Final Fantasy: A New Era for DVD?

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When producer and creative director Blaine Graboyes, then an employee of New York-based Zuma Digital, began production on the Final Fantasy two-disc DVD set, he found himself faced with an unprecedented amount of creative freedom, access, and financial resources. Not only did Columbia and Square Pictures deliver a seven-figure budget to complete the DVD, but they also enlisted Zuma's services at a point when the film itself was only 60% to 70% completed.

“Usually when we come on board for a DVD, the film is done and in the can,” says Graboyes. “The studio producer usually clears a bunch of EPK and other footage, and then it all just arrives at our doorstep and we have to figure out what order to put everything in the menus. But with Final Fantasy, we had to develop everything from scratch.”

Graboyes presented the studio and director Hironobu Sakaguchi with a 75-page proposal, storyboards, and a sample DVD explaining concepts, ideas, and functionality for the project. The central creative concept that Graboyes envisioned was that the DVD would function as a “library device.”

“We were looking for an interface metaphor to hold together the discs,” Graboyes explains. “We came up with these narratives where [the film's lead character] Aki goes to a museum with her kids, and there's a caveman exhibit, an Eskimo exhibit, and a Final Fantasy exhibit. The kids look into this device, which is similar to Aki's hollow bracelet in the film, and that turns into the menu for the DVD. From that concept, came the two intros and the interactive menus that eventually got produced.”

After developing an initial direction for the DVD, Graboyes planted field manager Jefferson Kyle on location at Square's headquarters in Honolulu. For five months, Kyle acted as a “private investigator” for the DVD production staff, collecting materials from the film's artists. He found joke videos that imitated other popular science-fiction films, animators' home movies (including a memorable spoof of Michael Jackson's “Thriller” video featuring FF's cast), and thousands of images.

“We'd gather things, and then Square would go through and send us lists of images that we couldn't use,” says Graboyes. “As it whittled down, we organized everything into various subject areas like preconcept art, matte paintings, sets and props, and so on, and it fell into how the features would eventually work and be presented.”

The DVD team also created much of the materials found on the discs, including the interfaces, menus, and behind-the-scenes documentary. The 30-minute documentary, which goes way beyond the usual EPK footage that most DVDs offer, offers an interactive way of presenting much of the value-added materials of Disc Two. Viewers are prompted periodically by link-out icons that appear in the corner of the screen, which lead to a total of 60 minutes worth of supplementary materials.

Under the guidance of co-creative director Tarquin Cardona, the documentary crew shot footage at Square's production and motion-capture studios in Honolulu, as well as at locations in Los Angeles and Skywalker Ranch, using Canon PAL XL1 and Sony PAL mini-DV cameras, and recorded audio via portable DAT. Zuma staff handled the editing on uncompressed Avids (MC 9000 and Symphony) and the creation, rendering, and compositing of the interface design and 3D with Adobe Illustrator, After Effects, Maya, and Media 100. Tapehouse, New York, performed color correction with DaVinci and used Piranha HD for final compositing and rendering of the background footage with the “skin” interface, patterned after Aki's holographic bracelet device, that framed the documentary material.

Other notable content includes the “Shuffler” section, in which viewers can reedit a major scene of the film, utilizing a technology that Zuma had originally developed so advertising and production clients could reedit their reels from set-top DVD players. The “Boards and Blasts” feature is also an impressive labor of love, in which Graboyes and editor Delano Forbes edited several storyboards, animation tests, and rough materials into a version of the film that represents the various stages of Final Fantasy's production.

For Graboyes, a primary goal was to keep the production value of the DVD at a level equal to that of the film itself.

“I'm always disappointed when the quality of the DVD design isn't equal to that of the film. It's a challenge, of course, because of the difference in budgets. But with Final Fantasy, we were able to make a DVD that was seamless and fluid with the film because we got so much support and material from Square.”

With their exceptional content — and budget — the Final Fantasy discs perhaps really do signal a new era and way of approaching DVD.