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'The Last Samurai': The Story-Based Effects

J. Paul Peszko investigates how filmmakers re-created 1870s San Francisco and Japan for the action-drama The Last Samurai.


Jeff Okun, visual effects supervisor on The Last Samurai, had a triple challenge on this epic historial drama: time, budget and accuracy. All The Last Samurai photos © 2003 Warner Bros. All rights reserved. Production photo credit: David James.

A history buff, Ed Zwick is no stranger to directing historical sagas set in the latter part of the 19th century. Two of his previous films, Glory and Legends of the Fall, took place in this period, and now in his latest effort, The Last Samurai, Zwick revisits the era. But in this case it is not the American West but 1870s Japan. In addition, the character that Zwick and screenwriter John Logan chose to portray was not the usual self-assured hero, but an alcoholic Indian fighter haunted by an act of genocide, Captain Woodrow Algren, played by Tom Cruise. I am drawn back, again and again, to this historical moment, Zwick says. Theres something moving, even hypnotic about observing a character going through a personal transformation at a time when the whole culture around him is likewise in turmoil.

More than anything else, The Last Samurai pays homage to the film legacy of Akira Kurosawa, which served as Zwicks model, particularly Seven Samurai. Algren, a lost soul, goes to Japan to train the new Imperial Army in the use of modern weapons, for which he receives a good sum of money. But instead of money, what he finds when captured by his enemy, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), the samurai leader, is a much more valuable commodity his soul. It is this personal story between Algren and Katsumoto, interwoven within the detail and scope of a rapidly changing culture that is mindful of Kurosawas work.

So, why all this discussion about history and Kurosawa? What does this have to do with visual effects? For one thing, a history buffs delight can be a visual effects supervisors nightmare. Also, if you have a director, who, like Kurosawa, is a stickler for detail and authenticity, then you had better make your visual effects not merely reasonably seamless but positively seamless. Normally, thats no easy task for any filmmaker. But what if youre shooting on three different continents, using at least a dozen visual effects vendors and working as many as five individual visual effects production units at the same time? Did I say nightmare? Try cataclysm.

While coordinating this massive visual effects effort, under the intense pressures of time, budget and accuracy, there cropped up one more major problem. Jeff Okun, visual effects supervisor on The Last Samurai, was part of the pre-production team that met several times to ensure they were being historically accurate.

What emerged out of this [pre-production] was that historically accurate is not necessarily visually interesting, states Okun. As one example, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, which we were to feature in the movie prominently, exterior-wise is a pretty bland looking place. It wasnt necessarily a fortress of castle walls and things like that because nobody ever attacked the Imperial Palace.

Director Ed Zwick and Okun worked together to ensure that the battles looked real but that the crew and actors remained safe.

The palace was first revealed in a boom shot up Tokyo Street, where Algren and Simon Graham, the British historian played by Timothy Spall, are walking. The palace was supposed to be prominent in the shot. Instead, it blended in with all the other buildings. We ended up having to stretch reality by making larger it than it was, by making it more stories taller than it was, by making it on a mountain or a raised hillside, by moving it into a more crowded part of the city than it should be, by adding a certain amount of colorful flags to it so that the eye would go to it. All of them shameful things to do, admits Okun, but in the filmic world [they] were necessary.

In that sequence Okun used a combination of matte painting and 3D buildings, a lot of warping and projecting textures onto 3D shapes in order to flesh the shot out and give it the kind of depth that they needed. But the filmmakers always had to keep in mind that this movie had to play in Tokyo, which is a real life place, and they were limited by how much they could fictionalize it, which put added pressure on Okun and his team of visual effects artists. In addition, the opening scenes in San Francisco, where Algren agrees to go to Japan to train the Imperial Army, also presented a problem. But this one was especially serious since it occurred after the film was shot and edited.

After we cut the whole movie together and played it, we realized the first act needed to open up in scope. It was all interiors, Okun explains. So, we went out and did a one-day shoot for that new scene that takes place in the alley behind the convention center and a couple of other pick ups. Literally, we had four weeks to throw that matte painting together. They solved the problem by supplying Craig Barrens Matte World in San Francisco with costumes so they could shoot various elements. The cable cars are completely 3D objects, and the city is a multi-planed matte painting back there. Not only is it one of the best matte paintings Ive ever seen, but Ed and cinematographer John Toll agreed that we could play this, not in the middle of the day, but as a sunset shot, where were able to hide a lot of things youd normally expect to see.

To keep the battle scenes safe, Okun added muzzle blasts and shooting arrows during post.

At times, Okun had five separate visual effects production units working, with visual effects producer Tom Boland acting as a second supervisor covered one of the units, and another second supervisor, Tom Smith, covered a second unit, so that Okun only had to divide himself between three units.

Not surprisingly, the final battle sequence posed the most challenging visual effects production of the film. We did everything from having CG arrows that go and stick into people, to planting arrows on people then painting them out, then having a CG arrow morph into the real arrow. Painting death on people [by] putting prosthetics on them, then painting them off, then revealing them. To using CG people to be blown apart, to using CG horses to be shot and killed.

Rising Sun Pictures worked with Okun to create the nighttime ninja attack.

The sequence shows how closely the stunt crew and visual effects people worked. The whole game was: How do we ramp the stunts up to the next level but at the same time keep the reality of the battle, which Ed was a stickler about, and keep the immediacy of it? He didnt want to have a movie fight. That meant Zwick didnt want to see combatants merely fall down and die. Many who were already wounded or have something sticking out of them get up and continue to fight, Okun observes. We moved in even closer to see the faces in the fight because its a basic tenant of the Samurai way of life that you must look into the eyes of your enemy. Of course, it also came down to a matter of safety. You dont want to have 500 guys running around with loaded weapons and arrows shooting helter-skelter, so we handled all that, added muzzle blasts and everything else into it that we could just to make it as chaotic as possible and as horrible as possible.

Okuns team also had a major hand in the opening battle. They did everything from enhancing and adding consistency to the fog to accentuating the red of Katsumotos armor to making the blows to Algrens body appear more severe. We did a lot of warping and frame jumping out and morphing and bending his body around to make the stabs to him look as violent as we could possibly get them.

Okun was impressed by how Tom Cruise repeated physical moves accurately with each take.

Besides the two major battles, there are also several skirmishes in the film. The most memorable is a nighttime ninja attack on Katsumotos village during a Kabuki performance, and Okun along with one of his vendors, Rising Sun Pictures in Australia, had a prominent hand in that as well. All the darts and arrows are CG. All the throwing stars are CG. A great deal of the sword play, when it goes through a body, was us [visual effects], and blood enhancement and wound reveals to bring up the level of gore. Nighttime sequences normally have little depth of field. However, Toll got a deeper depth of field in certain shots than anyone expected. We actually had to go in and soften up some areas so that your eye would go to the right place, notes Okun. In addition, they added CG swords where there were none and enhanced the realism by adding more blood to the swords so they werent clean all the way through or taking blood off when there appeared to be too much.

What is most noteworthy of the Ronin fight in Tokyo is the beheading. We planned to do the beheading in a much more complex manner that involved five passes. And Tom was so good that when we did our first pass, it struck me that we could do a gag thats a swashbuckling take-off. Thats where a sword cuts through a candle and remains whole for a few moments before the cut piece finally drops off. Imagine that with someones head. We shot Tom with the sword and [his opponent] safely away while Tom did the action. The guy fell over on the ground, and his head obviously stayed attached. Then we shot Tom doing the same motion again without the guy thereand then we just shot the head rolling along.

Only CG people and horses were harmed in the making of this film.

And what was the most important lesson in all this? Time management, particularly in working with Rising Sun Pictures. After Rising Sun had already gone home and Okun would begin his workday, hed download a QuickTime movie from Rising Suns Web site. Theyd have a bunch of high-resolution still frames that I could check out. We had a color correction system that they sent me so that I could see things in the correct color space. I would make my comments, and would post it back up to their secure Website. Then they would get in, and wed have an hour of crossover time where they could call me with questions.

According to Okun, they were in effect stretching his time as a supervisor to a 24-hour clock without him having to be up 24 hours. In the future, the location of a company will no longer be a barrier. What is a barrier is how secure their FTP site is or their affordable system of inter-connectivity. Its not like we have the budget where we can get the satellite uplink and secure data with a decoder on both ends, which is a great system, and I loved it when I had the opportunity to work with it. But this [Rising Sun system] is more the poor mans version of it, and it works immensely well.

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