Press Archive

Inside Kung-Fu June 2009 (Vol. 37, No. 6)

Cover Story

Dragonball: Evolution


One of the greatest manga franchises ever created comes to the big screen this summer

Dragonball: Evolution is the long-awaited, live-action motion picture based on the popular Japanese manga created by Akira Toriyama. Toriyama’s work spawned best-selling graphic novels, videogames and a phenomenally successful television series.

The manga, series and games bring to the new film a rich mythology and exciting, complex characters–all of which have captivated millions of fans, of all ages, around the globe. One of the greatest manga franchises ever created, Dragonball has an enormous online fan base and is consistently one of the most frequently searched-for terms on Google and Yahoo!

Dragonball has exploded into a global phenomenon that has generated more than $4 billion in merchandising sales. It is considered the gold standard of anime-based video games, with more than 25 different games and over 10 million units sold since May 2002.

The motion picture, Dragonball: Evolution, features a cast of rising young stars and veteran acclaimed actors. Justin Chatwin, who portrayed Tom Cruise’s son in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, takes on the role of the heroic Goku, a powerful warrior who protects the Earth from an endless stream of rogues bent on dominating the Universe and controlling the mystical objects from which the film takes its name. Emmy Rossum (The Day After Tomorrow) is Bulma, a beautiful woman intent on retrieving the mystical Dragonballs for her own reasons; Jamie Chung (“Samurai Girl”) is Chi Chi, a young martial artist who captures Goku’s eye; and screen legend Chow Yun-Fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is Roshi, the master who guides Goku on the young man’s epic quest to save the Earth from the forces of darkness.

James Marsters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is Lord Piccolo, whose return could signal the Earth’s destruction; international performing sensation Joon Park is Yamcha, a charismatic “bad boy” whose schemes could thwart the heroes’ journey; popular Japanese actress Eriko (“Heroes”) is Mai, an assassin who works with Piccolo; Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) is sifu Norris, a master and contemporary of Roshi’s; and Randall Duk Kim (The Matrix Revolutions) is Goku’s grandfather Gohan, whose lessons for Goku begins to prepare the young man for the monumental tasks that lie ahead.

Many of these actors underwent a rigorous training regimen under the auspices of the premier stunt performance company, 87Eleven, which has executed or designed some of the biggest action pieces ever seen on film, in pictures such as The Matrix, The Bourne Supremacy, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and 300.

Dragonball: Evolution is produced by legendary filmmaker Stephen Chow, whose best known films as an actor, director and screenwriter–Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle–have featured a unique blend of martial arts action, CGI and comedy. The director is James Wong, formerly an executive producer/writer on the noted genre series “The X-Files,” “Millennium” and “Space: Above and Beyond,” and the co-writer/director of the big-screen hits “Final Destination” and “Final Destination 3.”

The Quest

Goku’s quest–with nothing less than the fate of the world at stake–begins innocently enough in the backyard of his grandfather’s home, where Gohan is training the young man in some exotic martial arts moves. It is Goku’s 18th birthday, and Gohan’s gift to his grandson is a Dragonball, a small, round ball whose surface is smooth and pearl-like, but with a milky translucence that gives it depth. Four stars float inside the ball. There are only six others like it in the world, and it is said the seven Dragonballs together will grant the holder one perfect wish.

Connected to the legend of the Dragonballs is Goku’s own mysterious path–he never knew his parents–as well as the coming solar eclipse, which superstitions mark as a sign of a coming apocalypse. Gohan promises to reveal all to Goku at the special birthday dinner Gohan is preparing for his grandson.

But Goku skips out on Gohan’s feast, to attend a party hosted by Chi Chi, a fellow student to whom Goku is drawn. As the two teens get to know one another, a tragedy at home is triggered by the arrival of a dark force–propelling Goku, Roshi, Bulma, Yamcha and Chi Chi into a race to collect all seven Dragonballs. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Goku will face the deadliest enemies on Earth, master a powerful force called Ki, which marshals the energy of the universe and learn the truth of his incredible past…and of a potentially unthinkable future.

From Novel to Screen

Turning a beloved global property into a motion picture event is no easy task, and it took years after Twentieth Century Fox acquired the rights to the graphic novel series Dragonball to make that happen. A big-screen adaptation finally began to come together when filmmaker James Wong, who has worked extensively in the science fiction/fantasy genre, took an interest in the property.

Wong recalls: “I read the mangas, which really sparked my interest in the property. The graphic novels take us to a fantastic world with great characters–and they’re a lot of fun.”

Inspired by the manga, Wong and screenwriter Ben Ramsey worked to achieve a mix of action, humor and character relationships for the new movie. “We strove to hit the right combination of the fantastic and the relatable,” says Wong. Huge action set pieces, state of the art visual effects, and elaborate martial arts sequences would be key elements of Dragonball: Evolution, but there was also much to explore with the characters, their rich histories, and their evolving relationships.

“I believe that the appeal of Dragonball, beyond its super-cool action, is the richly creative world that Akira Toriyama invented,” says Ramsey. “There is a complexity and humanity to the superhuman characters who inhabit that world, as well as an overwhelming sense of optimism that its lead character (Goku) embellishes.”


“The biggest challenge in adapting a manga or animated series for a live action movie is the burden of reality,” he continues. “Once characters are brought to life by flesh and blood humans, the rules change, if ever so slightly. Animated characters can get away with a lot more than live action characters. Writing for live action characters has to allow for nuance in dialogue, character dynamics and action.”

Ramsey and Wong took note of the fact that the manga’s characters and environments are central to its universal appeal and relatability. Dragonball: Evolution, like the manga, is set in the near future, in a multi-cultural environment. It is a world where “future and past become one,” says Wong, and where “race plays no significant role.”

One of today’s brightest and most appealing young stars, Chung brought much more to Chi Chi than martial abilities. She has the sparkling energy necessary to fully capture the two sides of the character. “Chi Chi is the ‘It Girl’–the most popular girl in high school,” says Chung. “She comes from a wealthy family, and everyone expects certain things from her. But she has a second life–a secret life–marked by her passion to fight. She comes off like the girl next door, but when she turns it on, she kicks butt!”

Action–Dragonball: Evolution–Style

“How do we make action sequences look and feel different from what audiences have experienced before?” That was the first question Wong posed to his team when he began thinking about the action fans would expect from a film based on Dragonball. The answers coming from the acclaimed stunt team, 87Eleven, as well as from director of photography Robert McLachlan and visual effects supervisor Ariel Velasco Shaw, certainly pleased Wong–and promise to delight not only fans of the property, but action movie enthusiasts as well.

VFX supervisor Velasco Shaw employed what Wong calls “fist-cams”–from the noted company Iconix–that are so small they could be attached to an actor’s fist, allowed a character’s punch to come right into the audience. “It’s a kind of ‘fist POV’,” Wong elaborates.

More “low-tech,” but equally important to amping-up the action, were the training and stunts overseen by 87Eleven, and stunt coordinators Jonathan Eusebio, Julian Bucio Montemayor, and Jared Eddo. Their first order of business was to get the cast in shape, followed by having them undergo an intensive program of action choreography, and finally, making the actors comfortable with the considerable wire work and acrobatics they’d be required to perform. It was an incredibly rigorous program–“When [the actors] weren’t working, they were training,” says Eusebio.

The young cast members underwent individually designed training regimens–no two characters have identical fighting styles–as well as special diets to maintain their strength and stamina during production. In Dragonball lore, Goku is the greatest warrior on the planet. And Justin Chatwin took the responsibility of capturing the character’s skills,[sic] very seriously. Before the start of principal photography, he underwent six weeks of nutritional guidance and stunt and martial arts training with 87Eleven, continuing the demanding regimen during the shoot.

“It all got my adrenaline going,” says the actor, who also notes he gave up sugar, wheat and pasta during his stint on the film. Chatwin spent a minimum of five hours training each day, studying karate, kung-fu and a Brazilian form known as capoeira, which ritualizes movement from martial arts, games and dance. For the more extreme acrobatic maneuvers, Jackson Spidell stood in for the actor. Spindell’s signature move: flipping up in the air, then spinning halfway, and, on his way down, striking an opponent.

Chow Yun-Fat, as Roshi, was given “softer” martial styles, like Tai Chi, befitting the character’s age and experience. Jamie Chung, as young and ever-enthusiastic martial artist Chi Chi, was given “hard” fighting styles, including kick-boxing, karate, and Thai boxing. Chung especially delighted in a pivotal fight scene that has Chi Chi fighting…Chi Chi. (Mai, a shape shifter, morphs into Chi Chi to steal a Dragonball.) “I had to play both sides of the fight and learn choreography for both Chi Chi and Mai,” the latter a kung-fu practitioner, Chung recalls. Visual effects, including motion control and split composites, enhanced the complex battle.

Transcription & Notes: VegettoEX
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