Ten Famous Science Fiction Properties That Would Make Great VFX Movies — Part 3 ‘Appleseed’

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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: Shirow Masamune’s manga and anime franchise Appleseed.

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

Number 8 of 10: Appleseed (manga: 1985-89; anime: 1988, 2004, 2007)

If there’s one thing modern CG can render with absolute realism, it’s hardware. From modern consumer automobiles, commercial aircraft and military vehicles to futuristic robots, mecha and spacecraft, VFX artists have mastered the art of heavy gear, from 1984’s The Last Starfighter to last year’s Avatar.

But the military hardware, vehicles and spacecraft in modern VFX movies and television shows and video games do not show as much creative variety as one might expect, given the nearly boundless flexibility of CG. Spacecraft usually look much like the USS Sulaco from 1986’s Aliens, which itself isn’t terribly original. The “APUs” in Avatar are nearly identical to the battlemechs from the BattleTech franchise, themselves inspired by anime mecha. And any time you see a BFG (Big “Effin’” Gun) or any other large military prop in a sci-fi film, TV show or video game, it seems to come from the same prop house or 3D model library as all the others.

This isn’t necessarily because production designers and VFX artists are lazy or unoriginal – there are creative and production concerns. If a giant futuristic space blaster looks exactly like what the audience expects a giant futuristic space blaster to look like, a filmmaker need not waste time explaining what it is. The same goes for spaceships – film-goers unfamiliar with sci-fi (are there any of those left?) might be confused by the giant, spherical spaceship at the end of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (they were already confused by the plot); but will instantly recognize the alien ship in 2009’s District 9, given its resemblance to the bastard love child of the giant saucers from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Independence Day (1996).

Furthermore, the use of preexisting assets can save a production a great deal of money; and looking to previous films, shows and games for inspiration can save time and effort. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Artists make artistic choices, referencing other artists for storytelling purposes. When director David Twohy introduced the evil Necromonger religious zealots in 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick, their ships and armor intentionally referenced those of similar sci-fi characters in 1984’s Dune and the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. Likewise, the iconic city-destroying giant saucers in Independence Day are so recognizable because they are based on the nearly-identical ships in the 1980s TV miniseries V.

And finally, so many of these hardware designs resemble each other because of common science fiction tropes that artists often are not even aware they are perpetuating. I have already gone into this in detail elsewhere. But a few that apply here include: spacecraft designed according to a nautical paradigm, or to resemble an office building; the idea that while every other technological advance makes devices smaller, military technology will just get bigger and bigger – today’s hardware on steroids; and that human spaceships should be blocky and covered in devices, while alien ships are biologically-inspired and spiky.

So how can VFX artists and production designers break out of the sci-fi hardware design rut? Allow me to make one very specific suggestion. Dig into your manga collection (admit it, you have one), and pull out the collected works of Shirow Masamune.

One of the most popular and talented mangaka to see his work adapted during the anime renaissance of the 1980s, Shirow is known for many things – his trademark character design, bizarre humor, complex cyberpunk storylines, and (especially recently) ribald eroticism (NSFW). But he is best known for his hardware; aircraft, armored vehicles, military and police gear, and mecha; and two concepts he in particular created and popularized, the biological robot “bioroid,” and the child-like intelligent robot tanks, the “Fuchikoma.”

The best thing about Shirow’s hardware design is that it doesn’t look like anyone else’s. Indeed, Shirow’s designs have not been widely copied in the anime and manga world, precisely because the plagiarism would be so obvious. His vehicles and weapons have a decidedly biological inspiration; but this is tempered with the sensibility of a serious mechanical, industrial and military engineer.

Every detail of a Shirow creation serves a particular purpose. If an object transforms, then each of its pieces would genuinely fit together. If the device is a vehicle, then an operator would actually fit inside. He draws cut-away schematics of many of his creations, to prove they are thought-out and fully realized. Just as a realistic portrayal and a deep backstory make an audience care more for a human character, so the same principle can be applied to production design to make the viewer care about a world. James Cameron accomplished this in Avatar, and Shirow does the same with his futuristic environments.

For the purposes of a live-action CGI film, I propose an adaptation of Shirow’s 1985-89 manga Appleseed. This might surprise most Shirow fans, who would expect me to choose his most popular creation, the dark cyberpunk manga, film, television, toy and game franchise Ghost in the Shell, which stars the sexy cyborg police Major Kusanagi Motoko and the lovable Fuchikoma.

Appleseed, on the other hand, was Shirow’s first major success, a post-apocalyptic love story set in a utopian city-state. Deunan Knute, a sexy ex-LAPD SWAT member and Landmate (military exoskeleton) pilot, is in love with her partner, Briareos Hecatonchires, a faceless cyborg who has lost most of his original body to military replacement parts, but has not given up his soul or his love for Deunan. Together they roam the ruins of Los Angeles until they are recruited to police Olympus, a hyper-advanced city populated by bioroids.

Shirow’s Major Kusanagi is a bioroid, and her story explores the typical cyberpunk themes of human identity and machine consciousness. But for the most part, she looks human – she would be portrayed by an actress (Angelina Jolie, probably) with a bit of occasional digital makeup.

But Appleseed’s Briareos would be a challenge for VFX artists – a fully thinking, feeling, and emotional character without a human face. He’s the ultimate hardware as a character. And his relationship with Deunan (Charlize Theron?), and her acceptance of him in his inhuman form, is key to the story.

It should be noted that much of the preliminary work for a live-action VFX adaptation of Appleseed has already been done, for Aramaki Shinji’s 2004 and 2007 CG animated films Appleseed and Appleseed EX Machina. The Appleseed universe was 3D modeled for these films, although the final animation was cel-shaded. But they serve as a proof-of-concept that Shirow’s unique and compelling take on the world of the future could serve as the foundation for a successful movie experience.

Previous: Wings of Honnêamise (anime, 1987); Erma Felna EDF (comic, 1983-2005)
Next: The Airtight Garage (comic, 1976-80)

See a set of Appleseed art on Flickr.

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.

Ten Famous Science Fiction Properties That Would Make Great VFX Movies — Part 1 ‘Wings of Honneamise’

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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. First up: the 1987 anime feature film The Wings of Honnêamise.

In the 1980s and 90s, effects-centered films and television shows occupied specific niches. In film, an effects-heavy movie like Ghostbusters or Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a summer tentpole release designed to reel in teen audiences of repeat viewers; while a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation, with its $2.5 million an episode budget, was a risky experiment in capitalizing on 1960s nostalgia.

Today, most movies rely heavily on VFX, many of those effects invisible. Greenscreen sets and set extensions, digital makeup, and post-production fixes for on-set mistakes are just a few applications of digital technology used in films and TV shows that the average viewer might think had no effects whatsoever.

But audiences still want “effects-heavy” films, from The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings trilogies at the turn of the millennium to the Iron Man films and Avatar today. And for the first time in TV history, shows from Firefly and Battlestar Galactica to V and Human Target are recreating the experience of effects-heavy, action-oriented movies on the small screen.

Two factors have led to this renaissance in effects-driven entertainment. First, technological advances have made it cheaper and cheaper to create top-quality effects. And second, those same advances have made it possible to realistically render visions that were never possible before. Today’s VFX artists can create worlds that just ten years ago producers would have said could only be represented with traditional animation. Rumor said James Cameron abandoned his Spider-Man film project because he was dissatisfied with the realism of the character’s CG web-slinging. Can you imagine the director of Avatar having such a concern today?

But how can science fiction filmmakers best take advantage of this new artistic freedom? Some recent films have impressed with their ability to create amazing sci-fi realms and alternate worlds – The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, I Am Legend, Watchmen, 2009’s Star Trek. Others have been less successful, despite the potential of their source material. The skill and creativity of the VFX artists and technicians is not in question. World creation is a specific variety of visual art; and even the most talented VFX artists can’t create an amazing, immersive experience unless that imaginary world is original, vibrant and complete.

There is a large number of existing science fiction properties that could give film and television creators all the material they need to produce visual epics of a type as yet unseen on screen. The Internet is full of lists of sci-fi classics that would make great movies – this list concentrates solely on properties that would provide the most inspiration to VFX artists. Character and plot are secondary (but not irrelevant) considerations. These are ideas for films that would engender in today’s jaded audiences the same kind of excitement we experienced when a Star Wars or a Raiders of the Lost Ark first premiered.

Over the next few weeks, I will cover my top ten choices, from number 10 through number one. Of course, I must be familiar with a book, comic or other property in order to write about it. Originally I considered both sci-fi and fantasy; but in the end, my top ten choices were all sci-fi. If you have any favorites I missed, please talk about them in the comments.

Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (dir. Yamaga Hiroyuki, 1987)

Back when Wings of Honnêamise first hit the US anime fan circuit, when we sat in dark basement rooms watching unsubbed anime while poring over fan translation printouts off of Usenet, few American otaku thought the film was any good. I was one of a tiny minority who agreed with the Japanese critics, that it was one of the best movies of the year, and perhaps the best anime feature yet made.

Today, when you can buy manga at Barnes & Noble and Naruto is a household word, Wings of Honnêamise is almost forgotten except among anime aficionados, many of whom lament the film’s lack of giant transforming robots and sex-obsessed middle-schoolers. The US DVD release in 2000 (upon which I relied to provide screenshots) was made from a terrible print; get the 2007 Blu-ray version and watch this film. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Wings of Honnêamise takes place on a parallel Earth where modern technology and global culture began in the East rather than the West, in an alternative version of Japan and Southeast Asia. The hero, Shiro (based on actor Treat Williams), is part of his nation’s unheralded, underfunded and comically deadly space program, which exists only as a ploy to lure another, alternate-Western nation into a war. Shiro falls for a pretty religious zealot named Riquinni (based on Tatum O’Neal), and in an effort to impress her, volunteers to be the first man in space.

Unlike many Asian and European films, Wings of Honnêamise adheres to a three-act structure; but its mood is unusually flat, which may be what put off American audiences. The characters, especially the two leads, are so thoroughly crushed by the pointlessness of their lives that even their epiphanies feel listless. And Shiro’s violent attempt to consummate his relationship with Riquinni does not play as well with Western audiences as it did in Japan.

But all this moodiness and moral malaise pays off at the climax, when Shiro’s dangerous and soul-changing flight into orbit (imagine if Apollo 11 had launched during a full-on Soviet invasion of Kennedy Space Center) successfully ignites in the viewer all the hope and excitement for the future we felt back when America’s space program really meant something.

Wings of Honnêamise makes this list because of its justifiably famous and influential (in anime) production design. When brand-new production company Gainax (later the creators of the immensely popular Neon Genesis Evangelion) decided to make an alternate-reality film, they really dedicated themselves to an alternate reality, with an impressively obsessive attention to detail not seen since Blade Runner. And while Ridley Scott was limited by budgetary and practical constraints, the artists at Gainax were hindered only by their imaginations.

Everything in the world of the film – the architecture, technology, costumes, calligraphy, urban design, food, utensils, doorknobs, windowsills, every single incidental detail – is carefully crafted as part of a unified, original cultural continuum that is inspired by, but different from, East Asian culture. (The alternate-Western culture, worked out with far less effort, is humorously based in medieval European iconography, like a modern society evolving directly out of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.) The vehicles – automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, and a few that are harder to categorize – are different, yet familiar. The aircraft fly “backward,” with their propellers on the rear instead of the nose; but they seem to conform to the same laws of aeronautics as on our world.

Assuming the events in Wings take place at a point in its world’s history roughly contemporaneous with our Yuri Gagarin, and it seems they do, then many aspects of that world’s technology are a few decades behind ours, but not all. Yet their machines are not cross-decade Steampunk chimera like the parody technology of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil; the devices are consistent, both internally and with each other, and seem to make sense, having developed out of the same technological and scientific tradition.

Some science fiction films make the mistake of portraying technology that is too consistent. Watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and you might believe that all technology in that distant future year was produced by a single designer working for a single company. The archaic computers, inverted telephones, and beautifully-crafted train ticket dispensers of the nation of Honnêamise seem related, but not the same; they come from the same culture, but not the same place within that culture. The viewer doesn’t necessarily notice this, unless they obsessively examine the film as I have, but it registers in the back of the brain as realism. All the puzzle-pieces fit together, seamlessly; and as in The Lord of the Rings or Avatar, they create a strong sense of a single, genuine reality that beckons to the viewer, who wants to leap through the screen and explore.

Interestingly, director Yamaga eschews wide vistas and establishing shots; the details of Honnêamise are presented through medium shots, and in the background of two-shots. The world of Wings of Honnêamise is a real world of real people, so we learn about it through the experience of those people. Not only is the sense of reality heightened, but viewer’s lizard brain screams out zoom out! Back up! I want to see!


When Wings of Honnêamise was released in the 1980s, it was impossible to shoot it in live action; Roger Ebert basically said as much in his review of the film. The cost of the costumes, sets and backlot stages, miniatures, special effects, and the countless props, would have been absurdly prohibitive; as it was, Wings was one of the most expensive animated features made to date. But today? With virtual sets and greenscreen set extensions? The success of a live-action remake would be measured not in budgetary considerations, but in the artistic freedom, courage and devotion of the filmmakers and artists.

Next: Erma Felna EDF (comic, 1983-2005)

See a set of Wings of Honnêamise screencaps and production art on Flickr.