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‘One Piece’ VFX: A Stretchy and Dismembered Pirates’ Life for Luffy

Co-showrunner Steven Maeda and VFX supervisors Victor Scalise and Scott Ramsey took extra-special care crafting the live-action series adaptation of Eiichiro Oda’s famed 106-volume manga and 20-season anime series, noting huge risks tackling the beloved property while mindful of the long list of failed anime-to-live-action efforts that preceded them. 

As of this year, Eiichiro Oda’s Guinness World Record-setting property One Piece has 106 manga volumes published and 1,073 anime episodes released across 20 seasons. Though there have been plenty of failed anime-to-live-action adaptations in the past, Steven Maeda and Matt Owen’s new One Piece adaptation has something unique to offer: a chance for new fans to experience, in one weekend, the vast world Oda-san has created over the past 26 years. 

“I had huge concerns about the risks because it’s such a beloved property,” shares Maeda, co-writer, co-producer, and co-showrunner with Owens of the eight-episode Netflix live-action series, One Piece, debuting today, August 31. “And, certainly, there has been a mixed track record with anime adaptations. But I'm hoping this is the one that breaks loose. It’s a story about outlaws and people who don't want to be bound by rules and regulations of authoritarian masters. And it's something that a lot of people can relate to, especially in this day and age.”

Based on Japan’s highest-selling manga series in history, Netflix’s One Piece follows legendary high-seas adventurer Monkey D. Luffy, who has longed for a life of freedom ever since he can remember. Luffy sets off from his small village on a perilous journey to find the legendary fabled treasure, “One Piece,” and become King of the Pirates. But in order to find the ultimate prize, Luffy will need to assemble the crew he’s always wanted before finding a ship to sail, searching every inch of the vast blue seas, outpacing the Marines, and outwitting dangerous rivals – from barbed-faced fish-men to dismembered clowns – at every turn.

You can check out the trailer here:

The series stars Iñaki Godoy as Monkey D. Luffy, Mackenyu as Roronoa Zoro, Emily Rudd as Nami, Jacob Romero as Usopp, and Taz Skylar as Sanji. The live-action pirate adventure is created in partnership with publishing company Shueisha and produced by Tomorrow Studios and Netflix. Oda-san, Marty Adelstein, and Becky Clements executive produce. Additional cast includes Vincent Regan, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Morgan Davies, Aidan Scott, Langley Kirkwood, Jeff Ward, Celeste Loots, Alexander Maniatis, McKinley Belcher III, Craig Fairbrass, Steven Ward, Chioma Umeala, Michael Dorman, Colton Orsorio, Maximilian Lee Piazza, Lily Fisher, Kevin Saula, and Christian Convery. 

Cowboy Bebop’s Victor Scalise and Scott Ramsey served as VFX supervisors on the series, while also inviting a large assortment of VFX studios, including Framestore, Rising Sun Pictures, Barnstorm, Ingenuity, and Goodbye Kansas, to help create the series’ extensive effects, from sea-worthy ship battles to monsters of the deep. 

“It’s tough, because you know there's a world that's in everybody's mind already, built from still frames of a manga or a 2D cartoon world,” says Scalise. “So, when you're putting it into live-action, you have to always think of, ‘Are we doing what the fans would want?’ We have our directors, our showrunners, our producers, and our actors who are truly building the world. Their making the cake, and we’re the frosting on top. At the end of the day, we had to trust our instincts.” 

The first step, of course, was getting educated about this massive property. While Owens was, as Scalise calls it, “a super fan,” Maeda, Ramsey, and Scalise knew almost nothing about One Piece until coming onto the live-action project. 

“The first thing I did was read the first 100 chapters, and then I went back and read them again,” says Maeda. “I was so impressed with not only the masterful world-building but also the emotional content. The story is so inventive, there's great action, and then there is this wonderful, lovely, tragic emotion that was underlying a lot of the backstories. I made the decision early on that our series wasn't going to go past the first 100 chapters, but I just kept reading because it was so good.”

Ramsey adds, “I read Episodes 1 and 2 of the script and I called Vic right away and said, ‘Hey, this is really good. This could really be something.’ Then I started looking into it and found out how big it was over the last 20-plus-years, and I knew we were going to be under a ton of pressure. There was going to be a lot of people to answer to in order to make sure it came out right.”

And one of the people the team had to answer to was Oda-san himself. 

“His entire adult life was this project, so he had a lot of input,” shares Ramsey. “He basically said, ‘If it's not ready, we're not releasing,’ and it took a while for him to get happy with everything, well over the time we started on the project all the way to the very end in May or June when he finally said, ‘Yeah, I'm very happy with this now. Let's move forward with it.’ But that stress hung for a very long time.”

But Ramsey and Scalise say the stress fueled their attention to detail when it came to the show’s VFX, consisting of the usual pirate-y things, as well as the less usual.

“Luffy’s Gum-Gum powder is one of those things that, when you look at it from a visual effects standpoint, it's like, ‘This should be easy. A CG arm stretches. How hard could that really be?’” notes Scalise. “But then you get into the physics of how much snap it has, how much stretch it has, and the fact that we wanted to stay away from anything Stretch Armstrong, and now it’s more complicated. It had to feel real and not over-the-top cartoony. And there's like a fine line of how far you can push stuff and how little you can push stuff before doesn't work.”

Equipped with the mysterious powers of the Gum-Gum fruit, Luffy can transform his entire body into rubber, which means he can take a punch as well as he can dish one out. 

“It was like, ‘How are we going to not do this badly?’” shares Maeda. “Because even in a Fantastic Four movie that had the budget, it doesn't look good. So, we had a couple guidelines we set early on. Number one was that the stretching had to be fast. It's like a rubber band. It's elastic, so it snaps out, and it snaps back. Number two was to have the stretching come toward the camera as much as possible on the Z-axis, rather than from one side of the screen to the other on the X-axis. We tried to keep to those angles in order to have the stretching be as realistic as possible.”

Another challenge was getting the actual texture figured out for Luffy’s stretching limbs. Scalise and Ramsey looked to Framestore for help. 

“Vic was explaining to Framestore the importance that they have texture in the arm, so it didn’t look like that old Stretch Armstrong character when you pull his arm out and then all the detail goes away,” explains Ramsey. “And one thing that Victor and I were both shocked by is how Framestore said, ‘This is going to be very difficult to do.’”

Scalise adds, “Our in-house supervisor went out and bought every type of tubing and he shot all these different videos to go through with us all the different types of rubber and how it stretches until we narrowed down what we wanted to use. We started playing with weighting the fist more and putting it in tendons and texture, so it's not just a flat, rubber appendage. We would add in more elasticity, as well as more muscle flex. We also factored in the density of muscle and bone so that the arm wouldn’t look like it was just mush. We kept progressing and refining this as production went on.”

But the VFX supes say the biggest assist they got was with Godoy’s epic zeal for his role. 

“We were really blessed with Iñaki because he worked with the stunt team a lot,” explains Scalise. “As you're about to go to punch mode, Iñaki goes to a digi-double, and VFX takes over his performance. But he gives 1,000 percent in every move he does, and all we're really doing is replacing from the shoulder down or the hip down. Because his performance was so good, it helped blend the 3D. Letting the actor's nuances play into the punches and the kicks and all that was a very good thing for us.”

The acting performance from Jeff Ward, who plays pirate clown villain Buggy, was also an asset to Scalise and Ramsey as they worked out ways to make Buggy’s ability to dismember and re-attach parts of his body believable in a live-action remake. 

“The Buggy sequences were some of my favorites of the show, and we really put Jeff through the wringer,” shares Scalise. “He was stuck under a table, hung up on wires, but he was a trooper. There were times where we were telling him, ‘Sit there, don't move your shoulders or neck, be perfectly still, but really give us a great performance.’ That’s tough but he nailed it every time. He was funny, he was sadistic, you kind of fall in love with him, and you hate him at the same time. We had a lot of fun infusing Buggy’s character traits into these dismembered sections of his body flopping and swinging around, and you’ll see some of the hands are grabbing things and tugging.”

Maeda describes the dismembered sequences as being almost acrobatic and notes a large part of the R&D on visual effects was Buggy’s body separating and coming back together.

“In our version of this story, we had Arlong the fish-man crew come to Baratie in the middle of the season, and they bring Buggy with them by putting just his head in a bag, which would get brought out of the bag and start talking, then get stuffed back into the bag again,” explains Maeda. “Some of it was simple camera tricks, with a little bit of VFX. We cut a hole through a table, and Jeff sat down there and kind of bumped his head around. Then you make that separation with the visual effects to make it look like the head is sitting on the table and not poking through a hole.”

He continues, “But there was a really cool process by a visual effects company called Scanline that was shooting Jeff on set, doing the lines as much as possible, then taking him back to Los Angeles, and shooting in a big 360-degree room that had hundreds of cameras all the way around it, so it was capturing the actor from every conceivable angle, and then taking that and combining it into all those images and combining them into a VFX head that could then be superimposed back into the footage that we have shot. It was a great expense, but a lot of fun.”

The crew utilized as much physical set building and practical effects as they could in order to keep the VFX budget from spilling over. Maeda even spent a year living in Cape Town, South Africa to help build the ships for the series. 

“It’s the longest I've ever been on set for anything by a long shot and our crew built more sets than I've ever come close to building on any show that I've ever done,” says Maeda. “On this series, we never went onto a greenscreen stage completely. We built it. We built Buggy’s tent, the interior dining room of Baratie, the interiors of the Going Merry, and all the ships are real. There is not a fake ship in the bunch.”

Even the series’ transponder snails – or “Den Den Mushi,” a species of telepathic snail that serve as a means of communication across the One Piece world – were primarily live puppets. 

“The only CG effects we had to do was on the eyes and make them blink,” explains Scalise. “But the credit for the snails really goes to the prosthetic makeup effects team. We weren’t even going to make them blink initially but, by the end, it was decided the snails needed a bit of extra life added to them.”

For as much as VFX touches almost every aspect of production on One Piece, whole team agreed that they wanted as much life reflected on set as possible. In other words, everything needed to either be made by human hands or developed by human minds. 

“I would hope that this show pushes the envelope of what's possible, without ripping apart the envelope itself,” says Maeda, currently on strike with fellow WGA creatives. “Real people making these decisions – with the acting, the writing, the VFX – and having conversations are part of the joy of filmmaking and, I think, what makes it good. If we start relying on AI, we’re going to lose a lot of originality and spontaneity.”

For all the things AI can copy and generate, it cannot harvest the passion and emotion and inspiration that comes from a human after they've read these stories for the first time, and it cannot make the intentional decision to include character background or have an actor shed a tear in a scene in order to make an audience feel what the original writer intended. 

One Piece doesn't exist without Oda-san,” says Maeda. “It doesn’t exist without a lot of people buying into the dream of this. And I'm really hopeful that people who are not hardcore fans, watch the show and go, ‘I'm going to pick up the manga now and read it,’ or ‘I'm gonna start watching the anime.’ There are so many different ways to enjoy it. They're not exactly the same. But it really is, I'm hoping, the rising tide lifting all the boats.”

Scalise adds, “Anime adaptations are not usually on winning streaks and this is a universe that people have grown up in. You’ve got fans who started watching this when they were kids and are adults now. These characters are like their family. And, for some people, this universe is their livelihood. And that's a tough thing to live up to. So, we did what Luffy would do. We did our best and followed our dreams to make a good product. If fans like it, then we’ve found our One Piece.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at