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Mortal Kombat II
Sci-Fi Entertainment, November 1997
Cory Doctorow

Writing this was a strange experience. Kasanoff, the producer I interviewed, kept telling me that this was art, and I kept trying to take him at face value. Funny thing, one of the people I interviewed for this said that he couldn't give me a plot summary because "We won't know what it's about until we finish the post and figure out what effects worked." A refreshing gust of honesty, lemme tellya.


article as a
And the Decision Makers of Midway looked upon the arcades, and they saw a great need, and they begat Mortal Kombat, the video game, and it was good.

Lo, producer Larry Kasanoff looked upon Mortal Kombat and he begat a great flood of spin-offs, and they were good, and they were lucrative.

The latest of these is Mortal Kombat Annihilation, due out August first from New Line Cinema. Annihilation is the latest property in an empire that has been ranked the fifth bestselling media property of all time, grossing between three and four billion (that's nine zeroes, folks) dollars. The empire spans a bestselling animated feature, a Saturday morning cartoon show running on the USA Network, the largest-selling techno album of all time, toy lines, books, comics, magazines, home video games, three arcade classics, a CD-ROM, a high-profile website, clothing tie-ins, a touring live stage-show, and, of course, two high-budget boffo special-effects spectacular feature films.

MK Annihilation follows the structure of the existing Mortal Kombat properties: a bunch of exquisite, high-tech fantasy fight-scenes that anchor a lightweight plot, all of it set to a high-energy techno beat.

The story revolves around the a scheme hatched by Shao Kahn (Brian Thompson, Dragonheart, Star Trek: Generations), the "treacherous ruler of the Outworld," to capture our dimension by doing an end-run around the sacred Mortal Kombat tournament that is the focus of the first film. The evil one rips a portal in the fabric of the universe and dispatches extermination squads through it to conquer and subjugate humanity.

Following the structure of the video games, the generic "ex-squads" are led by fantasy-fighter generals: Sindel (Musetta Vander, Oblivion, Oblivion 2) a battle-ready sultry vampiress; Sheeva (Marjean Holden, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures), a four-armed badass; Motaro, a centaur; and Ermac, a "red Ninja" who complicates matters with his telekinetic powers.

Back from the first film are the good guys: the Thunder God Rayden (James Remar, The Phantom, The Quest); the champion Liu Kang (Robin Shou, Beverly Hills Ninja); the ancient princess Kitana (Talisa Soto, Vampirella); the cop Sonya Blade (Sandra Hess, Beastmaster III, Encino Man); and Johnny Cage, the movie star (Chris Conrad, Next Karate Kid). Added to their team is the cyborg cop Jax (Lynn Williams, Sabre of American Gladiators), Sonya Blade's partner.

The story revolves around their journeys through various beautiful shoot-locations in Asia, the UK and the Middle-East.

Though co-writer Bryce Zabel (Official Denial) has characterized Annihilation as a character-driven film, producer Larry Kasanoff says this: "This movie is more -- more special effects, more fighting, more scope, more advanced digital creatures, and we shot it all over the world."

Kasanoff calls this "Star Wars meets Dungeons and Dragons," and if it works, why fix it?

The diversity of the MK empire is the key to its success. Kasanoff sums it up nicely: "The entertainment world now is growing all the time, the pie is getting bigger, but each individual slice is getting smaller. The whole concept with Mortal Kombat is to be in the pie business, not the slice business. There are so many different forms of entertainment competing for your time, and we want to be in all of them, so these characters and this universe and these effects and these fights get to you wherever you happen to like getting entertained from.

"There's a huge Mortal Kombat bible, that we use with our various filmmakers and participants and entertainers. When you create a science-fiction universe, you have to stick to the rules of your universe. We make sure that in all incarnations of this universe that all the rules are stuck to. I can't tell you how many corporate meetings I've been in where I'm sitting across from some toy guy, where I have to stand up and say, 'Sorry, Shao Kahn doesn't do that.'"

This seems to be a very successful strategy. The soundtrack from the first MK movie has gone platinum, and can be heard emanating from roller-rinks, aerobics classes and nightclubs the world 'round. The properties have received, at last count, 8,000 mentions on the Internet, and Yahoo! lists over 140 fan websites about various aspects of MK. While scouting locations for Annihilation in the Jordanian desert, Kasanoff was stopped by fans who admired his MK baseball hat, and he was surprised a little while later by a browser in a Bangkok shop who was toting an MK shopping-bag. Even the pirate merchandise has Kasanoff's grudging respect, "Some of it is really on the mark -- we have to work hard to keep ahead of them." And, "If an enthusiastic, responsible fan wants to do a website, we support that."

Whatever Mortal Kombat has going for it, it works. The different facets of the property play off of each other, taking advantage of advances in their particular media, so that Annihilation will be released simultaneously with MKIV, the video game, and MK Mythologies: Sub-Zero for the PlayStation(tm) market. Each of these titles is a marvel of technological prowess, skating on the cutting edge of their niches.

Annihilation sports a new real-time motion-capture system that allows the director to shoot fight sequences in which one stunt-player wears a motion capture suit, and a team of high-powered Silicon Graphics, Sun, Flame, Inferno and DEC Alpha computers map a digital monster overtop of the stunt-player in real-time on a monitor. This allowed director John Leonetti to preview the final effects shot while shooting the live-action sequences. Until now, the methodology has been to shoot each motion-capture sequence twice, once for the live-action, and a second time in a green room where the stunt-player was required to meticulously re-create the original moves -- no mean feat.

Leonetti (Spy Hard, The Mask) prefers to shoot action scenes with a single, wide angle camera, focused in tight on the fists and blood, giving up what he calls "the closest thing we can get to 3D in 2D." In addition, eleven state-of-the-art motion-capture cameras were used in the 300-plus effects shots.

The production was, by all accounts, an adventure. Annihilation involved the first-ever Jordanian-Israeli crew used in Jordan. Kasanoff laughs when he talks about this, and tells the story, "We were in a little shop in southern Jordan, and one of the Israelis, a woman, was talking to the shopkeepers, and they were laughing, and the shopkeeper says, 'So, where you from?' and she says, 'Israel,' and his face went blank. Then she says, 'Where are you from?' and he says, 'Baghdad.' And they look at each other for a minute, and one of them said, 'We're supposed to be enemies,' and they looked at each other for another minute, and they smiled and threw their hands up and they hugged each other."

More comical is the moth that flew into the first assistant director's ear during a back-country shoot in Thailand, that resulted in the man being rushed to hospital in Bangkok to have it extracted.

In Jordan, the crew was treated to a lunch of fresh monkey brains.

They day before a location-shoot at a copper mine in Wales, a freak hurricane blew away the entire base-camp, leaving the women stunt-players wrestling in the real cold mud that washed away the ersatz mud they trucked in, wearing skimpy shorts-and-bras in the windy, 26 degree weather. The change-rooms were a long ride uphill in an all-terrain vehicle, through a river of mud.

If the breakneck production was trying, it's nothing compared to the high-tech post-production. The heavy competition for qualified, creative special effects people led the producers to contract out special effects to a kid in Winnipeg, a two-woman design team in France, a motion-capture specialist in Amsterdam, and others scattered throughout the globe. They're linked through a network of high-speed T1 lines, leased from Sprint. Kasanoff hints at, but won't go into detail over an upcoming connection deal with Sprint that will allow even more trans-world post-production.

One gets the impression that while every special effect will be finished and lovingly polished in time for the August first release, that this will come at a great human expense. Kasanoff describes the production schedule as like "like being on a train going 120 miles per hour down an icy slope but somehow we're making the corner." Leonetti is less poetic -- he just sounds tired.

There's good reason for this: by his own account Kasanoff likes to "feel like I'm swimming in really high seas, just keeping my head above water. . . When we start a movie, if we know how to do more than 80% of it, we're not challenging ourselves enough."

It seems to have paid off. Leonetti says, "Our worst fight from this movie is better than the best fight from the last movie."

What's in this movie for MK gamers? According to Leonetti, "There are more characters in this movie from the game than last time, and there's a lot of new ones, to coincide with the fourth game.

"The representation of each character is very cool, so that when they first come on the screen everyone knows who they are. The finishing moves, their signature moves from the game, are organic to the story."

Kasanoff adds, "You find out that everything you thought you knew about the characters is right, but there's a lot more, a lot you don't know."

There are lots of in-jokes, too: the thundering call of "Get over here, and Sub-Zero's taunting "Suck-errr!" will be as familiar as an old slipper for joystick-jockeys.

And for the non-gamer? "There's an astonishing adventure," says Kasanoff.

"The movie stands on its own," Leonetti promises, "Someone who didn't see the last one will be able to have fun with it -- there's lots of cool action and cool effects."

The movies are of course a natural for Hong Kong action-junkies. From Kasanoff: "Good Hong Kong movies have a combination of fantasy and shooting that is hard to match anywhere in the world, which is what we try to do. They thing is, while you might appreciate the fights in a Hong Kong movie, the production values and the story and the acting are not what most worldwide audiences are used to, so in Mortal Kombat, we try to combine the best of both worlds."

Mortal Kombat Annihilation is the point-guard for a the latest generation of effects-driven films. It's a revolution that's being driven by kids grinding away in their basements, cranking out high-quality digital homebrew. It's a revolution that blurs the line between technical expertise, and the traditional, "creative" roles -- the actors -- as we move closer to virtual sets being acted on by virtual people.

Kasanoff's next picture is Beowulf, and it features a major character that is totally animated through the motion-capture scheme that was invented for Annihilation. "One day," Kasanoff says, "we'll have a movie that we'll shoot in a green room somewhere.

"I don't think that virtual actors are very far away, nether are virtual sets."

Leonetti draws the distinction: "There's a lot of people that work on computers. There's a lot of people that are very good, and there are a lot of people who think they're very good. It's one thing to be good with a computer, it's another to be a creative person who's good with a computer."

If you're one of those creative people, send Kasanoff email through the Mortal Kombat website (http://www.mortalkombat.com/), and "If you're any good, you'll probably be working for us the next day."

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