James Rogers ︎ VFX Supervisor & Creative Director

Madonna and Me

A tale for the 20th anniversary of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

“The dream was always the same…” © 2001 Square Pictures
It must have been mid-2001. I was in Los Angeles to help oversee the colour grade of Square USA’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I was the compositing supervisor on that show, and while that production was pretty unconventional in terms of roles and assignments, the positive side of that was that I was given a lot of latitudes to do things which would otherwise be apportioned to others.

Shot by painstaking shot, I graded the whole movie in Avid’s Illusion compositing software. Twelve hundred or so unique setup files, each with their own adjustments, masks and keys. This was not the digital grading of today. (As an aside, the credit roll of the movie was rendered in After Effects on my brand new white iBook in my extended stay lodging in Los Angeles, which took about 12 hours every revision. As I said it was an unconventional production).

Because distribution was still leg-roped to tried-and-true celluloid as the dominant medium, the co-director Moto Sakakibara, editor Chris Capp, production coordinator and all round good guy Hiroshi Tanaka, and I went to Los Angeles to do two grades: a digital one for DVD release at Sony in Culver City, and an analog one for theatrical showing at Deluxe in Hollywood. Ideally we would have just done one grade and a full digital output to film, but for whatever reason, Columbia, the distributor, didn’t want to go that way.

So we spent most of the time pulling a variety of film-outs and short ends back to the look and feel we had spent the last five years intimately getting to know. Every pixel was familiar to us, and each pixel frustrated us. I pity those who had to accomodate our fastidiousness.

You should have seen the other options… © 2001 Square Pictures

There was other business at that time to attend to as well, such as marketing. Traditionally, I would have no voice in such a meeting, but for Moto, I was his native English-speaking eyes and ears.

After each rapid-fire meeting filled with studio hype and passively coercive shenanigans, we would regroup somewhere quiet. Moto would drill me about what I thought or what I felt was really being said. I had a very dormant degree in Communication, but at those times, it bubbled up and helped frame the subtext of those discussions. Moto and I rarely disagreed. Despite this, the marketing remained woefully off mark. Our hesitations, we were studio executive ‘splained, were because we were too close to the material.

Hype was beginning to build around the movie. Ain’t it Cool News, a dominant movie fan site at that time, received some very carefully leaked stills by the studio. There was a buzz on the internet channels, at least the few that existed 20 years ago.

Part of that hype was the cover of Maxim, a men’s lifestyle magazine, which each month featured a female model of some sort on the front cover. The lead of Final Fantasy, a fully digital character called Dr Aki Ross (voiced by Ming Na-Wen), was chosen to “pose” for the cover. This put our digital character team into raptures, and Steven Geisler, Andrea Maiolo, and Francis Cortina spent an inordinate amount of time infusing detail—both seen and unseen—into a bikini-clad magazine-ready version of Dr Ross. It was so high-res, that they made it a centrefold (I think euphemistically referred to as a “poster”).

The infamous poster

The hype had been noticed by wunderkind music video director Mark Romanek and his producer, Steve Reiss. The iconic videos Romanek had made really were the definition of MTV in the 90s. I’m not sure who had hatched the idea, but I was dispatched to talk with Romanek, who was editing his first feature One Hour Photo. He had cast Robin Williams in a non-comedic, deeply sinister role. That was a first, and there was much consternation as to whether Williams could pull off such a character. I’m sure I had read all about it on Ain’t it Cool News.

My lasting memory of that meeting was Romanek doing double duty with the editor on his film and with me, flipping through Surface and Wallpaper magazine, tearing out architectural inspiration and pitching the idea of his video. Effectively, it was this: Madonna has a new record; she hates making videos; I want to make a digital version of her; kinda like what you have done in Final Fantasy, but better; and maybe that digital version can be used from here on. He played me a track from her Music album: Nobody’s Perfect.

My other memory was that Kubrick had died a few years earlier, and I mentioned how the single point perspective shot the editor had up on screen looked like a Kubrick shot. Romanek took a beat. I’m not sure he teared up. In my memory he did, but maybe that’s only because he spoke of his affection for Kubrick, and what a man the world had lost. If you haven’t, go and watch One Hour Photo.

With that in mind, and a few of those torn inspiration pages, I tried to remotely get conceptual 3D set builds quickly turned around by the Square USA studio in Honolulu. It didn’t go very well. I simply didn’t have the experience or supervision prowess to explain what was needed, nor was the Honolulu studio geared to produce anything like this. Romanek and I quickly abandoned that approach.

Photo by Dionisio Weiland Madonna sings on the Drowned World Tour, 2001

An opportunity to pitch the idea to Madonna in person came up. She was about to launch her Drowned World Tour, and was doing a full dress rehearsal at the Forum in Inglewood. Considering she was about to launch a tour, the meeting became a little more critical—while on tour, Madonna would be unavailable to shoot a music video, get reference photography or 3D scans of, and generally wouldn’t be around to be pitched ideas.

This was the one and only window.

What followed was seemingly days of random calls, which simply amounted to, don’t fuck this up. I got calls from the production company, Madonna’s reps, and concerned people related to Square USA. If I did fuck it up, Madonna would walk, and the window would close, lots was riding on this, so don’t fuck this up. Executive Producer Chris Lee was sent to also represent the Honolulu studio and the effort, or to watch me. Likely it was more to watch me. I would probably have done the same, I was only 29 and looked about 19.

We had organised a photographer to take reference stills and a bus equipped with a 3D scanner to capture Madonna’s head. We would have a chance to run her through things and capture all the reference we could minutes after she had finished the dress rehearsal. It seemed like a solid plan.

In-car GPS just wasn’t a thing back then, and I inevitably got lost on the way to the Forum. I started to sweat through my newly purchased Ben Sherman shirt, which still smelled of the plastic envelope I had bought it in, and was similarly creased. I stopped in a thoroughly foreign neighbourhood and asked for directions. I only asked one guy, but a whole community came to my aid. I had seriously overshot my destination and was in Walnut Park. I was deeply lost, and the place name didn’t really help me regain my sense of direction. I got verbal instructions, a hand drawn map, and finally a car to follow. They were going to get me there come hell or high water. These people were the best of America, both then and now, even recalling this 20 years later. As promised, I arrived well within time.

The endless tarmac surrounding the Forum was empty, save for a smattering of cars and the Airstream bus that housed the head scanning equipment. I parked, and estimated about 100 cars in the carpark made for tens of thousands. I checked in, saw the scanning booth, gave some lighting notes to the photographer for our specific CGI needs, and was invited to go and see the dress rehearsal, which by now was in full swing.

It was pitch black in the stalls. The stage gave the only illumination, and I had entered during an intimate lighting setup. I just couldn’t see anything except shadows. I shuffled to the nearest empty row while my eyes adjusted.

The stage lights rose, and suddenly I was able to take in my surrounds. Upstairs around me was a smattering of crew, production people, and then a few who wore the disaffected expressions that only seen-it-all music biz pros can maintain. In the audience pit below, there were 100 special friends, who I am probably inaccurately recalling were disadvantaged youth. Whichever way, there was a charitable aspect to their attendance, which impressed me.

I realised the tall guy next to me was holding a baby wearing ear muffs. In between songs he asked me what I thought of the show. I’m sure I said something positive and encouraging. He seemed unimpressed by my polite murmurings and particularly by the show, and he clearly told me that. Being an Australian in America, I was acutely aware of non-American accents. This guy was British. And then the penny dropped. This wasn’t just a guy, it was the Guy. Guy Ritchie.

It didn’t take Guy long to have seen enough of the show, and shuffle past me, exiting with cute baby and all. The concert carried on. The physicality of it was impressive. It was a workout for everyone on stage, but none more so than Madonna.

In those days, Madonna had been crowned Madge by the British press, as she had taken up residence in England. Whether that was an attempt to belittle, or adopt her, I realised that regardless of what you called her, Madge worked bloody hard.

The show came to a rousing end. The special guests were appropriately rapturous. It was fun. I wouldn’t have thought to go to a show like that previously. The last live show I had seen was Nick Cave, in a considerably different environment. Madonna’s show was better than I had expected, not that I had spent any time thinking about what to expect—I had only thought about the scanning, photography, pitch, and most of all, not fucking it up.

We started in the scanning bus. It wasn’t very glamorous on the inside, and the head scanner, which was on a rotating arm, looked like a torture device Kubrick would have used in a Clockwork Orange. It was run by a husband and wife team, who had clearly been given the same don’t fuck this up speech as me. Only they were outwardly nervous… and bickering. Somehow, I ended up being the person nominated to tell Madonna what to do. Which wasn’t to be told directly to her, but to someone who was assisting her.

When Madge made an entrance, she wasn’t happy. Something was up. A head scan requires the subject to stay perfectly still. At that time, the scanners used ear plugs to help stabilise the head. Madonna’s manager made it clear we weren’t going to be using those.

Fair enough.

Madonna had a two-way pager in her hand. She was furiously typing—someone clearly was copping a screenful of frustration. Try as we might, we couldn’t get her to stay as still as the scanning company wanted her to be. The husband and wife scanning team started bickering again. Madonna was talking to her manager in outrage—and I learned she was in the middle of a two way pager argument with Ritchie. The energy in the bus was going down the toilet. Don’t fuck this up. We quickly pulled the plug on the scanner, and went to option B. The photographer. Don’t fuck this up.

The entourage decamped and we made our way upstairs. The photographer, thankfully, was ready to go, calm, and sprang into action with professional efficiency. Again, I was the assigned speaker—asking for particular poses to help our character modeling and texturing team. Even though we were just a handful of feet apart from one another, there was no direct dialog between Madonna and I. It went via the closest trusted person, in this case, a hair and makeup artist. I did and still do have sympathy and understanding for artists needing these protections; at times it is easy to see how things end up operating like this.

There were about twenty other people in the room. Romanek, Reiss, Lee and Madonna’s entourage. There was a quiet hubub. People kept tapping me on the shoulder and whispering things along the lines of, “you said you were going to get this pose”. It is true, I did have a shopping list of poses to get, but I was also sensitive to the rather unhappy state of our key talent. Don’t fuck this up. I had prioritised what we needed from the photos, and was looking to get that top line of wants.

Being tapped on the shoulder and whispered at constantly was really making it harder to concentrate on the job at hand, and also appear like I knew what the fuck I was doing in front of this musical megastar; a star who was really not digging having to pose. Madonna relayed that she wouldn’t take her headband off—I didn’t ask for that; or her sweats—nope, no need; or put down her water bottle… Another tap on the shoulder and another whisper. Don’t fuck this up. My blood pressure was rising.

Funny thing used to happen to me back then. I’d been living in America for about five years, and I desperately wanted to be both clearly understood and not to stand out. Like so many of us at the time, I altered my accent and my syntax to be clearer. These days with the infiltration of the internet, I find most Americans are more familiar with foreign accents.

Certainly back then, American TV wasn’t as cosmopolitan. Australian films, for example, were often subtitled, if not dubbed. So my altered accent allowed me to pass under the radar for most people, with just the odd word standing out with distinctive Australian twang. However, the peculiar thing is that when I got angry, annoyed or nervous, I would pretty much revert to talking like a boy from Brisbane. Full Queenslander. Don’t fuck this up.

So it was when Madonna told her hair and makeup artist to tell me that she wasn’t going to take the cold compress off her arm for me—which I hadn’t asked her to—I kinda snapped. Like a person possessed, talking in tongues, I became a kid from Brisbane.

A stream of Aussie accent tumbled out of me as I addressed her directly:


Her eyes snapped to meet mine.

Darnt worry about the col’ compress. Wull jus’ cutch-ya arm awff one side and stick it awn the uther.

Time stopped right there and then. Madge stared holes in me.

Shit, shit, shit. Don’t fuck this up. Shit. I may have been more surprised than her.

I fucked it up.

The silence went on. The whole room was pin quiet. In the film of my life, this is where the Hitchcock dolly-zoom would be deployed (perhaps also with a montage of pecking birds crowing you fucked it up!).

I’d like to think she was weighing walking out, or maybe punching me in the face. But it occurs to me now, she merely might have been just trying to translate whatever the hell had just fallen out of my mouth. It sounded like English, but at the same time it wasn’t. Whichever way, a curious thing happened.

She laughed and spoke all at the same time:

Cut ya arm off and stick it on the other side.

She aped a rough approximation of the boy from Brisbane.

That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day.

The rest of the room, right on cue, laughed too. They stopped tapping me on the shoulder and whispering. My suppressed Aussie co-personality made us a friend. For a few minutes, she acknowledged the Australian.

The shoot finished quickly and we spoke briefly about 3D characters and what it all means. Could they be realistic? Not yet. How long would it take? Will the technology get better? And with that, camaraderie came to an end. Chris Lee emerged from the background to try and give the mercurial Madge a copy of the Maxim poster, but was intercepted and turned down before he could even get close. Romanek snatched a few more words with her in a private pitch.

And then that was it. Meeting done.

For the curious or music fans, don’t bother looking the project up, it didn’t happen. It died in the budget stage. Square USA wasn’t made to deal with projects like these, nor did it need to. If I recall correctly, the budget for the digital Madonna was reasonable, at least we had thought it was. It was a heavily Square-subsidised number, but nowhere near low enough for a video clip. I am pretty sure our turnaround time would have been considered glacial, as well. The bottom line was however, that Madonna simply didn’t think it was a single. Given the cost of the asset, she’d go on doing her own video clips, even if we could upgrade to a pixel-perfect doppelgänger over the years.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, despite many technical achievements, went on to be considered a box office bomb. The Square USA Honolulu studio closed shortly after completing a Matrix-related side project for Warner Bros. called the Animatrix. The closing also turned the lights off on a rapidly expanding cast of digital actors. In the early 2000s, I believed that digital humans would be commoditised over the 20 years to now. Great advances have been made, but as we all know now—like personal jetpacks and flying cars—we’ll be waiting a little while longer to see a convincing digital dancing Madonna.

For the record, I don’t suppress my accent anymore.

Originally published on Medium

Visual Effects Supervisor & Creative Director

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What I do

A visual effects supervisor is basically a visual problem solver. I try and recruit ideas from a variety of sources—new, old, borrowed or transposed from other disciplines and industries; curiosity drives me. But ultimately, I am an creative image-maker first and foremost.

I closely collaborate with others and keep a holistic view of the process—delivering creatively, on time, on budget. I excel at logistically complicated projects and team building.