When Gundam Came to Hollywood

Gundam is a franchise with few secrets. Decades of worldwide popularity and tenacious fans have left few stones unturned, but there’s some mystery left: In 1983, Hollywood filmmakers were working on a live-action Gundam film. Development was still in the early stages before it was canned. Solid information on the project has been scant, and it’s largely existed as little more than an esoteric piece of fandom trivia.

I first heard about the aborted project thanks to an interview with Syd Mead on the now-defunct Anime News Service, and Mead may be the only reason anyone outside of the project even knows about it. In addition to mentioning it in the interview, he included artwork he produced for it in his book Oblagon and mentioned it on the filmography section of his website. An interview with Mead shot for Bandai Entertainment’s cancelled release of Turn A Gundam revealed more details when it was included on Right Stuf’s release of the series.

Curious to learn more, I decided to try and shed some light on the over three-decade old cinematic cold case. I was lucky enough to track down and talk with several people involved with the failed project. This article is the result of my email correspondence with Roger Servick (Mead’s manager), and phone interviews with writer/director Chip Proser and CGI animation pioneer John Whitney Jr.

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Zaks attack O’Neill 7, by Syd Mead.

Fly! American Gundam

Before Gundam Wing hit on Cartoon Network’s Toonami programming block in 2000, the story of Gundam’s introduction to America was largely one of false starts. A 1989 video pitch for Doozy Bots –a misguided, American-flavored take on SD Gundam– promised the show would join other cartoons on air in the Fall of 1991. In his foreword to the Del Rey Books release of the Mobile Suit Gundam novelization published in 1990, translator Fred Schodt hoped for more Gundam books that never came. But the most ambitious and obscure of these false starts came relatively early in the franchise’s history in 1983, before any proper sequels to the original series: a Hollywood-produced live-action Gundam film that would bring together the designs of visual futurist Syd Mead and CGI effects from the pioneering team behind The Last Starfighter.

The origin of that project can be traced further back to 1980, an eventful year for model kit manufacturer and Gundam sponsor Bandai. That year saw 35-year-old Makoto Yamashina, eldest son of Bandai founder Naoto Yamashina, take over as company president. The younger and more aggressive Yamashina sought to operate Bandai in a way patterned more after an American company, going so far as to fire many of his father’s senior executives and replace them with younger people closer to his own age.

It was also the year Bandai began releasing affordable ¥300 model kits based on the Mobile Suit Gundam series, and soon found they had a hit despite the show’s premature end on television. Nicknamed “gunpla,” a portmanteau of “Gundam” and “plastic model,” the success of these kits kicked off the “Gunpla Boom” that would continue until the middle of the decade. Together with the show’s newfound popularity via subsequent re-airings, Gundam was able to rise from cancellation and make early strides toward the media and merchandising juggernaut it’s since become. With the proven success of Gundam at home, Yamashina had his sights set on bringing the franchise to the American market with a feature film. In 1983, Bandai went to Hollywood.

Zaks enter the O’Neill 7 colony.

Company representatives brought the property to Lion’s Gate Film, an independent film company founded by director Robert Altman (not to be confused with the contemporary Lionsgate Films, founded in 1998). Lion’s Gate hired screenwriter Chip Proser to write the screenplay, who agreed with the condition that he could make his directorial debut on the film. Readers may be more familiar with projects Proser was involved with in the latter half of the ‘80s, as he handled the major page one rewrite of Top Gun (1986) and the initial screenplay draft for the Martin Short sci-fi comedy Innerspace (1987). At the time, he was largely known as a script doctor specializing in science fiction and military topics. Proser was flown out to Japan to meet with executives and see the source material (likely the compilation films). After about a week or so in Japan, he returned to the US and got to work putting together pre-production material.

Being a fan of artist Syd Mead, Proser was pleased to find out that he actually lived very close by and approached him to paint renderings of two scenes: one from the opening scene of the film where enemy mobile suits attack a space colony, and one of the climactic battle where the Gundam and its allies attack an enemy base. While Mead is now familiar to Gundam fans as the most prominent mechanical designer for the 1999 anime series Turn A Gundam, his involvement with the Lion’s Gate project marks his first time working on the franchise in any capacity. In addition to his scene renderings, Mead drafted mobile suit designs: a design of the Zaku II (referred to on the project as a “Zak”) created for the sake of CGI modeling, and an unfinished piece depicting the Gundam’s head and torso.

Zak design, likely by Syd Mead.

CGI Rising

Perhaps the project’s most ambitious aspect was the idea to use CGI for the majority of its effects at a time when it was almost entirely unheard of to do so. What would a big-budget attempt at a CGI mobile suit have looked like in the mid-’80s? The company consulted with this in mind was the only one that had accomplished anything like that: Digital Productions, the effects house then finishing up work on The Last Starfighter (1984), which boasted entirely CGI starfighter battles instead of traditional miniature work.

Of course, understanding how early the film’s development was, nothing was set in stone. Given the technological limitations of the era, and later attempts to blend CGI and live-action in Gundam projects, it’s easy to be skeptical of this approach today. Both the PC game Gundam 0079: The War for Earth (1997) and the infamous Canadian TV movie production of G-Saviour (2000) were notorious efforts that earned the derision of fans. Both of these were made at a time when CGI effects were becoming commonplace, but they’re laughably low quality by today’s standards. Even with the pioneering The Last Starfighter in mind, there’s a difference between animating and rendering largely static, shiny starfighters, and creating full-fledged character animation of realistic mobile suits.

Mead’s “de-kabuki-ized” Gundam design.

While this may ultimately be correct from a practicality standpoint, executing this approach was possible in theory. Digital Productions’ own character animation ability was demonstrated less than two years later in their music video for Mick Jagger’s 1985 single Hard Woman, in which Jagger dances and interacts with a completely CGI (albeit stylized) character. Another film from around the time, Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) featured a ground-breaking effects sequence directed by John Lassetter that involved a CGI knight leaping out of a stained glass window and menacing a reverend. These were both considered technical achievements for the industry. Ultimately what would have likely posed the biggest obstacle to a science fiction film driven by CGI battles at the time would be the reluctance of studios to dedicate such a large portion of the film’s budget to its effects, something taken for granted in modern effects-driven blockbusters.

Amaru encounters a Zak.

Encounters in Hollywood

Before the project’s cancellation, Proser managed to complete a first draft of the script and commissioned storyboards of the opening scene. While recognizable moments from the original Mobile Suit Gundam story are present and shuffled around, the story and setting differ significantly from the series, with liberal helpings of both Star Wars and Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven thrown in for good measure.

Many characters, including their roles, relationships, ages and names are changed. Amuro is called “Amaru” (though Proser admitted this was likely just a mistake), and among the characters he is the one who is least changed. Char, who goes maskless and is called “Sha” in the script (closer to his name in Japanese), is Amaru’s 13-year old brother and is envious of the technically-minded Amaru’s ability to relate with their scientist father. Tem Ray is “Tim Ray,” and far from the neglectful and work-obsessed father of the original anime, he’s a pulp hero renaissance man: a known leader, the inventor of the mobile suit, a legend in scientific and military communities, and the creator of the runaway megalomaniacal AI program called “Ziong.” Captain Paolo of the White Base never dies and there’s no Bright Noa to take his place.

Amaru takes on a “Heavy Weapons Zak,” resembling a Dom in the storyboard.

Mobile Suits are colossal, standing at 100 meters tall – closer in size to the Jaegers from Pacific Rim than the 18 meter mecha of the original anime. The Federation and Principality of Zeon are absent; the White Base is instead an overhauled manufacturing ship staffed by refugees, their primary enemy being the Ziong Corporate Empire and their contracted military known as the Legion.

There is no Zabi family, and while the name “Ziong” suggests the Zeong mobile suit, it instead refers to an AI masquerading as a man which leads the Empire. Even Earth is never mentioned; the world of the live-action Gundam script is one of warp drives and alien worlds, rather than colonies orbiting around a familiar one. Minovsky particles are eschewed in favor of tactics involving holographic deception. There are no Newtypes, though certain characters do communicate telepathically using psychic headgear.

Perhaps the most familiar part of the story is the initial attack on the script’s Side 7 analogue, O’Neill 7 (though it’s a Stanford Torus type colony rather than one of the O’Neill cylinders seen in Gundam). Legion Zaks attack the colony, and Amaru goes looking for his father only to witnesses his death. He eventually finds the Gundam, fights off the Zaks, and links up with the White Base.

From the point that the White Base warps to relative safety, things start looking markedly different. Amaru’s younger brother Sha is conscripted into the Legion and brainwashed, which their mother Camellia appears complicit in. The Legion, with Sha in tow, tracks the White Base to an asteroid they’re hiding in. After a desperate battle where they lose most of their mobile suits (including the Guncannon and several generic Gundam derivatives), the White Base detonates their supply of hydrogen inside the asteroid to destroy the invading Zaks. This separates the ship from the Gundam, where Amaru and Sara (a sort of quasi-Sayla/Frawbow combination character) are pushed by the explosion into atmospheric reentry on a nearby planet. They hold up there and bond while awaiting rescue.

Upon being rescued, Amaru and Sara go to the binary moon of Nightside to begin looking for mercenaries in the fight against the Ziong Corporate Empire. This largely plays out like a cross between the Star Wars cantina and the recruiting scenes in The Magnificent Seven, even down to one of the characters being described as “a young Steve McQueen” and a VR deathmatch update of James Coburn’s gun vs knife duel in the film. This second act is significant and plays into one of the bigger changes in the Gundam mobile suit itself: rather than a more traditional cockpit like the Zak has, the Gundam and its derivative mobile suits use a “neural web” interface which mimics the pilot’s movements, much like the Mobile Trace System used in the later Mobile Fighter G Gundam (1994). This system is even played for sexual comedy, when Sara saves Amaru in battle by letting him into the Gundam’s cockpit.

While Amaru and Sara are out scouting, the White Base is using its manufacturing capabilities to repair the Gundam and Guncannon and build more Gundam derivatives. These new derivatives are ultimately revealed to be the Guntank and two Gundam variations unique to the film: the Gunfighter and Gungrenadier. The Guncannon is piloted by Lou McNab, a veteran who helps Amaru and Sara track down capable mercenaries. The Guntank is piloted by the Steve McQueen analogue and tank commander named McCoon. The Gunfighter is piloted by a stoic, mysterious VR duelist named Von, while the Gungrenadier is piloted by Lee, a washed up baseball player who was once a star pitcher that got the job because of his throwing ability. Lee is actually first introduced in an extended sequence in which Amaru, Sara, and McNab attend a “three-dimensional baseball” game, where they eat “space dogs” and watch a game of what is essentially baseball with jetpacks. This scene was inspired by one of Proser’s favorite memories of his trip to Japan: seeing the Yomiuri Giants play.

The group becomes seven when they’re joined by Sara, who pilots their dropship, and Zoe, a vaguely Lalah-esque character who operates remote, multipurpose gunpods called “Waldoes.” They launch a sneak attack on Ziong’s main base, but ultimately only Amaru is able to penetrate the defenses to get inside. There he discovers a holographic throne room where Ziong, previously thought to be flesh and blood, reveals that he was just a computer program all along. While he and Amaru have a philosophical debate, Sha arrives in a red Zak and shoots up the room, silencing Ziong who fades away.

Sha and Amaru then fight down through increasingly strange and alien levels of the base before falling into a bizarre otherworldly plane, described as a “Tanguy-Daliesque landscape.” There the iconic “Last Shooting” scene from the finale of the original anime is recreated, except with the red Zak taking the place of Char’s Zeong, floating head escape pod and all. Sha reveals his identity to Amaru, and they duel. The conclusion to the duel is not shown, but both boys return home to their mother after the battle, who reveals that she had allowed Sha to be conscripted in order to have players against Ziong on both sides. After some time has passed, the cast reunites on O’Neill 7 and mourn their fallen comrades, and it is revealed that the Gundam has been rebuilt into a monument to peace in the colony’s central park.

Last Shooting

It’s hard to do anything beyond speculate on what would have been changed had Bandai given feedback on the first draft. It wasn’t long after Proser turned it in that the live-action Gundam project was halted, apparently because Bandai didn’t have the go-ahead from all of the show’s rights holders. Syd Mead stated in multiple interviews that Sunrise’s New York office told them they hadn’t properly cleared the rights, while Proser mentioned that the dissenting party was Nippon Herald. Gundam’s own creator Yoshiyuki Tomino (who actually mentioned the project in passing as “Live Gundam” in his early Zeta Gundam pre-production notes1) was quoted as saying they “…couldn’t come to an agreement on the live-action Gundam project.”2 Whatever the real reason, the project was halted in relative infancy. It’s hard to imagine something like this happening today, when, ever since acquiring Sunrise in the early ‘90s, Bandai effectively owns Gundam lock, stock, and barrel.

The story of the Lion’s Gate Gundam largely exists as a snapshot of a film in very early pre-production – a very fluid time in a project’s life. Had the Gundam film actually made it to theaters, it’s likely that many details in both story and approach would have changed. Just about the only thing we can say for certain is that the history of Gundam in America would have been very different.

With several Western live-action anime adaptions in varying stages of production and development, Hollywood now seems to be enamored with the idea of anime as a new realm of untapped source material. Few anime adaptations thus far have had the big budget ambitions of Proser’s screenplay, but as one that ended up stillborn, the 1983 Gundam treatment certainly isn’t alone: last year a 1992 film treatment for a live-action Macross surfaced on eBay. You can read a 2012 draft of an American Akira script at the Cal State Northridge script library. Who knows what else is out there, filed away somewhere?

Read Chip Proser’s original Gundam script

Special thanks to Chip Proser, John Whitney Jr., Roger Servick, and Jonathan Taplin. This article would not have been possible without their help and correspondence.

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  1. “The more realistic things you do in Live Gundam the more you should foster a sense of science fiction, but how do you go to Gundam II?” This specific reference is from notes dated between February 20 and March 12, 1984, giving some clue that the project may not yet have been taken off the table at that time.
  2. In response to a fan question on the project’s status at the “Anime Festival in Mito” event held on August 7, 1987.