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Appleseed: Ex Machina

by Zac Bertschy,

Click here for our interviews with Appleseed: Ex Machina producer John Woo and director Shinji Aramaki.

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When the original Appleseed movie hit store shelves way back in 2004, anime fans (and action lovers) were treated to a unique take on Masamune Shirow's vast cyberpunk world; although the comic had been adapted before as a traditionally animated OVA series in 1988, this new film – which introduced the franchise into the world of computer-generated animation – brought the long-dormant series thundering back to life. It's no surprise, then, that this year, Shinji Aramaki, director of the 2004 film, is rejoining with Digital Frontier, Micott & Basara, Axis Entertainment and Lion Rock Productions to bring you Appleseed: Ex Machina.

Armed with a much larger budget and the producing talents of legendary director John Woo (Hard Boiled, Face/Off, Mission: Impossible II), Aramaki is once again bringing the adventures of ES.W.A.T partners (and lovers) Deunan and Briareos to screens both large and small. The film – which is not a direct sequel, rather a new story told in the same world with no direct story connections to the 2004 film – finds Deunan and Briareos dealing with a brand-new ES.W.A.T member named Tereus, an experimental Bioroid created using Briaeos’ DNA. He's superior in nearly every way – his fighting skills are above par. The problem? He's a little too much like Briareos for his own good – he's even developing feelings for Deunan.

Robot love triangles aside, Ex Machina deals chiefly with the gathering threat against Olympus, the utopian society ES.W.A.T serves and protects. A gang of enigmatic scientists with their own idea of what “World Peace” means is threatening to impose their dangerous worldview on the city, causing riots and terrorism. The film is set to premiere this year at Los Angeles’ Jules Verne Adventure Film Festival, but your first chance to check it out is this weekend at the first annual New York Anime Festival. To learn a little bit more about this project, we sat down with two of the film's producers – Joseph Chou and John Woo – and the film's director, Shinji Aramaki. This is the first in a two-part series; presented today is our interview with Chou. Check back tomorrow for our Woo and Aramaki chats!

Interview: Joseph Chou, Producer:

ANN: When was the concept of doing a sequel to Appleseed first broached?

CHOU: About 5 years ago, I was working on launching a new anime business initiative at Warner Bros., after the success of The Animatrix.   At that time I noticed this brand-new CG anime (what they called 3D Live Anime) called Appleseed which really impressed many people at the studio.   A few months after that, I left Warner to produce anime and live action films independently. 
I then developed a relationship with Micott & Basara, who produced the first Appleseed.  After some discussion, we decided to partner up together on a few new anime & film projects with a focus on ‘global’ appeal.  For Appleseed, I first started out consulting for the first film's marketing and distribution, and simultaneously began brainstorming with Micott & Basara and director Aramaki about the follow-up film. 
Around that time, I introduced the first Appleseed to John Woo and Terence Chang (John Woo's producing partner and also a producer of Ex Machina) via a private screening – my hope was that they would spark to the idea of doing a CG anime together…and the first proposal was the ‘new’ Appleseed.  It seemed like a great fit since many action sequences in the first film was John Woo-esque, and his involvement would definitely up the game significantly. 
Fortunately, John and Terence really loved the first film and wanted to go ahead with the idea, and the folks at Micott & Basara, director Aramaki and Digital Frontier (the studio) were all huge fans of John so the rest was history.  
I was one of John's biggest fans since I was a kid – I grew up watching his Hong Kong masterpieces in Korea…so this meant a lot to me personally as well.  I was VERY excited and happy to produce the film together with him to say the least.

Was the decision to produce a sequel to the original based on the performance of the first film or was it entirely a creative choice based on the strength of the material?

Well…I guess it's true that Appleseed Ex Machina would not exist without the success of the first one for sure.   It's like any film property – if it's successful, then why not make more!
But Ex Machina is not a ‘sequel’ purely made out of economic motive like many Hollywood films.  The reason we don't call this film a ‘sequel’ is because of the new creative involvement from John and how it changed the scale and direction of the project itself. 
We wanted to start fresh, with new technology and much bigger budget – 3 times the first one as a matter of fact.   Shirow Masamune, unlike the first one, also got involved with the story direction of the film as well (the key character of Tereus actually was invented by him).  
The idea was to stay true to the Appleseed universe and widen the audience base without alienating the existing fans.  The existing fans can watch Ex Machina as a sequel to the first film, but the newcomer to the franchise would not be left stranded either.

Many readers are likely familiar with your title, but few probably understand exactly what your duties are as Producer on a project like this. Could you describe your involvement with the film?

I'm one of the five producers of this film, with the chief producer being John Woo of course.   My role in this film was to oversee and manage the film from start to finish.
That means involvement in script development, character & background design, communication between US and Japan (John Woo and Aramaki san, for example), international sales, marketing and distribution as well as merchandising….also producing English dub. 
A producer's job is basically that of the planner, manager and trouble-shooter – which was rendered a bit more unique for this project by the virtue of being a US-Japan collaboration.  It was a long, arduous process but I enjoyed every minute of it.

How much creative control (or input) do you have? Did you find yourself making a lot of creative decisions?

Hmm…any film production inherently is a political process in a way, and often you can find people vying for creative ‘control’ or ‘influence’.  Ex Machina was no exception, but the final word was always with John Woo and Shinji Aramaki as it should be. 
I've had my own opinions and input about creative issues such as story, script and character design, which involved extensive discussions and back-and-forth with script writers and other producers both in the US and Japan – and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  
But we all shut up when John and Aramaki spoke about any issue – and John one day declared that the director's opinion must always come first and that basically became our mantra.  I know this kind of approach can sometimes land a film in real trouble (as we witnessed some of the biggest disasters in anime in recent years) but both John and Aramaki foster and encourage an open and collaborative creative environment so it all worked out well. 

What about the Appleseed franchise appeals to you?

You mean other than guns, mecha and beautiful girls? [laughs]

I'm just joking but those are usually ingredients of successful sci-fi anime for sure which I'm not losing sight of. 
I must say that the real appeal of Appleseed is the characters that inhabit this universe…and the universe itself that Shirow san painstakingly crafted.  The characters in Appleseed are full of life and real…each with unique personality and personal issues.  A colorful tapestry of characters is a ‘must’ on any successful movie or anime – and Appleseed's got them in spades. 
And the universe that Shirow san created…is so rich and detailed, unrivaled by any shows out there.  Shirow san crafted world history, politics, geography, and technology for the Appleseed Universe down to every detail.  And this universe in turn serves as the wellspring and backdrop of intriguing and thought-provoking stories.  
Here's an illustration of how rich this universe is: We were once approached by MMORPG creators behind Everquest who wanted to create Appleseed MMO action game – and they were so floored by the level of universe and background design which could have been easily transferred to create an MMO universe.  The design work was already all done by Shirow san many, many years ago!!!  That's the extent of Shirow san's vision and capability as the creator which makes Appleseed great. 

What was the most difficult thing about producing this film?

I must say cross-border communications.  There were many captains on this ship on the both sides of the ocean, so that obviously created room for miscommunication and misunderstanding.  Because I speak both English and Japanese and served as the link between the two countries, I sometimes had to put out the fire originating from either language or cultural gap. 
Having said that, everyone on the project was very reasonable and well-intentioned so it was a smooth sailing after we all got used to working with each other – which is rare to find in film productions.

You are listed in the production credits for the film as being part of the cast – where can we hear you in the movie?

Oh – Steven Foster (ADR director) put me in the booth to do some one-liners and folly…like Cop#1, Construction Worker B…
My mom is a veteran film actor but that's not the trait I inherited.  But I still had a lot of fun doing the short lines for many different characters…especially the ‘brainwashed killer’ role.

Tell us about how the film's language tracks were produced, in terms of the differences between the English and Japanese versions.

We went through a bit of unique process for anime localization for Ex Machina.  Normally you would have a finished Japanese language anime to dub the English lines.  However, due to the time constraint, as well as the fact that this is a US-Japan production, required us to go almost simultaneously with Japanese dubbing. 
Having experienced the level of dubbing effort that was spent for The Animatrix, I wanted to make sure we do a ‘quality’ dubbing for Ex Machina.  Furthermore, I did not want the English track to just mimic the Japanese track, but wanted it to be ‘culturally relevant’ for the English speaking audience who may not necessarily be anime fans who understand the conventions of Japanese anime. 
Fortunately we had a great English script to begin with by a writer named Todd W. Russell (who happens to be the brother of the voice actor behind Disney's Aladdin), and Steven Foster, our ADR director, did a wonderful job transferring and adapting the script to the screen.  
Naturally, the audience will see some discrepancy in dialog between English dub vs. English sub versions, which affects the personality of characters and how the story unfolds.    There were lines and English-specific humor that even had to be approved by director Aramaki, but the intention was clearly to make the ‘best movie experience’ possible.  
When the DVD comes out, I recommend watching and comparing the dub vs. sub versions – you might feel like watching 2 different movies.

Is there talk yet of a third Appleseed film?

It might be too early to say…but the answer is ‘Yes we are in discussions’! 
Sony Imageworks, the folks behind the ‘3D’ version of Beowulf did a 3D test on Ex Machina which turned out beautifully – so perhaps that's one direction we can take the film to.  But one thing I can say for sure is that our fans’ continued support will allow us to deliver the next Appleseed film that can be another breakthrough in Japanese anime history.

Appleseed Ex Machina is light years ahead of the first Appleseed film in terms of the level of creative talents and quality of animation.  We all hope that this film will surprise, inspire and entertain our fans as well as the newcomers to the Appleseed franchise.  Thank you all for your support.