Just as Hollywood has in recent years tapped into American comic books for inspiration, it should be of no surprise that the movie industry would eventually look to the Eastern mediums of manga and anime for their ideas. With announcements of big budget adaptations of manga/anime classics "Akira," "Gatchman" and "Astro Boy" and last summer's "Speed Racer," genre fans are of course curious about this week's release of "Dragonball Evolution," a live-action film based on Akira Toriyama's hugely popular "Dragonball."
The film stars Justin Chatwin ("War of the Worlds") as the story's hero, high school student and young martial artist Goku, whose Grandfather Gohan (Randall Duk Kim, "Matrix Reloaded") is murdered by a two-thousand year-old prison escapee called Piccolo (James Marsters, "Smallville") in an attempt to collect all of the powerful Dragonballs so he can destroy the world. Goku must team with Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat, "Bulletproof Monk") and Bulma (Emmy Rossum, "The Day After Tomorrow") in order to learn the secrets of his past and control the monster within him so they can stop Piccolo and save the Earth.
CBR News traveled to Durango, Mexico last year to visit the set of the film to meet with the cast and crew and take a first-hand look at the making of "Dragonball Evolution."
Upon arrival on set in Durango, you can't help but be impressed by the size and scope of the "Dragonball" sets. Located in an abandoned jeans factory on the outskirts of the town, one of the first things we saw as we entered the facilities were the vehicles used in the film. Bulma's speedster is a black Can-Am Spyder, a yellow sports car with a black racing stripe, used in high school scenes at the beginning of the movie.
There's also Yamcha's truck, a camouflaged big wheeler based on the Hummer. We spoke to actor/rapper Joon Park, who plays Yamcha, the "Han Solo" of the film, about his character's ride and its reflection of Yamcha as a character. "The truck, as you can see, is not the best looking truck in the word" he said. "It is scraps of metal welded together. That's what [Yamcha] does. He is a hustler and a swindler. He gets things from other people. When I got the script, I got the feeling that this guy was a scoundrel. When you get to know the guy, he is basically scarred. He might seem to have a tough exterior, but looks are deceiving. He was scarred somewhere down the line. Whether it is from a business deal, from life in general, or from heartache, he puts armor around himself."
Following that, we met up with the film's Executive Producer, Tim Van Rellin, who escorted us through some of the various sets inside the factory. First up was a visit to the Monk's Temple, where we saw Chow Yun-Fat shooting a scene. Dressed in khaki pants and a red Hawaiian shirt, the actor with staff in hand prayed to the Alter in the Temple and said his line, "Seven Dragonballs must be found." In the scene, he was explaining the history of the Dragonballs and the quest ahead of them to Goku. Nearby was the Temple's courtyard set, where, we were told, a fight between Goku and his love interest Chi-Chi (Jamie Chung, "Samurai Girl") takes place.
Next, we moved on to the set of the Genesis Chamber, which is the villain Piccolo's alien transport. The set was built with metal crossed bars on the floor with lights underneath to give a futuristic effect. In the middle of the chamber was a giant metal throne that Piccolo uses to control the Dragonballs. Van Rellin stated that the Death Star in the original "Star Wars" film inspired the chamber's design.
On our way to the Dragon Temple set to see the final sequence of the day that would have the crew shooting late into the night, we stopped by the prop department. We met with weapons designer Colin Thurston, who explained the difficulty of designing the Dragonballs. "The first design was like the concept drawing but that didn't work on film because you couldn't get a key light on it," he explained. "It's acrylic with a ground-out center. We then went with a very simple one that has a light system inside of it. They glow when you have it in your hand. It is plastic with a light inside that dims out. We also have ones with an exterior light source.
"The line around the center of it is a problem for visual effects. They want a ball with a smooth surface to it. We then went to a solid glass ball. It's like a snow globe. It is water inside, but we have to make them so there's no bubble. But after a day, the bubble comes back. What we do is use that for a hero close-up. For visual effects, it gives them some movement. They can then put some stars in or any other creature.
"Lastly, we ended up with the stunt ball. It is just a resin ball, with paint on effect. It is glass paint. We have used all of the different balls. If one of the actors has to pick one up, we use the plastic one."
The Dragon Temple set was a volcano-like structure that took over three hundred people and four weeks to build. It was here where we saw Chow shoot his final scene of the film. After a few takes, the actor said goodbye to his cast and crew and was wrapped from production.
After filming, we spoke to director James Wong ("Final Destination 3") about his approach to adapting "Dragonball" for the big screen. "There are eighteen books, there is an incredible amount of story that can't be put into one movie," Wong explained. "Also, we wanted to age-up Goku. In the mangas, he is twelve and fourteen. It's not until the end that he becomes a teenager. We wanted to start with him on his eighteenth birthday. That changes a lot of things.
"The most important thing to capture in the movie is the tone, the fun that 'Dragonball' is. We had to take out the parts we couldn't do. The mangas are so fantastic. There are so many places you could go. We had to figure out the journey for Goku. How he comes to realize his destiny."
The director went on to talk about the importance of the fight sequences in the film. "One of the things Fox asked us before we started shooting was, 'What is this going to look like? Why is it so special? How are you going to make "Dragonball" different in feel from the other martial arts movies we have seen?' We started thinking about that. Two different approaches came. We wanted to make these fight sequences really different, so we chose the Iconic camera, which is really tiny. You can hook them onto an actor. You can have a fist-cam. You can follow their punches. We also liked the idea of a super-slow motion camera. We thought that would bring an interesting look. We thought, 'How can we employ new technology into the film to make it look unique and special?' So, one of the first things we did was think about Goku. We wanted to show some of the magic moments that the Phantom camera can capture. So that's how we decided to do the fighting scenes."
Finally, without giving anything away, we were given a glimpse at the climatic final battle sequence of the film between Goku and Piccolo. Fans will be relieved to know that Chatwin looked near perfect as Goku with his trademark spiky hair, and Marsters really took his of Piccolo role seriously, actually staying in character on the set.
The complicated make-up Marsters undertook to play a two-thousand year -ld villain includes a scaly head, pointy ears, fangs and a blue tongue -- that the actor insisted on himself. "That was my idea, I hate it when there's pink on the sides of the mouth, lining of the eye or tongue. So I tried to take that out," said Marsters. His costume consisted of long black puffy sleeves, leather boots, a black leather chest-piece and what the actor described as "M.C. Hammer" pants.
One of the last things we saw before leaving the set was a scene where Goku is standing over the body of one of his fallen companions. After Piccolo shares a shocking secret about Goku's history, our young hero contemplates his role in all that has happened and Piccolo stands before him claiming victory. Goku summons all the strength he has and utters these final words before attaching Piccolo with his last effort. "My Grandfather taught me the first rule is, there are no rules."
"Dragonball Evolution" opens in theatres on Friday, April 10.