Transphere is a thrilling, experimental experience that breaks new ground for Japanese filmmaking, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton
Director Kosai Sekine has long been known for his boundary-pushing work that combines a sly wit with a sumptuous visual sophistication. He broke onto the commercial scene with his 2006 young Director Award-winning Raindance idents and since then his work has always carried great creative ambition. There’s his neon-infused Adidas short film Break Up Service and his blistering Honda collaboration Ayrton Senna 1989, and more recently his Where the Wild Things Are-inspired Toyota Harrier Turbo film. And his latest project has seen him embrace epic-scale ambition quite literally.
Transphere is the first IMAX film created in Japan – Kosai and his production company NION teamed up with creative agency Drill to make a short film that would fully explore the creative possibilities of the imposing format. It was created for Grand Cinema Sunshine, a glamorous hi-tech multiplex that opened in Tokyo in July. The short will screen before features and has been created to generate a buzz among younger filmgoers in the city.
The film tells a love story that transcends generations as a pair of fated souls are reincarnated and re-connect across time and space, drawing from Buddhist philosophy. It swooshes through the cosmos, taking the viewer on a wild ride that zooms from the macro to the micro. As Kosai explains, he had a tricky balancing act tackle in creating a film with a narrative that would engage cinema audiences but that also had an experimental edge that would allow him to explore and demonstrate the potential of IMAX.
“It’s in between a narrative film and an experimental film,” explains Kosai. “The thing is if we made too much of an experimental film it might not appeal to people who just want to enjoy the cinema, and if we just made a love story it wouldn’t make full use of the screen.”
His starting point was to think of the film as an experience rather than to approach it as a traditional film. It wasn’t Kosai’s first time working on the big screen – he’s got two feature films under his belt - but the immersive edge of IMAX presented a particular creative challenge.
“It’s definitely changed my approach. It’s not like watching a normal film, it’s more like in between watching cinema and being at a huge attraction. It feels like we are on a ride or something!” explains Kosai. “For example when we have sequences that make us fall into the screen, a little bit of movement makes us feel like: ‘wow’! So we have to be careful not to change the angle too much or shake the camera too much as it can really disturb the audience and make them feel bad.”
Kosai laughs when he recalls the edit – from time to time he’d hold up a tiny toy figure to the monitor to remind himself and the editor of the scale of 18m tall screen.
But it wasn’t just the visuals that had to be bigger. The audio too had to envelop the audience. For this aspect, Kosai called on sound artist Evala, who brought the film’s themes of scale to the sound design. So a shower scene was transformed into a torrential rainstorm and a forest was brought to life by zeroing in on a soundscape inspired by the growth happening within the trees on a microscopic level.
The audio was finished in the giant IMAX soundstage in Los Angeles. Similarly, while the editing and CG was done in Japan, the team had to go to LA and the IMAX facility to finish the film.
And according to Kosai, because the IMAX team are used to working on action-packed Hollywood blockbusters, Transphere presented them with something different to get their teeth into. Short films on IMAX are not unheard of, but they tended to be more common in the 90s and early 2000s and often deal with the majesty of the natural world. However with Transphere and the Paul Thomas Anderson and Thom Yorke short Anima, the format has started to attract more arthouse and experimental short projects in 2019.
While Transphere has been created especially for the Tokyo cinema, it’s proven so impressive that there are currently talks taking place about screening it in IMAX theatres in the USA.
As for Kosai, while Transphere has been created, in part, to feel like a visceral cinematic ride, the experience of bringing it to life has been a ride too. How does he fancy making an IMAX feature? “Oh yes!”