Sunday November 11, 2012
By MICHAEL CHEANG
A chance meeting on a bus transformed War Of The Worlds: Goliath from a little movie into a big international effort.
THIS is the story of how Malaysia made a little animated film that became a goliath.
War Of The Worlds: Goliath, which will be released on Nov 15, is Malaysia’s first ever full-length stereoscopic 3D animated feature, and it has already been making waves all over the world. After a successful premiere at Comic-Con International in San Diego in July, it went on to win the award for Best 3D Animated Feature at the Los Angeles 3D Film Festival in September, beating heavyweights such as Madagascar 3 and ParaNorman.
Goliath is a continuation of sorts to HG Wells’ original The War Of The Worlds novel. It is set 15 years after the initial Martian attack; the world has been rebuilt and its governments have formed ARES (Allied Resistance Earth Squadrons; Ares is also the name for the Greek god of war), a multinational global organisation that will defend Earth against any future Martian attacks.
The story revolves around an elite group of ARES soldiers trained to pilot the Goliath, one of the most powerful mechas that Earth’s scientists have managed to reverse-engineer from the remnants of the first Martian invasion.
Goliath was initially meant to be just a little direct-to-DVD film. However, a chance meeting on a bus in Tokyo between the film’s director Joe Pearson and Leon Tan, founder of Malaysia’s Tripod Entertainment Sdn Bhd, changed everything.
“We’re here because of Malaysia,” Pearson proclaimed gratefully when we met him at Comic-Con. “Our friends in Malaysia really believed in the movie, and worked really hard to get it out.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. To chart the development of Goliath, we need to go back almost half a century, when a nine-year-old Pearson first read The War Of The Worlds.
“It was the first science fiction book I ever read, and I loved it back then, even though it’s a harsh book to read when you’re nine! I’m here today as an artist and creator because of that book,” recalled the 57-year-old veteran director, who is the founder of animation studio Epoch Ink Animation, which had previously produced popular cartoons such as Captain Simian And The Space Monkeys and DuckTales, as well as direct-to-DVD feature Highlander: The Search For Vengeance.
According to Pearson, he had always wondered what the world would have been like after the story in the book. After all, none of the subsequent movies based on the book had ever really dealt with that. “I wondered what would mankind have done after the Martians were gone. Well, for one, they’d pick themselves up, rebuild their cities, and make use of Martian technology to rebuild their armies! All those big mechas just lying around!” he said with a laugh.
Using that as a springboard, Pearson decided that the most interesting time period to set a continuation of the story would be in 1914, because in history, that was the year World War I started (in Goliath, the world is also on the brink of war when the Martians attack again).
“Once I had the two ideas in place, it became really easy (to write the story). I wrote the initial 10-page treatment in 1998, along with all the character biographies,” he said.
One of the earliest supporters of his project was Kevin Eastman, owner of Heavy Metal magazine (also best known as the co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). At first, Goliath was going to be in a line of Heavy Metal direct-to-DVD shows; and together with Eastman, Pearson went looking for investors for the movie, to no avail. Then, a chance meeting with Leon Tan on a bus changed everything.
The Malaysian connection
Malaysia’s involvement with Goliath began on that fateful bus ride in Tokyo where Pearson met Tan and struck up a conversation. A friendship soon developed, and they started to explore ways in which they could work together. Tan then introduced Pearson to the folks at Mavcap (Malaysia Venture Capital Management Bhd), a venture capital agency set up under the Finance Ministry to spearhead the nation’s information and communications technology (ICT) sector.
The three parties – Mavcap, Pearson’s Epoch Ink and Tan’s Imaginex Studios audio production house – eventually came together to form Tripod Entertainment Sdn Bhd.
According to Tan, Goliath is actually a predominantly Malaysian production. “Besides Joe, Kevin (who is the film’s executive producer), David (Abramowitz, screenwriter), and part of the voice cast, most of the creative work was done outside of the United States,” Tan said, adding that they had initially wanted a Malaysian company to do the animation, but instead had to commission a Korean animation studio that could better handle the combination of computer-generated and traditional cel (short for celluloid) animation that they required.
Nevertheless, the Malaysian influence on the project remained very strong. Tripod was heavily involved in many of the pre-production creative decisions in addition to doing almost all the post-production work, which included adding in the 3D stereoscopic effects.
Pearson was especially vocal in his praise for Spencer Ooi and Chai Wei Siong of local design outfit Studio Climb, who did the pre-production art design.
“I had seen Spencer’s work before, and remember being amazed by it. So in 2007, when we decided to work with Malaysians, his was the first studio I asked about,” he recalled. “I was amazed at the quality of his work – it’s as good as any team in the world. It’s the best design team I’ve worked with.”
Eye for detail
Screenwriter David Abramowitz was also full of praise for Ooi and Chai, claiming their designs were better than what he had written in his script. “What amazed me was the level of detail in every piece of technology ... they had it down to the smallest nut and bolt!” he said during an interview at Comic-Con. “They not only had drawings of what the tripods looked like, but even what they looked like inside, which people would never ever see! It was a fully complete pragmatic diagram of everything!”
Pearson had roped in Abramowitz (whose credits include the original V series in the 80s, Highlander: The Series, and four episodes of MacGyver) to expand his initial treatment into a proper screenplay.
“It was great fun to write! This was such a wonderful palette to write in, and was so much larger than writing a TV series. I’ve written for the Highlander series (in the early 90s) and also MacGyver, but you can’t put spaceships or giant tripods in those shows!” said Abramowitz.
“Goliath’s story is completely new and reinvented. The characters and weapons are reinvented; and we put in historical figures such as the great German fighter pilot, the Red Baron; (former US president) Theodore Roosevelt; and (famous scientist) Nikola Tesla, who was in charge of reinventing the Martian technology.”
Abramowitz was also instrumental in bringing in some of the primary voice actors for the movie, many of whom were also involved in Highlander: The Series, including Peter Wingfield, Adrian Paul, Elizabeth Gracen and Jim Byrnes. Later, the cast was expanded to include Malaysian actors Tony Eusoff and Asha Gill, as well as Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Chuck), and Mark Sheppard (Supernatural, Battlestar Galactica).
The voice director of the film was Malaysian thespian Gavin Yap who, according to Wingfield, was “ruthless”. “It was great working with Gavin, but he was quite ruthless and would make us say the same line over and over and over again until he got what he wanted!” said the Welsh actor, whose past work also includes a small role in X-Men 2 (“I played a soldier who shot a mutant child in the neck ... I still get a lot of stick over that!”).
All that would have come to nought if not for the funding by Mavcap, which not only kickstarted production on the film, but also helped develop the local animation industry, and showcase the ability of Malaysian talent to the world.
Pearson also said that Mavcap’s support was crucial in transforming Goliath from a low-budget direct-to-DVD film to an award-winning animated 3D stereoscopic theatrical production.
“Two years into the production, we realised that DVD sales were tanking worldwide, and that we needed to expand our horizons,” said Pearson. “(From) the initial footage based on art designs by Spencer and his group, we realised that the movie looked beautiful, and the animation looked good enough for a theatrical release.”
According to him, the film had gone beyond what they thought they could deliver for the initial budget, so they took the decision to expand the film and turn it into a proper theatrical release.
“After we made that decision, Mavcap stepped up again and backed our dream! I really loved working with the Malaysian talent.
“Their investment industry is as good as any in the world, and the sound, audio, design teams were all first rate,” he said, adding that working with Malaysians has opened up a whole new world of young, excited and strong talent.
“Malaysia’s probably the most unique country in South-East Asia – it’s a fertile ground for innovation, it’s a great place to work in, and I think that it (the Malaysian animation industry) has a lot of room to grow and get even better!” he concluded.
War Of The Worlds: Goliath opens in cinemas nationwide on Nov 15.