Digital fantasy flop bankrupts 'synthespian' bid

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The Independent Culture

The studio behind Final Fantasy, the film with ambitions to usher in an era of digital celebrities and make actors redundant, has been forced to close because of poor box-office returns and a sluggish economy.

The studio behind Final Fantasy, the film with ambitions to usher in an era of digital celebrities and make actors redundant, has been forced to close because of poor box-office returns and a sluggish economy.

The film, released last summer, sold itself as the first full-length live-action film with a cast entirely made up of computer characters, or "synthespians", as the producers called them. The tough-nut woman scientist at the heart of the story, Aki Ross, was promoted as though she was real. She posed in a bikini in Maxim magazine with real models.

But Final Fantasy was panned by the critics and failed to take off at the box office, earning about $32m (£22m) in the United States and $72m in the rest of the world. Since the film cost almost $150m, the only way its parent company, Square USA, could stay afloat was to find a major investor.

After 11 September and the ensuing recession, none was forthcoming. Earlier this week, Final Fantasy's producer, Jun Aida, told the 125 employees at his hi-tech studio in Hawaii that they and the computers they work with would be "terminated" at the end of March unless a last-minute investor came in.

"If I had had another 18 months, maybe the situation would be different," Mr Aida lamented. His dream, sponsored by his Japanese parent company Square Co, was to launch a franchise of digital characters who could appear in movies of all kinds, playing different roles each time.

A number of computer engineers, futurologists and movie industry insiders began to envisage a future in which the line between human beings and computerised images – which has begun to blur thanks to films such as Jurassic Park, Titanic and Lord of the Rings – would disappear.

But even before the film came out, some sceptics in Hollywood dismissed the "synthespian" idea as a marketing ploy, and said there was little substantial difference between Final Fantasy and any other computer-generated movie. Its claims to ultra-realism were undermined somewhat by its video-game style plot, involving futuristic scenarios of phantom presences taking over the heroine's body.

The Screen Actors Guild said it was not remotely concerned about its members losing work. One special effects specialist, Patty Blau of George Lucas's company Industrial Light & Magic, remarked: "Human beings have a certain je ne sais quoi."

The Honolulu studio has been doing other work, notably contributing to the next instalment of the hit sci-fi series The Matrix. Final Fantasy computer games and DVDs have been doing well, but cannot cover operating costs estimated at $18m a year.

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