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.
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Next: Shirow Masamune’s Appleseed (manga, 1985-89)
See a set of Erma Felna EDF scans on Flickr.