The bestselling manga series of all time has been made into one of the most expensive live action series ever, reports Adrian Pennington.
Reimagining a cartoon into live action is a hard trick to pull off, but doing so with the bestselling manga series of all time had director of photography Nicole Hirsch Whitaker, ASC seeking advice from her son.
“I was terrified of doing a live action adaptation so before I signed on I asked him, ‘Do you think I should do it? Do you think this is something the fans will be ok with?’ He said, ‘Yes absolutely! And if you don’t do it I will never speak to you again!’”
Her son is a One Piece superfan. He had read every book in Japanese (even learning Japanese to do so), dressed up as one of the characters for Halloween, and has a tattoo of ‘Trafalgar Law’ on his chest, she said.
Hirsch-Whitaker herself had watched 900 episodes of the anime series with her son and so was already steeped in One Piece lore.
Debuting in 1997 in the manga anthology magazine ‘Weekly Shōnen Jump’, this serialised pirate adventure is about the search for elusive One Piece treasure led by Monkey D. Luffy. The 8-episode Netflix series introduces Luffy as a young man who aspires to become ‘King of the Pirates’ and the group of misfits who dream of becoming his loyal crew, The Straw Hats.
The story sprawls across 105 volumes of stories, all written and illustrated by Eiichiro Oda who has sold over half a billion books to date. There have also been 1000 episodes of a 2D animated series based on Oda’s work, 15 animated movies and 40 different video game titles set within One Piece world. As such, Oda has earned the distinction of being one of the most influential manga creators in the history of the medium.
It’s understandable why Netflix would be attracted to a piece of IP with such massive built-in popularity. In making the franchise’s first live-action adaptation, the streamer needed to appease die-hard fans and reach an audience who had never heard of it.
Oda is onboard as executive producer but the process of giving “three dimensionality” in live action to much loved characters was something neither Hirsch-Whitaker nor director Marc Jobst took lightly.
They had previously worked together on the finale of Netflix superhero series Jupiter’s Legacy and he reached out to her to shoot the first two episodes of One Piece with him (ep 1, ‘Romance Dawn’ and ep 2 ‘The Man in the Straw Hat’).
They prepped for about a year throwing ideas back and forth about films, photographers, painters and musicians – “to create this all-encompassing world that would make old fans happy and also find new fans,” Hirsch-Whitaker said. “It was a daunting task.”
Behind the Scenes: One Piece – Shooting Water
For tips on shooting scenes on water she sought advice from Paul Cameron ASC (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) and key grip Herb Ault who worked with Claudio Miranda ASC to film Life of Pi on Arri Alexa.
These scenes were shot in water tanks at studios in Cape Town. The production design department were given a head start on the massive ships required by repurposing ones that were initially built for the production of Black Sails. Most of the crew members who worked on the series (which went off the air in 2017) also worked on One Piece.
The filmmaker’s aim was to create a look that combined elements from both the manga and anime while adding their own distinctive touch to the visuals. To that end, she chose to shoot on the Arri Alexa LF with custom-made Hawk MHX Hybrid Anamorphic lenses. She and Jobst had used a similar set on Jupiter’s Legacy but the lenses for One Piece needed to be capture super close focus as well as super deep focus to match the look of the anime.
She explained: “We both love anamorphic and we felt that using it would bring painterly backgrounds to the show and make it feel more like anime however we realised that doing so wouldn’t give us the very close focus which we needed.”
They tested a variety of spherical lenses but none was right. Then Hirsch-Whitaker reached out to Vantage Film, the German lens manufacturer, and asked if they would be willing to design something for unique.
“They said yes and Netflix agreed. They built them for us from the ground up. It was a little scary because we didn’t get them until right before we started shooting but I knew they would give me something amazing.”<<
The DP said she pushed for shooting some of the show on a Virtual Production stage but since there wasn’t one in South Africa and would have meant the production building one, they shot on traditional stages with VFX extensions.
Behind the Scenes: One Piece – Sets and Flight Shots
Production designer Richard Bridgland said there were so many sets, “it was like designing four feature films because every two episodes the story moves to a different part of the story world.”
“Mark comes from a theatre background so he was really adamant about keeping the honesty of the story intact,” she said. “This is a very grounded story about family and if we had too many VFX shots and digi-doubles it would take people out of the story. It’s still a huge VFX show but the aim was to shoot as much in camera as possible and not hide behind tricks.”
In a similar vein, Jobst wanted the film’s fight sequences to feel different to generic superhero action. “It felt like we wanted to enjoy the journey to the punch more than we wanted to enjoy the punch,” he told Collider.
Hirsch-Whitaker explained how they developed a visual language for this. “It was important not just to show a realistic punch but to show the actor’s performance while punching. Marc was adamant that we had no second unit and that we would shoot everything ourselves. A stunt team worked with a camera operator separately from us for months, shooting on Alexa and editing the sequence together so that on the day we shot the scene everything was already worked out. The actors did most of their own stunts. I didn’t have to think about moving the camera and all the bumps that you would normally get working on a stunt sequence.”
Behind the Scenes: One Piece – Clown Pirates
In her block of episodes Hirsch-Whitaker got to introduce the clown pirate Captain Buggy (Jeff Ward), who can split his body pieces and put them back together any way he likes. During the four months she spent in prep in Cape Town the VFX team were doing R&D to work out how the character would stretch. Bridgland’s team also spent considerable time rigging Buggy’s circus tent, the scale of which took Hirsch-Whitaker’s breath away.
“The tent was incredible when you walked on set you felt like walking on a theatre stage with a full proscenium. They left the top open so I could light from the ceiling and Jeff could have the floor without lighting getting in the way. VFX finished the tent and incorporated my lights into the design. My main references for these scenes were Moulin Rouge and The Greatest Showman.”
All of the interiors for the ships were filmed on sound stages with the exception of Captain Alvida’s ship, Miss Love Duck, which was one of the largest repurposed vessels from Black Sails. Two ships were built entirely from scratch including the Straw Hats’ iconic ship, The Going Merry.
Many of the locations Oda created for One Piece were taken directly from real world places - actual Balinese pagodas, storefronts in Florence, Italy; Belton House in Lincolnshire, to name a few.
According to Prosthetics Designer Jaco Snyman (Mad Max: Fury Road), leaning away from CGI whenever possible helped capture some of the wackier aspects of the story. “Instead of just using VFX characters straight off the bat as they do in some other shows, we got to create these amazing prosthetics so the actors really got to live with these characters and stay true to Oda’s vision.”
Four fully animatronic snails that are roughly the size of house cats were created for the show as well. These had different detachable eyeballs so the puppeteers could give them a variety of expressions and add a little bit of movement to the face.
The snails were also customised to look like their owners. Garp’s snail, for instance, sports a row of pearly white teeth and a beard. Said co-showrunner Matt Owens: “We didn’t want to shy away from any of the weird elements that make up this world. We’re just telling the audience, ‘Hey, phones are snails in this world. It is what it is. Accept it.”
Hirsch-Whitaker spent nearly 6 months in South Africa and invited her son to visit and walk the set. He’s also binged the series “and given it his stamp of approval.”
Behind the Scenes: One Piece - Most Expensive Show Ever?
Netflix reportedly spent $18 million per episode on One Piece, making it one of the most expensive shows ever made. Game of Thrones and The Mandalorian, cost $15 million per episode, while HBO’s House of the Dragon came in at $20m. Amazon Prime’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power came in at a staggering $58m per episode.
The eight episodes cover just a fraction of the One Piece story so Netflix will have plenty more rope to play with should it prove a hit. It also means this first season has cost at least $144 million, which as Collider points out, is about $40 million more than what the anime it is based on has spent in its 20+ years on the air.
Read more: Best of Behind the Scenes