animation, games and comics) that could serve as the basis for ground-breaking live-action VFX films and television shows. This time: the furry animal sci-fi comic Erma Felna EDF.

For an explanation of the choices for this list, see the first entry.

Number 9 of 10: Erma Felna EDF (comic, 1983-2005)

It took a few decades, but computer graphics engineers have mastered the modeling and rendering of hair and fur. This has allowed a tremendous level of sophistication in CG animals that are realistic (the giant ape in 2005’s King Kong), cartoonish (the new CG Chipmunks films), and somewhere in-between (Aslan the Lion from the Chronicles of Narnia adaptations).

But little has yet been done in the realm of anthropomorphics, what is sometimes referred to as “funny animal” or “furry” animation and comics. These are usually representations of characters with animal heads and other bestial characteristics, but humanoid (“anthropomorphic”) bodies, intelligence and the ability to speak. Such furry characters may or may not wear clothes; may live in their own “furry” world, or in the real world with humans; and may have their own animal-based culture. Such creatures appear in children’s literature (Beatrice Potter’s 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit; Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 The Wind in the Willows) and in adult stories (Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1980-91); Kirsten Bakis’ 1997 Lives of the Monster Dogs).

Although highly popular in comics and traditional 2D animation (Warner Bros characters such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck; Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood (1973) and TaleSpin (1990-91)), the only professional example of 3D furry animation I could find with a quick Google search was this French soft drink commercial (may not be safe for conservative workplaces).

Indeed, furry anthropomorphics have a bad reputation with those in the mainstream culture who are even familiar with the notion, thanks to news reports and crime procedural dramas that paint all furry fans as sexual deviants. I won’t go into that controversy here (see Wikipedia), only to say that while there is some small truth to the allegations, most enthusiasts in furry fandom just enjoy the characters and art, and don’t have any involvement with the erotic material.

Furry anthropomorphic characters offer a unique challenge to visual effects artists. Can a balance be found and maintained between cartoonish animal CG characters, like the feature film Scooby Doo, and realistically-rendered characters like Narnia’s Aslan? There is an old idea, its truth debated by my (admittedly odd) friends growing up, that if the charismatic and roguishly adorable Bugs Bunny were to suddenly appear in the real world – if those enormous eyes were made of real sclera and ocular jelly, if a cunicular body were stretched out to those freakish proportions, if those begloved four-fingered paws were groping at you – you would run away screaming in absolute terror. Is there a funny-animal version of the Uncanny Valley?

So what funny animal comic have I chosen as the best example of a property that could today be turned into an amazing live-action TV show or feature film? There are rumors of a live-action CGI remake of Don Bluth’s brilliant 1982 animated feature The Secret of NIMH. But my choice is Steve Gallacci’s 1983-2005 space combat epic Erma Felna EDF.

The serial was the main feature of Albedo Anthropomorphics, a furry comic book anthology for adult audiences, which Gallacci edited. Erma Felna EDF was a hard sci-fi war and political drama focusing on the personal and professional crises of the eponymous character, an anthropomorphic female cat and a Tactical Aerospace Commander in the the Extraplanetary Defense Force, or EDF.

No, really. Despite the funny animal angle, Erma Felna EDF was a serious science fiction drama. As “hard” sci-fi, its space travel science and military technology were very well worked-out and explained by Gallacci, a former technical illustrator for the US Air Force. In fact, I was quite impressed by Gallacci’s to-my-knowledge unique take on space combat, which combined real-world physics with some logical conclusions drawn from theories of faster-than-light travel.

And the story, while not without its share of action and suspense scenes, centered largely on politics, both military and interpersonal. A brief synopsis: Cdr. Felna, daughter of a war hero, is part of the EDF, which defends the Confederation against the Republic, a xenophobic polity run by rabbits. Wounded in battle against the Republicans, Felna is sent to the planet Ekosiak, to help train the local military. Seen as a symbol of Confederate meddling, she nonetheless is drawn into putting down a local uprising. Now seen as a hero herself, Felna is sent to the Ahahn-Tako system for PR purposes, and survives an assassination attempt that cripples her spacecraft. During the rescue attempt, an alien spacecraft is discovered, revealing secrets that may reveal the origins of all civilization.

Why is Erma Felna EDF a furry animal comic at all? Probably because that’s what Gallacci wanted to draw. But honestly, while Erma Felna EDF is well written, without the furry angle it would not stand out much from all the other hard sci-fi I have read over the years. The disconnect between the serious hard science fiction and adult literary drama on the one hand, and the funny animals on the other, emphasizes each aspect. It seems like a gimmick, until you read it.

So what about Erma Felna: The Motion Picture? (Actually, fans usually remember the comic by the name of the magazine – so it might be Albedo: The Motion Picture.) Not many hard sci-fi space-based films or TV shows get made. Avatar had a strong hard sci-fi component; on TV we have had FOX’s Space: Above and Beyond(1995-96) and Firefly (2002), as well as the Sci Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica (2003-09). The furry animal angle might be what a well-written space epic needs to spur interest in general audiences, who may buy a ticket or tune in out of curiosity, and stay for the compelling story and characterization.

But can it be done? A 3D rendered Erma Felna has to be realistic enough to fit into her high-tech, futuristic and militaristic universe. She has to be human enough to convey complex emotion; but she can’t look like a talking cat from a cat food commercial. She has to be charismatic and sexy, without creeping out the audience. And she can’t be so realistic that she looks like a deformed monster cat.

It’s quite a challenge for any animation and rendering team. (Add to this the rest of the Erma Felna universe, full of anthropomorphic rabbits, dogs, birds, foxes, hamsters and countless other critters.) If it could be done, and the creative problems could be solved, Erma Felna: The Motion Picture would be unlike anything made to-date.

Post-script: It’s not traditionally anthropomorphic or sci-fi, but a “live-action” CG remake of Watership Down could be a disaster, or it could be brilliant, depending on how it was done.

Previous: Wings of Honnêamise (anime, 1987)
Next: Shirow Masamune’s Appleseed (manga, 1985-89)

See a set of Erma Felna EDF scans on Flickr.

More info: Furry fandom and Albedo Anthropomorphics on Wikipedia.

Beowulf: The Film, the Comic and the Poem Reviewed

Comic book version of Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s Mother.

In the last few years, Beowulf has leapt from academic obscurity into the public imagination. A new translation of the ancient poem, two feature films, and a comic book are showing the world that English literature did not begin with Shakespeare. Even the Lord of the Rings films reminded us that Tolkien did not create his fantasy out of whole cloth – Beowulf was one of his main sources.

Here is my universal review of Beowulf – the poem, both movies and the recent comic. WARNING: SPOILERS!

THE POEM

Beowulf the poemBeowulf is a poem first written down some 9 to 14 centuries ago – the only surviving manuscript was written in the 11th Century. But the story itself is undoubtedly older. The poem is written in Anglo-Saxon, aka Old English, which you’re not going to be able to understand without a couple years of grad school under your belt.

Ða wæs on burgum Beowulf Scyldinga,
leof leodcyning, longe þrage

folcum gefræge (fæder ellor hwearf,
aldor of earde), oþþæt him eft onwoc
heah Healfdene; heold þenden lifde,
gamol ond guðreouw, glæde Scyldingas.
ðæm feower bearn forð gerimed

in worold wocun, weoroda ræswan,
Heorogar ond Hroðgar ond Halga til;
hyrde ic þæt wæs Onelan cwen,
Heaðoscilfingas healsgebedda.
þa wæs Hroðgare heresped gyfen

Which translates as:

NOW Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings,
leader beloved, and long he ruled
in fame with all folk, since his father had gone
away from the world, till awoke an heir,
haughty Healfdene, who held through life,
sage and sturdy, the Scyldings glad.
Then, one after one, there woke to him,
to the chieftain of clansmen, children four:
Heorogar, then Hrothgar, then Halga brave;
and I heard that — was –‘s queen,
the Heathoscylfing’s helpmate dear.
To Hrothgar was given such glory of war

You’ll notice the original lines don’t rhyme – old Anglo-Saxon poetry was based on alliteration and meter, not rhyme. Rhyme is for pussies, not Vikings.

If you want to read the original poem, then you should get Seamus Heaney’s translation. It tells the story of Beowulf (= “bee-wolf” = “bear”), a Swedish hero who kills a series of monsters before getting killed himself. The first two monsters, Grendel and Grendel’s Mother, are not really described, but are perhaps some kind of water demon. The third monster is a dragon.

The poem goes on and on at length about how great Beowulf is, and because this version of the ancient tale was written down by a Christian, how great God is. There are also a lot of formal speeches of the type familiar to anyone who reads the Icelandic sagas. (Which is what I did in college. If you’re wondering how to get a job as a videogames journalist, my advice is – get a degree in saga literature and the anthropology of medieval Iceland. It worked for me!)

In addition to long speeches, you’ll get a great deal of family genealogy, more stuff about how neat the Christian god is, and a lengthy aside called The Lay of the Last Survivor, which doesn’t have much to do with anything. I’m not complaining – this is the style of Anglo-Saxon poetry. I’m just warning the casual reader of what they’re getting into.

Heaney’s translation keeps the poetic feel of the original, but there are translations in prose text (I am right now holding the Donaldson translation, for instance.)

If you’re looking for a window into the minds of our medieval forebears, then Beowulf is something you want to read. If you’re just interested in medieval fantasy adventure, you’re better off sticking to Tolkien and his imitators.

BEOWULF & GRENDEL (2005)

Ingvar E. Sigurdsson as Grendel in “Beowulf & Grendel”

Ingvar E. Sigurdsson as Grendel
in Beowulf & Grendel

Beowulf & Grendel is a 2005 film starring Gerard Butler and Ingvar Sigurdsson as the two title characters. The title change is apropos, as the film centers on the actual relationship between the hero and the monster, which doesn’t exist in the poem.

The film begins faithfully – King Hrothgar’s brand new mead hall is assaulted by Grendel, in this version some kind of humanoid troll or giant or tall man in makeup. Beowulf the Geat arrives from over the sea to slay the monster. Here the film deviates from the poem – Beowulf gets into a game of cat and mouse with the “monster,” who keeps killing Danes but won’t attack Beowulf, his men, or King Hrothgar.

Beowulf deduces that Grendel is not a monster, but a man with a grudge, and spends three-quarters of the film trying to figure out why. The “mystery” was tipped off to the audience at the very beginning – Hrothgar killed Grendel’s father, but spared young Grendel, who grew up alone in a cave and lost the ability to speak. Since we know Hrothgar’s secret, watching Beowulf spend scene after scene trying to deduce it is pretty frustrating. It may have worked on Columbo, but it doesn’t work here.

Another variation from the poem is the character of Selma, a beautiful young witch. She is played by the usually reliable Sarah Polley, who in this film can’t seem to settle on an accent. She spends a lot of time looking comely, spouting witty non-sequiturs and swearing like a sailor. Years ago Grendel subjected her to the politest rape ever, and she bore the monster an adorable little half-troll son.

In the end Beowulf must slay Grendel, despite having come to respect him. But Beowulf ends the tragic cycle of revenge by sparing the son, and giving Grendel a proper funeral.

Beowulf & Grendel has a lot of good performances, especially Stellan Skarsgård as the annoyingly depressive King Hrothgar (he seems to be channeling John Noble as Denethor in The Return of the King). And Gerard Butler, who starred as King Leonidas in 300, is an excellent Beowulf. The Scottish actor really seems to take to roles where he walks around outside without pants and hits things with a stick.

The movie was shot entirely in Iceland, so it’s gorgeous. The action sequences work well, although they tend to be brief. Some reviewers complained about the “anachronistic” swearing. Anachronistic? Really? Do people think profanity was invented in 1948 by Frank Sinatra? I thought the swearing was great. The actors didn’t have to act mad while spouting family-appropriate dialogue.

I’m not quite done with B&G yet, as I’ll be comparing it to this year’s Beowulf.

BEOWULF (2007)

A digitally naked Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s Mother in “Beowulf.”If George Lucas began the destruction of fantasy cinema by sticking hapless actors in front of a green screen, Robert Zemeckis seems intent on finishing the job by covering actors in pixels.

Don’t get me wrong – the CGI acting in Beowulf is the best I’ve ever seen, excepting Andy Serkis as Gollum and King Kong. The motion capture actually captured the nuances of the actors’ performances. But tell me, if you’re going to make the CGI characters look just like the actors, why replace them with CGI toons in the first place? It’s like covering an actor in a latex mask of himself. Computer character design is still trapped in the “Uncanny Valley,” and in Beowulf I could never believe the human characters were real people. They came across as sophisticated but imperfect puppets.

The decision to make the entire film as CGI animation was the only part of Beowulf I didn’t like. The screenplay, written by brilliant fantasy author Neil Gaiman and some guy who is not Neil Gaiman, was witty and engrossing. Their take on the original poem was to assume it was a redacted version of events designed to make Beowulf look good, and this film reveals the shocking truth. So Beowulf is a braggart who exaggerates his heroic achievements, and Hrothgar is a manipulative schemer trying to wend his way out of a deadly curse. Grendel’s Mother is more of a succubus than a sea hag, and everything in the poem after Beowulf encounters her is a lie told by Beowulf to cover his own ass.

Grendel is presented as a giant, even more pitiful version of Gollum, with a fascinating character design that evokes the face of actor Crispin Glover without really looking like him. And Grendel’s Mother, as we all know form the previews, is a buck-naked CGI Angelina Jolie, sporting gold body paint and a prehensile ponytail.

Like Beowulf & Grendel before it, Beowulf starts out true to the poem (minus the genealogies and digressions), but takes a left turn half way through. And as in B&G, it all has to do with the parentage of Grendel, and Hrothgar’s (and later Beowulf’s) relationship with the monster and his mother.

Both films share certain themes; the coming of Christianity to Denmark; the futility of revenge; characters who rip off their own arms; and the power of beautiful women (including the fact that even if you were standing in an underground pool of stagnant water, you would still totally do Angelina Jolie).

Gaiman is a master of making ancient myths relevant to today, as he did in his famous Sandman comic series, or in the American Gods novels, or in this year’s film version of Stardust. While B&G was ultimately about the futility of revenge, Beowulf attacks a modern problem: are fame and power are worth the price?

By the way, I heard an interesting idea about the plot of the Beowulf film. Hrothgar becomes king because he slept with Grendel’s Mother. When Beowulf shows up, Hrothgar has the golden horn. He gives it to Beowulf, declares Beowulf king, then immediately kills himself. Beowulf gives the horn to Grendel’s Mom, sleeps with her, and becomes king in earnest. Fifty years later, Beowulf gets the horn back, and is attacked by his own monstrous son in dragon form. He dies killing his own son, and Beowulf’s buddy Wiglaf gets the horn, and is (presumably) seduced by Grendel’s Mother.

So here’s the theory – Grendel’s Mother lures powerful men, shtups them, and takes the horn. When her child by the man grows up, she returns the horn and sends her child to attack. The she lures a new man, and the cycle begins again. This means that Hrothgar was luring Beowulf to his doom all along.

COMIC BOOK

A four part graphic-novelization of the 2007 film was released weekly this last October, and is now available in one volume. The story by Chris Ryall pretty much sticks to the screenplay, and retells the movie briskly.

The art by Gabriel Rodriquez is crisp and attractive; although I do have some advice for artists everywhere, and not just Mr. Rodriguez. That advice is this: don’t try to mimic the manga BESM style! Unless you’re actually Japanese, and in Japan, just don’t do it. You will FAIL. Rodriguez’s art is pretty standard for an American comic, except he uses anime eyes. And it does not work.

Strangely, the characters in the comic adaptation do not look like the actors, except in the vaguest sense. But the comic does a great job at recreating the feel of the film, particularly in its use of dark blues and earth tones, giving the feel of the chill Danish tundra.

If you’re a fan of the film, then I recommend picking up the graphic novel.

OTHER ADAPTATIONS:

There have been other adaptations of Beowulf, of course. Here is a brief list:

Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981), an animated story told from the monster’s point of view.

Beowulf (2000), a sci-fi version with Christopher Lambert and Rhona “Lara Croft” Mitra.

Grendel (2007), a made-for-TV movie on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Beowulf (2007), an actor performs the poem onstage.