Director James Wong hunkers down behind an array of monitors nestled among desert rock formations. It's night and we've returned to the exterior Dragon Temple set to watch a confrontation between Goku and Piccolo on the set of 'Dragonball: Evolution'.
The set, which was mostly empty on our earlier visit, is now packed with camera, crew and equipment. Also on hand are actors James Marsters (in full Piccolo costume and makeup) and Justin Chatwin, sporting the trademark orange ghi and hair swooped up in an approximation of Goku's trademark spikes from the anime. Marsters affords us an interview before the filming begins.
Later we'll watch Goku rise, defiantly (presumably after recovering control from his Oozaru form) and face Piccolo. They'll trade taunts and throw the first punches in what is likely the climactic final battle of the film. Then they'll reset and do it over and over and over again.
But first, Wong takes a turn in the hot seat and chats with us about his vision to bring the anime and manga to live-action life.
Wong said he became acquainted with the story of 'Dragonball' by reading the 18 volumes of manga that the studio provided for him. Prior to that, his children were his gateway into the world of Goku, Bulma, Roshi and Piccolo.
James Wong: I didn't really know, except through my kids who were watching Dragon Ball Z on Cartoon Network, I didn't really know too much about it. And Dragon Ball Z is so different from Dragon Ball that when I heard about I thought, "Wow! I don't know what to do with this thing because its so crazy, with all the aliens and all that."
So I looked at the mangas and it gave me a whole different perspective on what this movie could be. I read the books and actually was totally enthralled by them. They're actually really charming and fun.
That's how it started. I looked at the ,angas and it totally caught fire with me. The kids were grabbing them from me. I'd read the third book and they grabbed the first two. I'd find them at night under the covers reading it when they should be sleeping.
Q: What's your approach to the movie? How much are you being faithful to the books and how much are you adapting?
Wong: There's 18 books, so there's an incredible amount of story that can't be put into one movie. Also we wanted to age up Goku. In the manga he's like 12 years old. 14 years old. It's only until the end he becomes a teenager. So we wanted to start him on his 18th birthday basically. So that changes a lot of things.
I think the most important thing to capture in the movie is the tone and the fun that Dragon Ball is.
We had to take out parts that we didn't do. The mangas are so fantastic and there are so many different places you can go. It was a matter of trying to figure out the journey for Goku, how he comes to realize who he is.
Q: The actors have been saying this is really based in a real world, with all the fantastical stuff going on in the reality of the characters and their situation is sort of...
Wong: Yeah, that's another thing that, you know, in the manga he's sort of thrust into this fantastic world where there's pterodactyls and dinosaurs right from the get go. Our approach is really to make it more relatable for people who aren't familiar with Dragon Ball and take him from relatablity into a more fantastic world.
As he goes on this adventure, the things that he visits and the environments that he's in become much more fantastic. We thought that was the approach because we wanted to bring people who don't know Dragon Ball into the world and hopefully it allows them to go, "wow, this is what Dragon Ball is. Let me look back at the manga and see what it is," and have them get caught up the same way I did.
Q: I've heard that the fight sequences that utilize the Phantom camera. What was the choice to do that and how did you find out about that technology?
Wong: One of the things that Fox asked before starting the project was "What is this going to look like? What's so special about it? How are you going to make 'Dragonball' different than martial arts movies that we've seen?"
So I started thinking about that and two sort of different approaches came. From Ariel Shaw, who's the visual effects supervisor, we started thinking about what can we do to make the fight sequences different. He suggested, there're these really tiny cameras, but Iconix, that you can hook on to an actor. So for example you could have a "fist cam", if you wanted to. You could actually follow a punch in.
Another thing...there's this great little thing on YouTube where a scientist is poking a hole in a water balloon and the first shot is at regular speed and is exactly what you expect, and the second shot is shot with a thousand frames per second camera and when he poked the water balloon the skin disappeared almost immediately but the water retained the shape of the balloon, and then it started cascading down. We thought that was a really interesting and special look.
And we though, how can we employ this technology, this camera within our fight sequence to make it different and unusual and special for 'Dragonball'?
So one of the first things we did was think about how Goku, with his special abilities, could actually use that. So we built some sequences around these incredible moments that the Phantom could capture.
Q: So why did you want to do this film, versus 'Final Destination 4', for example?
Wong: I think if we can have this movie to get people excited about Dragon Ball and have them read mangas, that would be the greatest thing of all. Of course you want the movie to make money too.
To introduce this world of Dragon Ball to the public is my goal and I think if they get into it, they'll really get into the whole saga, so I think this is a really special project and I'm really excited to be doing it.
'Dragonball: Evolution' opens in theaters everywhere Friday!