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AICN Anime-Interview of Highlander: Search for Vengeance Producer Galen Walker

Logo handmade by Bannister Column by Scott Green
If you had a nickel for every online post that suggested the opinion "hey, they should make an anime of ," you could probably fund such a project yourself. Well, it has finally happened, and on June 5th, the hotly anticipated Highlander - The Search for Vengeance finally hits DVD. It's the immortal, katana-weilding Scotsman, as envisioned by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, the director who made everyone's favorite raging death-by-sword anime, Ninja Scroll; animated by Madhouse, the studio that made those classic, bloody anime horror/action films, including Ninja Scroll and some of the one' you might have caught on Sci-Fi Channel's Saturday Morning Anime, such as Demon City Shinjuku and Wicked City. As suggested in our review here, Search For Vengeance delivers on the potential of animating an exciting Western IP as an anime action movie. It moves through its 85 minute run length well, offering plenty of Kawajiri action sequences, and leveraging favored aspects of the Highlander mythology without being encumbered by the particulars of all of the franchise's other incarnations. Producer Galen Walker of Imagi Animation Studios has graciously spoken with AICN to provide some background information and insight into the exciting production.

Scott Green: Speaking of your company, Imagi, not many people had heard of it up until the announcements of its recent big projects, like TMNT. I know, in the past, Imagi had put together a few TV shows like Zentrix and Father of the Pride. Can you give us a brief history of the company? Galen Walker: In 1998, owner and Co-CEO, Francis Kao created Imagi animation. Originally, before Imagi, the animation company, the mother company was the largest manufacturer in Hong Kong and China of artificial Christmas trees. Francis wanted to build a different company than the previous one that his father had created. Animation was his desire and it all started with the launch of the television show Zentrix. He created 26 episodes. Through Zentrix, we were able to get Jeffrey Katzenberg's eye and we began work on Father of the Pride. I joined the company during the production of Father of the Pride. My job at the time was to start the US production company, which was going to focus on theatrical films. Myself, and Tom Gray put together a small team here in the US and started looking to acquire properties, and licensing rights for theatrical, CGI animated films. At this point, we were looking to bring Japanese anime, ideas to the US market. We had an ownership interest in Madhouse Animation Studios and we wanted to go out and make some anime properties that had never really been done before. That would be Western stories or Western story style situations. And, thus, we came up with Highlander. SG: When developing the movie, what did you see in the anime tradition that suggested that it would mesh well with Highlander? GW: The fact that you have the story of Colin MacCleod, in the Highlander tradition, of an immortal, who walks the Earth and is faced with living with his past and never being able to die was kind of an amazing hero story. When we were working with the writer David Abramowitz, it was awesome, because we were able to take a story of Highlander, and tell it from the future, which had never been done. Instead of the Highlander that are in the current day and go into the past, set them in the future, with a futuristic city, then have them go as far back into the past, and deal with each other's history. Then, the big issue is that he carries the katana sword, and he's like a samurai. And in this film, he's dealing with gaining vengeance on his enemy. SG: There have been other anime projects that have tried to put together a Western property with anime style animation, with varying levels of success. Is there anything that you felt that Imagi did differently that made this project work? Did you see anything in the other projects that you tried to correct in this movie? GW: Honestly, this is a first time, for many, many people. I don't know many people who have tried to make a Western franchise, property into an anime film. I think that the Wachowskis did it with AniMatrix, but they did it with shorts. And, I think going to someone like (Yoshiaki) Kawajiri san... First of all, he seldom directs a film that is not his own script. But, we lucked out, because we're all big fans of his, and he was a fan of Highlander. It was really interesting to be able to take the Highlander franchise to him and give him a script to read that he actually liked. He made a lot of changes on it, but liked what we had done. So, the big issue was, it was all new territory for everybody. The traditional animation was done the way it was always done. But, there are a couple of things about this film that are very different than any other animation film that Kawajiri did. That is that we made all the backgrounds and some props CGI, then it was drawn to the animation for character design. The film itself has a very different look. I can't really compare it to anything else. Because, it was a tough task. It was quite challenging dealing with the Highlander producers on this side and then dealing with the Japanese anime director and Madhouse on the other side. SG: How did you go about bringing Kawajiri on board with this project? GW: Francis Kao, the head of the company, is a huge fan of his. When we went to Francis with the Highlander franchise possibility, he immediately said "let's talk to Kawajiri." I flew to Japan with David Abramowitz and we had a series of meetings. We met with Kawajiri: introduced the property idea, the idea of the movie, the idea of the script. Madhouse was very embracing of our commitment to make the film. We all agreed that it would be a great thing to work on. Just, that it had never been done. No one had ever taken a franchise as popular as Highlander and made it into an anime film. Especially not one with someone like Kawajiri. So, it had all the classic make-up of a good anime story. SG: What was it like working with Madhouse as opposed to Imagi's Hong Kong CG studio? GW: It was REALLY, really different. In Hong Kong, our studio is more of a pipeline, where everything is set up in a systematic method. We do all the design, all the creative input and story and data creations and send them over to Hong Kong to create the animation in CGI. In Japan, we created the story, we sent it to Japan, and they did all the storyboards there. Normally, we do all the storyboards here. They did all the reels there, the animatics. We did a lot of work interfacing together with the animatics. The story reels: I recorded the voices here in the US and in Canada and we also did all the music here in the US, then did all the temp reels. There was a nice interaction there. When it came down to character design and set design, all the creative look of the film came right from Kawajiri-san and Madhouse. That part of it wasn't a big collaboration, it was more of a "let's see what they send and then we'll give them some comments if we can." So, that was a little bit different. We were all blown away with the look of the film and the artwork. Kawajiri-san and his team delivered some fantastic art and concepts. SG: Was the animation done to the voices like a lot of American productions, or as in Japanese productions, were the voices fit to the animation? GW: We recorded all the voices first, then send them to Japan for them to put into the story reel. All that was done first, because, this movie was drawn to English. SG: How familiar were the American creative staff on this project with anime, especially anime beyond Ninja Scroll? GW: We were working together with Kevin Eastman and Joe Pearson (co-producers of the film). Kevin and Joe are aficionados in animation. Joe has done quite a few animation series and worked with many, many different animation houses all over Asia. And, Kevin Eastman, as you know was the co-creator on Turtles (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), also on Heavy Metal magazine and has hundreds and hundreds of animation artists working with him. So, we were pretty involved with anime, and what it was going to be. What it was going to feel like. What it was going to look like. For David Abramowitz, who wrote the script, this was the first time he ever really did anything in animation. He looked at it like a great opportunity to go above and beyond his normal creative thinking. We all believed that if he were to "Write a great story, and then we'll take it from there. So, it comes right down to it, if it's not on the page, it's not going to be on the screen. " And we wrote the best thing we could. SG: Working with Madhouse, did you have to invent a process along the way and how did you have to adjust that process? GW: It was more of a conflict in communication. If we were talking about a story and there was something you didn't dig, you'd say "that's corny" or "that doesn't work." None of that interaction happens in Japan. There is no sitting at a table bashing about a story. I just came out of a story meeting for a project we're working on and we had been in there for three hours working on act two. With Madhouse, everything is more of a committee. It's discussed, it's reviewed, it's talked about and with Kawajiri films, it's very different, because every little piece or change, in his mind, will effect another part of the movie. He looks at the film as one whole piece, not just this scene or that act. It was very interesting to send comments to them, because they were very up front with what they agreed or didn't agree, and what they liked and didn't like. At times it got a little sticky. There were times that we had disagreements and we never really worked them out. We just got through them, if you know what I mean. SG: Are there any examples of compromises that make for good stories? GW: Yeah, there was a lot. In the original script, by David, there was never a virus. When we sent the script to Kawajri, It came back and he had created a virus. And that was what Marcus (the villain) unleashes on the world at the end. In David's original story, Marcus had been taking all the children of the city and enslaving them to produce different things for him. There was more of a slavery story. Then when Kawajiri came back with the virus and not the children, David agreed. He bent . I think he wasn't very happy about doing it, but he agreed to do it. There were a couple of issues with how we perceived Amergan (Colin's mentor) and how he perceived Amergan. And I think a lot of the design was very Japanese. That's what they do and that's what they prefer. And you have to let them have their creative take. We always wanted to make the right anime, with the right Highlander influence, but it had to be a good animation film. It had to be a good anime. There were a couple of character design issues and we all came back and eventually realized we had to make small tweaks to make us all happy. As far as the story goes, the biggest issues came at the end. Kawajiri had a director's cut that is much longer than the original film we're putting out. It wasn't so obvious in certain issues. When you see the director's version compared to the US version, we have opening monolog cards that come up to start the story, telling you what's going on, giving some background. There's some narration in the beginning. They don't have that in the Japanese version. There's about seven or eight additional scenes in the Japanese version that we cut out in the US one, just for timing, and just for pace of story. That was the big issue. I'm sure Mr Kawajiri was really unhappy about the cut, but this was what the other producers thought was best for everybody. SG: I thought that this was one of the better paced anime action movies that I've seen in a while. It doesn't spend to much time on any point, or cut out explanations, or rush through. Who decided on the cut that was used? GW: It was a collaboration of the producers, Peter Davis, Tom Gray, Bill Panzer and myself, and writer David Abramowitz. We all went through a screening of the original one. I think Peter Davis really felt that the movie was a little too long, and was not clear enough. Bill (Panzer) had issues as well. We ended up working with a really great editor, Jeff Werner. We all sat in a room with him for two weeks and made our edits to the film. I took it and presented it to Kawajiri and he didn't like it. He didn't want us to cut his film He didn't like it at all. I totally understood and respected his position, and basically, I humbled myself and asked him please to consider these cuts and consider how we tried to keep the authentic feeling and view of the film. But, you can be the judge when the director's version comes out, which will probably be out later this year. See both versions, and you can see the differences where the length and timing of it changes. SG: That's interesting that the cut was done in America, because I thought it was pretty well paced and it didn't have a lot of the problems that anime action movies can have. Did you find that the animators were more used to working with the television length format, than the movie length? GW: At Madhouse, I had more of the feeling that everybody was a feature person. I didn't feel like it was a TV house at all. SG: Were there any concepts that you had to explain to the Japanese production staff such as cultural differences, or in terms of factual things, like recognizable New York geography. GW: We sent them all to New York for a photo shoot of location scouting. They went early on, and took lots of photos. Funny story... I got a phone call, I think, late last year, probably just before they were finishing the film. They needed a Statue of Liberty and I was on my way to Japan for the next two days. In the opening shot, there is a camera angle that goes through a desolated New York and it passes the Statue of Liberty. They had tons of photos, but they didn't have a reference for a certain calculation. My wife had happened to be in Los Vegas. So, she went to New York, New York and bought a huge, four foot statue of the Statue of Liberty and brought it back and I took it to Japan with me. And, that's what they used as a model. But, their location scouts for New York were great. When you see the George Washington Bridge and the way they built Manhattan. The monolith where Marcus lives is actually where Central Park is. That was really, really cool. I think the big issue really was not as cultural as it was director's vision. Especially in music. He does not want the music to tell the story. He wants the music to be the coloring for the movie. Working with Kawajiri was an amazing, eye opening experience for me, looking at it as a filmmaker, because he sees such a bigger picture than you ever think about. SG: In terms of the music, it was an interesting rock score that wasn't necessarily like the Queen soundtrack of the movie. How did you decide on the music for the project. GW: Kawajiri sent us the story reel. With Bill Panzer and Peter Davis and Tom Gray and all the team, nobody really was experienced in looking at animation story reels. They had looked at story reels for movies, but no one had ever looked at a pre-vis for an animation film. They're really rough so sometimes they're really hard to understand. They're really raw and they don't look like anything except figures holding things. So, I went through the story reel when I got it from them. I used to be in post production and did sound for many films. I had been a sound supervisor for 10 years. I went through the film and I added all of these temp effects, I put all the voices in, then I did a soundtrack. I pulled music from different records and different soundtracks: Batman, Planet of the Apes and stuff, you name it. And when I sent back the cut, to Kawajiri san, he sent me an e-mail saying that he really liked the style and tone of the music. So, we found two great composers: Jussi Tegelman and Nathan Wang, who brought completely different styles to this film, and it was perfect. It was a long, hard job. But, by the end of the day, and countless hours... we were up around the clock the last three weeks before the mix. I was in Japan with my Protools system in the hotel room. Those guys where in their studios and we were sending this around FTP sites around the clock, we were editing on the fly. The cue that you see: Marcus is on a horse, it's a flashback when he sees Kyala. He pulls the spear out of her and finds out that she is an immortal. That cue was created and edited in my hotel room. I had the cues and a music box as we recorded the guitar. I mean we were recording around the clock trying to make things happen. One thing that was really cool, is, at the very end of the film, we have a cue from a band called "HIM". It was a song that came on earlier, and it didn't seem to fit in the film. It fit in the credits, but it didn't fit in the end of the film. We were all unhappy with it. But we did not have a cue for it. And Jussi Tegelman was in Japan with me, because he was also my music editor and he was working with us. And Nathan Wang was on his way to Hong Kong and stopped in Japan. So, all three of us were in Japan at the same time. We were at the studio called AOI, and we found, a beautiful, big grand piano at the basement of AOI, a timpani drum and a snare drum. We rented some keyboards and we actually made the cue for the last scene of the film together in that studio. That was the one and only time the three of us worked together in the same space on the same piece! Mr. Kawajiri was very happy with it in the end SG: How about the guitar opening theme? GW: The main guitar, the crazy guitar lead is by this incredible guitar player. His name is Harry Cody. Harry was in a band called Shotgun Messiah and he came up to Jussi's Studio. Since Marcus is playing a Stratocaster, we were trying to figure out "what would he be playing?" In the original script, he's playing "Stairway to Heaven", and he is trying to play it perfectly, because Marcus is all about being a perfectionist. We all thought, because of the cuts and because of the way the scene worked out, it would be more intense just to play more of a Paganini type of feeling. Like he's just a virtuoso in everything he does. That's actually Jussi Tegelman playing the drums. I think I'm playing the bass or the rhythm guitar on one of those scenes. We had a great time with that. SG: The action of the movie was very particular. Some of it resembled Kawajiri's other works, such as Ninja Scroll. Other fights were very distinctive. Was it mostly his decision on how the sword fights worked out, or was their any input from you? GW: That was all Kawajiri. They did a wonderful job. Some of the sword work is just phenomenal. He did a great, great, great job putting them together and he had all the creative input on that. SG: Did you find any differences in how the Japanese creative staff dealt with an existing property like Highlander versus how you are used to staffs dealing with similar franchises. GW: It's very different than American productions. We're more of a "Three act" oriented layout type of world where we do everything by layout, story reel, story board. But we change it along the way. A lot of things change in advance. Once the story reel was done in Japan, the movie was done. It didn't change one iota from that story reel. There were a couple of inserts that we added to help give a little clarity. Like in the opening to Highlander, you see the war where they are fighting, and you see him die as a Kelt. That's not how the Japanese version opens at all. It's completely different. Once those storyboards were completed, that movie was locked and they stuck to it frame by frame. SG: The movie resembled a lot of American R-rated action movies, with the sex scene and such. Was that from the script? Was it a goal you tried to achieve with the movie? GW: That was in the script, but the way he did it was much more artistic, and beautiful. I think he did a real nice job with that scene. With the candles and the church. I think it really established Dahlia as a character. SG: Was the model of an action movie from the 80's and 90's, kind of the context for the original Highlander movie, something that you shot for with this animated project? GW: No, we didn't really have any prerequisite for how we were going to make the film. It was going to be a Kawajiri film with a Highlander subject. SG: In the script, how did you plan to handle the Highlander baggage, such as all the other movies in the franchise? Were you trying to appeal to people who know of the series but might not have seen it? GW: We didn't want to reinvent Highlander. We didn't want to come back in say "yes, we are going to redo the franchise, and reinvent the characters and tell the whole story from the beginning. " We felt that it had been established enough. What we did stick to was the lore of Highlander. In the Japanese version, the director's version, there is a middle area where they are at Stonehenge and Amergan is speaking to Colin about what he is. In the director's cut, it is longer and more descriptive. In the US version, we cut that way down because we felt that enough had been established of Highlander. People knew it. And enough people know of it. We didn't think that anybody was going to get lost even if Highlander was an unknown entity to them. We created Colin MacLeod and he's a new character. He tried to follow just the rules and not get too deep in following the footsteps of what had already been done. SG: How were the voices cast and how did you handle the accents? GW: We spent a great deal of time trying to find the right people for the characters. We knew that Colin would be older in the modern day era, when he was in the city. He'd be harder, Clint Eastwood-ish. And he wouldn't have so much of an accent. It had been thousands of years. Then when he goes back, and he's a Kelt in the village, he's very much kind of Scottish. He's got an accent. Alistair Abell did Colin. We had hundreds of auditions. He auditioned on the telephone and I heard about him, and I called him one night. I remember sitting on my deck and we were on the phone together and he was reading the lines over the telephone and I asked him to read younger, with an accent, and he did it. He was always my first choice. I took three or four of the main voices we liked for Colin. We sent them to Kawajiri and Kawajiri agreed that Alistair was the best. Marcus (Zachary Samuels) is interesting, because there's two Marcuses. The director's version has a different Marcus than the US version. The US version has a broader, deeper Marcus. He's a little more forceful. We wanted a bigger voice. Someone who sounded like they'd been around forever. Very knowledgeable and very imperious so that he really stood out. Dahlia was a great actress (Eid Lakis). She's just awesome. She was perfect from the moment that we auditioned her. We loved her voice. Amergan was a tough one too. We liked many many people. Scott McNeil who did Amergan, who also does Gregor and the lab director was an amazing character. We met him in Vancouver and he was just perfect. We told him what to do and he just came right through. We wanted to model Amergan off of Merlin from the movie Excalibur. He was one of Scott McNeil's favorite actors. It was great, it worked out well. SG: Are there any plans for a sequel. If so, would it be using the same characters? GW: We're going to see how the film does. If the film does well, and we determine that it's a hit and people buy it, we'll all get very interested in doing a sequel. We would like to have a theatrical situation with this. It's very difficult to get these into a theatrical release. If the film sells well, I think we'd like to make a second one with Kawajiri for the theatrical market. I think we would like to keep the same main character and create a new world for him or who, knows, maybe take him back in time. I think it would be interesting to have Kawajiri take a shot at writing it. SG: Are you considering any similar projects, bringing North American franchises to anime? GW: We're producing a new version of Gatchaman in CGI, and we're thinking of having some anime involved with that. At this point right now, we don't have any plans to do another anime. We're more focused on our CGI films. SG: Do you mind talking about some of those CGI projects? GW: Right now, we have Astro Boy, Colin Brady is directing it and it is being produced by Maryann Garger She was formerly of DreamWorks, finishing ÒFlushed AwayÓ. And we have Gatchaman, which is being directed by Kevin Munroe and produced by Lynne Southerland. Those pictures are in slate to be completed in the next couple of years. I really think that they are going to be films like no other animation CGI films. SG: Who do you see as the target audience for Gatchaman? What are the plans for handling nostalgia value versus modernizing what Gatchaman is about. GW: I think it's very much a gamers audience; a Turtles audience; a Spider-Man audience; a Batman Begins audience. The movie is going to be incredibly action focused, where the style and design is going to be incredible; appealing to the eye and to what the modern super hero audience is looking for. I think we're looking for a PG-13 rating, which is much more graphic and maybe do a little more than we have in the past. SG: Does your company see itself as expanding the audience for CGI films? Even PG-13 is a little older than what many people see as the audience for that sort of film. How do you shape the movie and its marketing to go a little bit older? GW: By going older, we're not trying to make it where it is graphically different as far as its content. You look at Spider-man. That's PG 13. That's very heavy with action. Like Turtles, we had to really change a lot of its action sequences. Remember, animation is always looked at as kids' programming. So, a PG rating in animation is much softer than a PG in live action. We had to change things in TMNT that couldn't be shown on TV or the screen because it would make it PG-13. We couldn't have it be PG-13. It had to be PG. With Gatchaman, we're not going to hold back, you are going to see gunshots and people getting shot. Maybe a little blood. It'll just be slam packed with anything you'll see in a PG-13 live action film. It's just we have to play in the rules of animation. Anything we do is probably going to be considered PG-13. SG: There was recently an article that your company is ramping up to produce a CGI film in development every eight months. How do you envision a system like that working? Would you be generating your own franchises to go into that pipeline? Would you be developing a lot of sequels based on existing franchises? GW: Probably both. We are looking at existing franchises and our own properties. At the end of the day, we are looking to make action movies that have a hero, or a super-hero. It would be great to establish our own brand or character for our action hero, but if we have a great story that happens to be a Turtle film or a Gatchaman film, or an Astro Boy film, or any other type of film, that has to do with a character, I think that's the brand we're looking to come out after. We're trying to be more edgy. We're trying to give people what they're really looking for in grown-up animation. SG: What you said, and some of the mission statements on your site, are very super-hero centric. What do you see as the appeal of super heroes in terms of their sustainability in the theatrical market? It seems like super-heroes come and go. There's spurts of interest and they fade. How do you see it sustaining? GW: I think it's going to be fine. With the total success of 300.. the look and the feel was so amazing. And the art work, and the textures, even the sound. But, if you really think about it, it is a very simple film. A group of heroes. Of men standing for their beliefs who take a stand to the death. And that's a hero. Standing for what you believe in. Whether you're a guy with supernatural powers who can change something or fight for weak people or save the Earth, or you're a regular person who has to exert your efforts for an extraordinary event that you are in charge of. You know, a hero is, I think, something everyone needs in this world. Especially today. We have a lot of crazy stuff going on in the world and , in cyberspace, people are escaping to find other alternative methods of reality. I think heroes bring something to the table that we don't get every day, that makes us rise to the occasion and maybe fantasize about being the hero ourselves. I don't think they're are going away. SG: Before we go, is there anything else you wanted to say about the Highlander film? GW: Only the fact that I think that when people look at this film, they ought to take a reflection on what we've done to make it. I think it's a real milestone for animation. I think that hopefully people will look at it like that. It's not just about taking a franchise and just re-focusing it with animation so that it has another five years on its legs. Or taking these, and putting them on Saturday morning television. This movie was done as a really unique experiment, but also as a movement. Taking an American franchise that has the kind of lore that Highlander does, giving it to a different culture and telling them to go make an animation film. Draw something. Not even live action, where people are people. These are characters they designed. ideas they came up with. They took pictures of our cities and depicted them. I really hope that when people watch this film and take a look and see what Kawajiri brought to the screen that they realize that this is a kind of multicultural breakthrough. I want people to know that Francis Kao is the person who made this project possible. I'm such a lucky guy to work for him and be able to do what I do. Being able to go to Japan and work with Kawajiri and Francis putting this whole thing in motion with his vision. We were all on the same team. We all brought great pieces. He had Kawajiri, he had Madhouse, we found Highlander, and everyone on this team was so great. David Abramowitz was unbelievable. Kevin Eastman and Joe Pearson were just incredibly collaborative. The whole scene in the movie on the World War II airplane with the bomber over England, that was all David, Joe and Kevin. I just wanted to say, I'm one of the luckiest guys to be able to be part of a project like this. I hope that people can understand it and I hope people can respect it.

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