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Live-Action Knights of the Zodiac Director Tomek Baginski, Action Choreographer Andy Cheng, & Producer Yoshi Ikezawa

by Kalai Chik,

Director Tomek Baginski and Toei Animation producer Yoshi Ikezawa dove into the details of their partnership and how they worked together to bring Knights of the Zodiac to life. Fight choreographer Andy Cheng spoke about his involvement with the project and how he brought his experience to reconstruct the Saint's signature moves from animation to live-action. Baginski is best known for his work on The Witcher series, but he explained that his background in animation helped to shape the story behind the Knights of the Zodiac movie. He credits Ikezawa for bringing him into the project. Producer Ikezawa's previous work includes the 2013 Harlock: Space Pirate movie and the 2019 animated Knights of the Zodiac: Saint Seiya TV series. Together, Baginski and Ikezawa brought Cheng to create the stunts and action sequences as they were impressed with his work with Jackie Chan and on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

What was it about Knights of the Zodiac that attracted you to make it into a live-action?

Tomek Baginski: Our story started five years ago and actually started on a different adaptation. We don't want to reveal the title, but we were working together on a different adaptation that Yoshi liked so much. He asked, “What do you know about Saint Seiya?” I remembered it from my childhood, because it was played in Poland on television, and I liked it but I wasn't an expert. He said, “Let's start working on it.” And from that moment, I started to dig deeper and started to discover the beauty and depth of this IP. In my case, this was gradual. Yoshi was looking for somebody to help the studio to find a way to adapt this franchise because it's very big. It's comparable to Marvel. It's got a lot of characters and storylines for different films and series. But we have only one movie, so it began as a technical challenge. I grew to love the story and characters and now I cannot live without it.

Yoshi Ikezawa: When I first met Tomek, it was his idea and instinct that just blew me up. He wrote a small treatment that was two pages long, and it was handed to me in a taxicab. I was reading it, and I thought “Who's this guy and where is this idea coming from?” He's not just a genius as a director, but his instinct, you'll see in the movie that he's more like a philosopher.

What makes this story and characters special in your eyes?

Yoshi Ikezawa: That's a very good question because that's something I wanted to carry in for this live-action adaptation. Usually what happens is that we have many live-action features based on Japanese anime or manga, but not all of them carry that heart of their story. What is the heart? It's hard to define. I had to say no to the 21 drafts of the script. The final one that Josh and Matt created got us going, “This is what I was looking for.”

Tomek Baginski: Every character in this huge IP has their own backstory. The one thing for Seiya, the main character for Knights of the Zodiac, is his internal conflict. His destiny is to become a protector of the next incarnation of the goddess Athena. But when he was younger, he failed to protect his own sister. He carries this initial scene, and he has to first go back in time solve it for himself and forgive himself to become this protector. Because you cannot carry this burden with you all your life. At some point, you have to face this demon from your past and solve it. For me it was such an interesting character, and such an interesting structure. Because it's manga and anime, we have a lot of great action. You always have to remember the beauty of anime and manga lies in this balance between heart and emotion and a touching story. We are talking about a touching story of loss, love, and protection. At the same time, there's a lot of explosive action. For Seiya, it's quite violent at moments. It's a nice balance and I loved working on every minute.

Yoshi Ikezawa: That's actually one of the first things Tomek pointed out as the core thing. That struck me. Until then, our team had been working on many other elements to figure out what the core is. When you go back to it, that's where Seiya's journey originally started. For the creator of this manga, his other comics has the same thing. Growing up with a sister and then losing her and losing something. It's something Mr. Kurumada wanted to convey in his career. Once Tomek pointed that out, I agreed that it was his theme.

How did you and Tomek work together to select the cast?

Tomek Baginski: It started with Mackenyu. For us, it was very important to figure out who is Seiya. Can we find our Seiya? Once we found him, everything else was quite easy. It was a big journey for us and then COVID hit and complicated everything. In one case it helped us because we actually reached out to Madison's agents in the very beginning. At that time, she was busy, and she couldn't take it. But then a year later, we tried again because she would make a perfect fit for Sienna and for Athena. And it worked. The rest is history.

Yoshi Ikezawa: Finding Seiya was the hardest thing. We also wanted diversity portrayed in here as well. In the manga and anime, all the characters were trained in different countries and different cultural backgrounds. More so in the anime. I wanted to carry that into the live-action. We knew the cast would be very diverse if we introduce all epic moments in the film. Ideally because Seiya is Japanese, having someone of Japanese nationality or from an Asian background might be the best. Finding the right fit was tough, but fortunately, we teamed up with Mackenyu and it worked out. For the rest, Sean and Famke were great. In Madison's case, we pushed a year and COVID helped us. Fortunately, Diego, Nick, and Mark kept to the schedule even though we had to push a year.

What was the biggest struggle during the pandemic in adapting this?

Tomek Baginski: I mean it helped us, but first it crushed us. We had everything lined up and everything was prepared and COVID hit. At that time, I was on the second season of Witcher and everything shifted. Suddenly I couldn't finish in time and couldn't be on set. We started juggling with schedules. But once we returned and pushed it to the next year, we locked the dates for everybody. Then it wasn't that hard because the lockdowns and the restrictions started to go down. Once we started shooting, it was straightforward, but we had a lot of headache before that.

Yoshi Ikezawa: The first run of COVID, even Tomek's schedule didn't match. We didn't know what we were going to do because it didn't match with the cast. I think it was the right choice to extend six more months so the cast and crew could be in one place at the same time. It was a challenge for any production team during this time. We were discussing with the insurance company about what the medical backup would be. We tested the cast and crew every day.

What lessons or takeaways do you have from Harlock: Space Pirate that you've now applied to this production?

Yoshi Ikezawa: At Toei Animation, we make animation. One thing I tried out in Harlock was that we tried not to use anime distributors. Rather we went with a sales agent and sold it through a mainstream theater network. Then we saw the opportunities in Italy and France, and how it was a hit over there, so it gave us proof that we can do this ourselves. In terms of business, this project is 100% funded by Toei Animation. That's why we could give a lot of creative freedom to Tomek and the film crew.

For Tomek, you're a big fan of the original series. As you know, they have beautiful armor and visual elements. How did you incorporate that for the movie?

Tomek Baginski: We're still not showing the armor. It's a big secret we're keeping. I think it's important to understand anime and live-action and what are the strengths of both. Twenty-five years ago, I started in animation, and this was my background. I deeply understood what anime is. I would take some shots from famous anime projects to my projects sometimes. To be more specific, the technological solutions because there's a lot of technology behind it. I have a deep understanding of animation, but I've worked mostly in live-action TV shows and commercials in the last 15 years. It's very clear you can't copy one world to another. You must understand strengths of both worlds and try to transfer what can be transferrable and change what isn't transferrable. Live-action is more grounded, so not every fantasy action will look good in that medium. You don't want to get into children movie territory where everything is possible; you want to give limits to your characters.

What kind of action do we see in the movie?

Andy Cheng: Live-action, of course. This is the first time they've turned this series into a live-action movie. It's a good thing Yoshi is the producer and Tomek is the director. They have a very specific mission, and my job is to turn animation into live-action. The content is over 35 years old, and somethings need to be updated. We had to find a bridge. The original content is from Japan and it's a very Asian theme. Right now, it's called Knights of Zodiac and it's more on the U.S. side. They know I'm from the East side and can do the West side, so we're blending the two. My job is to make sure the action doesn't look too Asian or too Western. It won't look like Crouching Tiger. There will be punching but won't be an MMA style. Every character has their own signature move and symbol, but it's based on real martial arts.

Did you watch other anime adaptations that have been adapted into live-action to see how they did their choreography?

Andy Cheng: I have, but they all have their own style. I don't have much to learn from that. This content is much older than other adaptations. I care more about adapting to modern day. I have to adapt based on this content, whereas seeing the other adaptations don't help me.

Can you talk about preparation for actors like Diego and Madison?

Andy Cheng: These two are amazing. I don't know if I can talk too much about their action, but they do their own thing. Madison is amazing and loves to do action. Diego started off stiff, but after the whole production, he was the one that impressed me the most. In the beginning he didn't know how to punch, but then he ended up really good. Mackenyu is already experienced in martial arts, and he's done wire work in fight scenes. He's the real deal. He's got the looks and skill.

How long ago were you involved in this movie?

Andy Cheng: I got the phone call around the same time I was working on Shang-Chi, so about three years ago. I was excited to work on it because I knew of the original anime.

How much time does it take you to choreograph fight scenes for a movie?

Andy Cheng: There's no one specific time. I can choreograph for a week or a year. For Shang-Chi it took a year. It depends on the schedule sometimes.

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