Saturday, 21 May 2011

Dominator - An overview

Boy is this a tough one to tackle.

We may as well begin with the origins of Dominator; in 1988, budding music video director and stop motion animator Tony Luke illustrated and wrote a short comic for Metal Hammer magazine, starring the titular character as he fought otherworldly monsters with a sonic guitar. Come 1993, Tony Luke meets an executive from Kodansha and is asked to revamp the character for their Comic Afternoon publication, in which the character would run alongside the likes of Gunsmith Cats and Oh! My Goddess. Dominator became the first-ever British-created manga, being illustrated once again by Tony Luke in his unique style and written by Alan Grant, the manga enjoyed a massive readership and even experienced an odd crossover with characters from another manga called Get a Grip! Tsuyoshi. However, it fell into obscurity shortly after as it was made by two foreigners not staying in Japan, and therefore had no follow-ups.

Back at home in 1995, Tony Luke illustrated the one-off comic for the character 'Hellkatt' for Manga UK and their Guyver releases, while looking to start up a business to make sure his characters remain as his and Alan Grant's property. In 1998, Renga Studios, formed by Luke, produces the thirty-minute, ultra-low-budget short Archangel Thunderbird starring Doug Bradley to launch the Sci-Fi Channel in Europe, this short was noted for featuring monster designs by Yasushi Nirasawa. Soon afterward, as Luke and Grant realized the potential of being able to make productions with new technology for the price of a shoe lace, they decide to bring back Dominator. The concept was to make a CG series based off the manga and animate it through home computers. This was started around 2001 but was later put on hiatus once Tony Luke was diagnosed with lung cancer, a further depression kept the project inactive for a while.

Eventually, after a recovery, the Sci-Fi Channel approached Luke asking for Dominator to be turned into a movie, but given their anime slot and the title's history with manga, it was inevitably dubbed "British anime". With the short notice after only making a recent recovery, Luke and his team were forced to salvage their old CG footage with only limited time to polish it all off (one example is how the character models were all blown up and the textures on them went unchanged from the original smaller models, meaning they appeared extremely blurry). Not just this though, as Alan Grant's script saw minimalistic revision. Regardless though, the final product saw a selected cinema release and a run on the Sci-Fi Channel itself before being put on DVD in 2003. The film features an appearance by Hellkatt, but as not many knew her to begin with, she just seems like another character. It has to be noted that when people say nothing in Dominator looks like it was done professionally, it was because it wasn't - it was literally made by several guys on a few Macs.

If I wasn't searching through old VHS tapes to find stuff off the Sci-Fi Channel's anime slot in 2004, I wouldn't have discovered an old promo for Dominator, I knew the CGI looked extremely amateur, but I was very taken in and immediately searched for information on it. I soon found the Renga Media site and read extensively on the film before ordering a copy, I felt ready knowing how low-budget it was. For a long time, I was incredibly in love with this movie, the whole concept was just so ludicrously appealing, it seemed genius, but many people didn't share the same views, at all. As I've grown up, I can see why, and since then I have never been so torn between a movie. At the age of fourteen, this movie was just so schlocky it had to be a dream, I loved the crazy designs of the characters (even though they probably all looked a lot better on paper), the heavy metal soundtrack (which got me into Cradle of Filth, but I've since long grown out of them) was awesome and without the Renga Media site I don't think I would have ever have become so interested in Devilman and the works of Go Nagai (one thing which I'm never growing out of). Hell, I never would have found out about Robert Rankin, so Renga Media's hellish creation has certainly been helpful to me. Regardless, I was a stupid praise-singing fanboy.

Sadly, I was the only one, despite a few positive reviews the film got, no one shared the same love I had for it, and it was difficult finding people who liked it, I always tried to justify the movie on the grounds of how low budget it was and that it was intentionally cheesy. Things were against me though, the whole promotional campaign for Dominator was just too much in its own favour, Tony Luke by all means had good intentions with the idea of being able to make something with little cash - unfortunately, this doesn't help if the vast majority are just going to take one look at your work, say "that looks like shit" and will have nothing to do with you anymore.

However, it feels like Luke was pretty much forced to keep up a positive attitude about his unearthly lovechild, with the press championing him for keeping up his work while having been diagnosed with cancer, which is all good and well though, but it seems too much positive emphasis was put on something that was just... schlocky and cheesy. It really never helped that the Sci-Fi Channel pinned Dominator as anime, and Salvation Film's tagline, "the new wave of Brit-Manga Animtion is here!" is just cringeworthy, and just makes you harken back to western 'anime-style' abominations, as Dominator is anything but 'anime'. We're not going to get into an argument here that anime just means 'animation' so anything goes; the masses won't accept that.

As a side mention, I suppose it was because of budgetary restrictions, but I think Dominator would have survived a bit better if not released in Europe under the Salvation Films label, a label which specializes in vampire pornography most of the time.

Having spoken to Tony Luke through emails in the past and having done a bit of online searching, it seems he had little say in the matter of promoting his film; Salvation's tagline went on without his knowledge. To know your film has just been branded something without you knowing and can potentially damage any credibility it has earns my sympathy. Because of this mishap, it has been very misleading for many, meaning Luke and his team have been criticized for trying to be Japanese when they actually weren't at all (the DVD is quite incorrectly categorized as anime a lot).

Dominator did enjoy some success though, but Renga Media ultimately struggled with promised projects as a small company; Luke has demonstrated how hard it can be just to get something started when people will only fund so much, and only if they deem it profitable. A (better animated) short was released online in 2004, known as A Brief History of Hell, which was a newer version of the film's prologue, it actually wasn't bad at all. At the same time, word of a sequel began to grow stronger, with early footage even being previewed on ITV's Screentime. The closest that such a sequel came to was the proposed "Dominator and the Cradle of Death" (which I own a small promotional booklet to, along with a Dominator t-shirt), which was canceled. The reason was Luke found himself stuck in a rut in terms of where to take his character, and didn't want to churn out another low-budget sequel, he wanted something a bit bigger. Renga Media did release another short, which was a crossover between their characters Dominator and Lady Violator with Kevin Eastman's Heavy Metal 2000 characters; it was still low budget, but in comparison to the first film, the CGI had been greatly improved and there was actual animation. In late 2006, news of a total reboot began to circulate, with Renga Media promising to deliver the much more anime-inspired Dominator X, which looked a hell of a lot more promising. 

Dominator X looked to make much better use of its small budget, and wasn't just going to be a movie, but also a downloadable series to be distributed across PSPs and iPods, as well as the Internet of course. A new manga was to be printed in Heavy Metal comics, illustrated by Masanori Shino, even a videogame was announced. My disappointment when I learned the entire project was canceled two years later was immense, the cancelation was because of a result of funding and rights holder problems. Since then, Renga Media has become Renegade Arts Entertainment, and whether Dominator will return is unknown.

This has been a long enough article as it is, and I'm yet to talk about the actual Dominator film, which was what this core topic was supposed to be, but the entire deal with Dominator is too big to be ignored. The film is either so-bad-it's-good material to some, or so-bad-it's-BAD material to others, because the entire concept is simply ridiculous beyond words, the CG and animation is hilariously primitive and the plot is riddled with holes. Nothing really makes sense; backgrounds constantly jump between characters even though they're in the same room together, plot devices are pulled straight out of the blue and continuity errors are abundant; one minute Dominator is in a room playing guitar, the next he's teleporting into the same room and talking about something we don't know about! If anything though, I have great respect for Tony Luke for creating what I believe is one of the strangest and most unique film experiences ever. Not only that, but he showed what an effort he could make by simply getting off his behind, while suffering from cancer and spending a million pound on Apple Macs. Unfortunately, far too many people overlooked this, and it's an example of how many people deny the restrictions filmmakers go up against, and too many only care if it looks gorgeous. Dominator is not a glorious film, and I'm honestly stuck between loving and hating it as I've grown older, but I think it deserves a lot more recognition even if it is profoundly trashy. After all, it is the first-ever British-made CGI movie, and you know what? It's not big-budget and it doesn't feature fuzzy animals, it's extremely atypical of what you'd expect from an animated movie. On the other hand though, everything about it is a mess, but that's because it seemed to have such a troubled production.

I can't help but think though how good things would have been if Tony Luke actually had the facilities and the money to make a bigger budget film initially, as I dream of a British-made anime movie starring the character, a well-animated one, as crazy and unique as the first movie ever was, but with the ability to attract a bigger audience. The most that came out of Dominator X was an impressive trailer and Shino's pilot manga (except it was printed in the traditional left-to-right fashion of western comics) that was included in an anime special of SFX magazine. There was additionally a small prologue released in the form of a 'animated comic' online, which explained how the story of Dominator X begins and featured artwork by Larry Bundy Jr. Bundy Jr is by all means a good anime-style artist, but this short video was particularly poor, looking too much like a vapid product that was trying to be Japanese.

Tony Luke had a production diary spread over a few issues of 3D World magazine, in which he discussed what it was like to be working in his position and how the development of Dominator X was coming along. I included all these as well as various other scans on my old website, which is the only website you will find that has lots of information and images on Dominator. I've stopped updating it since, but I think I will keep it open.

The Region 2 and Region 1 DVD releases of the movie appear to be out of print now, which only boosts this oddity's obscurity. It does contain quite a lot of special features though, including several insightful interviews, music videos and various galleries. Unfortunately, other than my old website and perhaps this article, there is no page on the Internet that contains definite info on Dominator, as the Renga Media site is no longer available (I have recently given its Wikipedia article an overhaul as that contained outdated and useless information). The DVD might be worth tracking down if you want to see the first-ever British CGI movie, which has Doug Bradley voicing a skull with tentacles alongside Dani Filth voicing a giant guitar-playing demon while Mark & Lard drink beer; Dominator is a uniquely bizarre experience, but it's not for everyone. The manga unfortunately, is in the extremes of obscurity. Since Dominator X's cancellation, I have not heard from Tony Luke; I hope he is doing well and that the new Renegade team will enjoy much success, and hopefully Dominator will make a return one day.

One last thing, Yasushi Nirasawa's redesign of Lady Violator is fantastic.

-James, 08 August 2009 (original date)

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