The Inverse Interview

Ultraman Rises Again on Netflix

Ultraman: Rising director Shannon Tindle chats about working with ILM, and the biggest challenge of rebooting the tokusatsu hero for American audiences.

An alien gently cradles a glowing human baby under a cosmic sky lit by a nebula and stars.
The Inverse Interview

Ultraman is one of the most recognizable superheroes in history — just not in the United States. Since the character’s debut in the eponymous 1966 series, Ultraman has been a pioneer of the “kyodai (or giant) hero” genre and a staple of tokusatsu, the brand of effects-heavy media unique to Japan. For Shannon Tindle (Kubo and the Two Strings, Lost Ollie) this meant that making his dream Ultraman story in the Netflix animated film Ultraman: Rising would require honoring the franchise’s near 60-year-old history just as much as it would require introducing it to people whose only exposure to kaiju is with Godzilla.

“My goal was to take a character that, while huge in many parts of Asia, is not known outside of it,” Tindle tells Inverse at the Annecy Animation Film Festival, where Ultraman: Rising had its world premiere. “I want to get people excited about that world and about Ultraman.”

Tindle has been working on Ultraman: Rising for over 20 years, first developing it as Made in Japan, a movie unrelated to the Ultraman franchise. It’s part of why the film works so well for newcomers: It’s structured as a standalone movie about a superhero learning to be a better person by becoming a dad. The film follows Ken Sato, a baseball superstar who returns to his native Japan to pick up the mantle of Ultraman and defend Tokyo from kaiju after his dad’s retirement. But he has to face a whole new challenge when he is forced to take care of a baby kaiju.

But the key to Ultraman: Rising, other than its accessibility, is its animation, produced by legendary studio ILM. Best known to audiences for their VFX work in everything from Star Wars to Jurassic Park, ILM was founded by George Lucas in 1975, and has been on the cutting edge of effects since.

In an interview with Inverse, Tindle helps break down Ultraman: Rising, and the revolutionary work that ILM brings to the film.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tindle reworked his pitch for an original movie into an Ultraman reboot for Netflix.


After developing the film for so many years, once you found out you could turn this into an Ultraman film, how much did the original story change?

Not a lot. Once I came to Netflix and we went to Tsuburaya [producers of Ultraman], we had very honest and direct conversations about things that they wanted to protect, and things that I wanted to protect. We had an incredible experience, so much so that Dr. Onda in the film is named after one of the chief executives over at Tsuburaya, as an ode to him. But Ken Sato stayed the same, his dad stayed the same.

The new things were, taking the villain that already existed, and retrofitting it to be a science team. All Ultraman series have a science team, and my idea was to flip that and make the science team the bad guys in this. Though Tsuburaya were initially concerned about the established canon, we came up with Ken’s mother being the founder of the Kaiju Defense Force, and they were meant to understand rather than destroy the kaiju, until Dr. Onda lost his way.

Once you know that this will be an Ultraman story, what elements of the main franchise did you look at as essential to keep, and what did you want to adapt and change for your own take on it?

What we had talked to Tsuburaya about was that our film exists in its own universe outside of any of the series, just like the previous animated series exists outside the live-action universe. Those guys are in mech suits, which is very different than the original Ultraman series or Ultra Seven. So even though I pay tribute to the original Ultraman design with ours, I did that because I thought even if an audience didn’t know Ultraman, they might recognize that image. I think it’s one of the strongest and most iconic designs ever. And I think it’s why it stuck with me so long, from the age of 5 or 6 until now.

The rule was always, if it supports Ken’s story, then it stays in. If it works against it or it distracts the audience who aren’t fans, then it’s out. Now that doesn’t mean we don’t have tons of references for hardcore fans who’ve seen it. I just didn’t want to get into a situation where we were paying fan service and people who didn’t know what was happening on screen were confused and that stopped them from engaging with Ken. I didn’t want them to have to do homework of watching the series. What I hope it does is when people watch the film, they get really excited and they go back and watch the original series. I think they’re going to get a really pleasant surprise because there’s a lot of great stories in the original alternate series, and it’s why it’s lasted as long as it has.

Directors John Aoshima and Shannon Tindle strike the Ultraman pose.

Michael Tullberg/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

At what point did ILM become involved with the film, and what were some of the earlier conversations like when it came to visuals?

I was actually working with them already on another project called Lost Ollie. My producer Tom Knott was seeing the dailies that were coming in from ILM for Lost Ollie, and he was blown away. He said, “Do you think that they would ever do an animated film again?” Then I asked Stefan Drury and Hayden Jones at ILM, who were working on Ollie, and at that time they said they didn’t think that they were doing animated films, but they would have the conversation. So then I set a trap for them. They were in LA and we were going to have a meeting about Ollie, and I decided to have it in our Ultraman room, which had some artwork of the film. By that point, it looked like things were changing and they might do another animated film, and it began from there.

What were some of the elements that ILM brought to the table that made them unique as a studio partner?

One of the reasons I was so excited to work with ILM is because even though the film was going to be stylized, which they don’t normally do, I wanted the camera to be based on real cameras, real lenses, real movement. We put a lens kit together, just like you would if you were doing a live-action shoot. Hayden Jones (head of VFX) and his team found tests done with original Toho scope lens to recreate in our style here because that’s the aspect ratio of some of our favorite Japanese films. One small thing they did was when Emi is born, there are no sound cues other than waves, but they added a touch of helicopter jitter, to recreate the feeling of shooting the scene in live-action with a helicopter to give it scale. That’s the kind of stuff you get with ILM. They’ve done so much in the live-action world, they’re so familiar with all the lenses, all the film backs, all the camera systems, that they can replicate that which is harder to get at an animation studio.

Ultraman: Rising is the first animated feature by ILM in nearly a decade.


One thing about the animation I really like was seeing the performances, especially Emi who acts like a real baby in a kaiju suit. Why was that important?

I like to base animation performance on real experience. It’s my favorite kind of animation. All those little nuanced things that you do, like tapping your leg, having your hands crossed with your thumbs together. Those are very specific things that happen when you’re just sitting around. So I encouraged ILM to put all those details into it. We wanted to base this on things we see in real life rather than what we see in animation, because a lot of those movements we see over and over have become cliches. I told them, when Ultraman lands, don’t do the Iron Man hero pose, let’s find our own language.

The film is entirely set in Japan, which is rare for an American adaptation of a Japanese property. Why was this important to this story?

It was really important to us to get that right, to get that location feel real. The first couple of things that we did were, we wanted to make sure that we were hiring Japanese folks, not just on the Netflix side, but also on the ILM side. We very specifically said, we want to make sure that we hire Japanese animators because characters who are Japanese are going to move a certain way. Culture to culture, people behave differently, and we wanted to capture that. We had our own cultural committee made up of our team members who were either Japanese or Japanese American and they reviewed every single asset that went through.

Makiko Wakita, our production supervisor, brought up early on that Ken has more swagger than you’d see from the typical Japanese baseball player, and asked if we would consider making him Japanese American, which is where that line Ken has about kids making fun of the way you talk or look or eat [comes from]. There was a time when the project was at another studio and they wanted it set in LA, but when we came to Netflix, we moved it back to Japan. The intent was always to have a Japanese or a Japanese American protagonist, and to tell a story from a relatable point of view and an authentic point of view. My goal was to take a character that, while huge in many parts of Asia, is not known outside of it. I want to get people excited about that world and about Ultraman.

Ultraman: Rising is streaming now on Netflix.

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