'Kaena: The Prophecy' — First 3D CGI Feature-Length Film from Europe

Steven Mirkin gets a few helpful hints from vfx houses about what theyre looking for in new hires.

Europes first 3D CGI feature-length movie, Kaena: The Prophecy started off as a short to promote a videogame. All images © 2003 Xilam Films  Studio Canal  Groupe TVA Inc.

Europes first 3D CGI feature-length movie, Kaena: The Prophecy started off as a short to promote a videogame. All images © 2003 Xilam Films Studio Canal Groupe TVA Inc.

It is easy to see how French director Chris Delaporte came up with a rebellious lead character like Kaena, the 17-year-old heroine for Kaena: The Prophecy, billed as Europe's first 3D CGI feature-length film. The film opened a year ago in France and was released by Samuel Goldwyn and Destination Films to North American audiences on July 9, 2004. In his youth, Delaporte was a rebel of sorts. In fact, his venture into artwork actually began on the wrong side of the law as a tagger, spreading graffiti on the walls of Paris. But that stimulated his interest in painting and drawing. Then, when he bought a computer, he started working on 3D and a new expression developed. He realized that he could use his artwork to tell stories.

His interest quite naturally was drawn to videogames, which is how he first conceived Kaena. According to Delaporte, It was the only context that let me express myself in the world I liked: fantasy. I was playing around, perhaps, but I really wanted to make a movie. Eventually, he would get his chance.

Director Chris Delaporte was a tagger on the streets of Paris before he found 3D artwork as an outlet for his artistic impulses.

Director Chris Delaporte was a tagger on the streets of Paris before he found 3D artwork as an outlet for his artistic impulses.

Kaena: The Prophecy is set on a distant planet, Astrid, a viny, tangled world that has evolved around a hundred-mile tall tree. Some 600 years ago, a Vecarian ship crashed at the base of this planet, and two worlds were born. A Selentine city ruled by an insidious queen (Angelica Houston) and her chamberlain, Voxem, lies near the base. High up in the clouds is a poor village Thales whose people feed sap from the dying tree, which they call Axis, to their so-called gods, the Selentines, at the behest of their despotic high priest. The queen hordes the sap in order to fuel her struggle against Vecaanoi, a powerful computer who is the repository of the Vecarians' knowledge.

Compelled by a mysterious force, Kaena (Kirsten Dunst), a rebellious free-spirit, defies the High Priest and her people's beliefs to take a perilous journey through Axis and discover what dark secrets lay beyond the clouds, where the Selenites and the mysterious Vecaanoi dwell. Kaena eventually joins forces with the last living Vecarian, Opaz (Richard Harris), and his Prosthetic worm buddies to battle the Selentine queen.

If you think that sounds like the basis for a videogame, you are absolutely correct. At first, Patrick (Daher, co-creator) and I worked on a game demo at home for a year, without being paid, explains Delaporte. I mainly worked on the story and the world it took place in, and Patrick developed the game system. That's when we met Denis Friedman, who at the time was general director for Sony Computer France. When he left Sony, he set up his own company, Chaman. Like us, Denis believed in complementary media interaction; videogames, feature films, comic albums.

Once they had locked in on the idea for the videogame and had a demo, the next thing they needed was the money to develop it. In order to do that, they needed a short film to promote their demo. We had a game demo, but Denis asked us to come up with a two-minute 3D intro, which he used to raise interest in the project. So Denis worked out an overall budget, which today seems almost laughable, because it added up to 18 million francs. For what eventually came to 96 million francs!

That's approximately U.S. $26 million.

Without a feature animation studio system in Europe, Delaporte had to assemble a crew from scratch.

Without a feature animation studio system in Europe, Delaporte had to assemble a crew from scratch.

Unlike America, Europe does not have any feature animation complexes like Disney, Pixar or DreamWorks, where hundreds of 3D artists are at work on a regular basis. So, bringing a crew together large enough to complete a 3D animated feature was no easy task and meant bringing in artists from all across Europe. So, how did Delaporte go about assembling a crew?

Virginie Guilminot, who took on the job as assistant director, helped me assemble a heterogeneous crew. We went for talent and motivation more than people's experience. The hard core was made up of artists with a videogame background, chosen for their varied skills, and their readiness to respond to the craziest challenges. For many, however, it was a case of on-the-job training. Another group joined composed of computer graphics designers fresh out of art school, along with experienced professionals from the audiovisual business. It took a while for us all to use the same language, and for me to learn to make myself understood by everyone. But the passion we all felt for this project smoothed over whatever differences we had, and the movie was enriched by each person's experience.

Visually, Kaena: The Prophecy is a very enriching experience. Anyone who sees it will no doubt recognize it's visual similitude to Japanese anime. Neither the animation nor the story resembles the commercial animation that American studios like Disney and DreamWorks produce on a regular basis. And that may prove a huge hurdle for the film to climb at the box office. While his visual style may be decidedly Japanese, Delaporte's imagery is purely European but often lacks the required emotional involvement to draw us into his many thematic layers.

Like French live-action directors, Delaporte has layered his film with a confluence of opposing themes: life versus death, growth versus decay, youth versus age, the individual versus society and personal ideology versus organized religion. All of these revolve around the central theme of Kaena's coming of age, where she must choose between her carefree existence and responsibility toward her people. Indeed, Kaena's evolution as well as the evolution of Axis serves as an allegory for our own evolution on Earth.

Delaporte saw the story of Kaena as an allegory for the evolution of Earth. The young rebel represents human nature fighting against the technocratic Vecarians.

Delaporte saw the story of Kaena as an allegory for the evolution of Earth. The young rebel represents human nature fighting against the technocratic Vecarians.

It is the planet Earth, Delaporte states, and Astrid is the Moon. In fact, the villagers are the first earthlings. That's something I only realized when we were mid-production! There are lots of things, which don't occur to you at first, and then later seem so very obvious. Once I did see that, I reinforced that angle. I even added another scene at the end. But generally speaking, the idea that the first humans were born of vegetation and a computer was a concept that appealed to me. I liked putting the Selenites, who represent the natural, spontaneous, intuitive side of human nature, opposite the Vecarians, who represent technology and another form of intelligence.

Although Kaena: The Prophecy is rather long on themes, it is, at the same time, short on story, which is the crux of the problem. This is essentially a 50-minute story that has been extended to 85 minutes. That additional half-hour is understandably heavy on visual effects while giving us very little in the way of structure and tension to sustain our interest. When the plot seems to hit a dead-end and the story starts to lag, Delaporte uses his CG-artistry to fill up the space.

He fashions visual gimmicks like the Sharkens, flying carnivores, who sometimes hunt with their little ones, using their long, powerful tongues to attack their prey and penetrate the thick foliage. The Marauder is another ferocious predator, who lives in the lower cloud covering of Axis and prevents the villagers from venturing beyond the clouds. For comic relief, there are the worms of Axis. Opaz has learned to make them evolve by giving them an exoskeleton, and they have become his allies. But none of these are interwoven into the fabric of the story in a suspenseful or revealing way.

To Delaporte's credit, while some of the material seems self-indulgent, it is nonetheless visually appealing. I suppose, it's far better that a film has a self-indulgent director with a creative visual style than one that does not. No doubt Delaporte will someday be a marvelous filmmaker once he raises his storytelling to the same level as his CG artistry.

The Queen (above) uses the sap from the tree Axis to fuel her battle against the Vecaanoi.

The Queen (above) uses the sap from the tree Axis to fuel her battle against the Vecaanoi.

Another drawback is that, unlike most animated features, this one does not have a clearly defined villain. The Selenites and their Queen are themselves victims of the crash of the Vecarian vessel some 600 years previously. Delaporte explains, I felt that was closer to real life. I can't believe in villains who are evil without reason, the kind you often see in movies. I think that is such a caricature! I don't want to say, 'He's good, and he's evil.' I can't do that in life, so there really wasn't a reason for me to do that in the film. I really don't believe that true villains exist.

In addition to its many thematic elements, the film is replete with references to sci-fi films, both American and European, and directors such as Wolfgang Petersen and René Laloux.

I was a real science fiction fan when I was a kid. I'm less so today because I find it all too stereotyped. Nevertheless, Delaporte claims that any reference to other films or directors was an unconscious one. The surprising thing is, one doesn't realize the extent to which one draws on that heritage when one writes. It really is involuntary! At the same time, (the) questions raised in Kaena: The Prophecy arise from real human anxieties.

The problem with a story that relies heavily on themes while remaining short on plot is that a director can soon lose sight of the forest for the trees. He can become so buried in the elements of his story that he doesn't see it as his audience sees it. He may have no idea as to what the film feels like as a whole. So while every scene and set piece may work individually, the overall impact may be fragmented, incomplete, or inconsistent, which is what has happened here.

Again, to Delaporte's credit, his role as the movie's director is not one that he aspired to, but rather assumed as a matter of necessity. When we started Kaena: The Prophecy, I wasn't exactly sure what a director's role was. I was the author and artistic director, which seemed in a sense to cover everything, and I honestly thought we could get by with good intentions. But in fact, through lack of clarity and communication, we had a few months of total confusion.

Until it sank in that if I wanted the film to reflect my vision, I had to direct it myself and you can't direct a crew of 70 without a minimal form of hierarchy! So I took on the role, however pompous it seemed. I went to see Denis Friedman, and asked if I could direct the film myself. He agreed to this, on condition that I worked with a co-director, who happened to be Pascal Pinon.

Delaportes visual style harkens to Japanese anime, while his story imagery is European.

Delaportes visual style harkens to Japanese anime, while his story imagery is European.

A few technical points regarding the production: The company did not develop its own software. Instead most of the R&D centered on making improvements to existing production tools such alienbrain, a management control production software, which they improved for internal use, They also used 3ds max render pretty much as it was without upgrading. Unlike large American studios that will stop a production and go back and reanimate scene after scene it in order to employ the latest CG upgrade, Delaporte's crew didn't have the luxury of time or budget.

If you want to finish your movie, Delaporte cautions, you have to say stop at a given moment. You can't keep up all the time. We used the 2.5 version of 3ds max render, and by the time we'd completed the movie they were onto version 4. But the movie is not about breaking technological ground. It's a fine story which is part of a whole artistic context, and the way it works means that we're not really concerned with technical prowess. Delaporte believes that no one in the audience, other than a few technicians, would really notice the difference anyway, and I'm sure he's correct as long as the story is compelling, which in this instance is probably not the case.

J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isnt writing, he teaches communications courses.

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