What we saw on the Mexico set of Dragonball Evolution

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

SCI FI Wire was among a group of journalists to visit the set of Dragonball Evolution in the high desert of Durango, Mexico, a year ago this month, where we watched the filming of a climactic fight scene between Goku (Justin Chatwin) and Lord Piccolo (James Marsters) under the direction of James Wong.

Based on the venerable Japanese manga/anime franchise Dragon Ball, the movie is the first official attempt by a U.S. studio to translate the franchise's characters—at least some of them—into a live-action movie.The movie shot in various locations in Los Angeles and Mexico in 2007 and '08, winding up here last March, in an old jeans factory outside Durango.

On the day SCI FI Wire visited the set, a harsh wind in this mile-high desert raked the production's outdoor sets, damaging several, including a "volcano crater" and parts of the outdoor "Dragon Temple," setting of a climactic battle that we'll watch later.

The climactic scene being shot this evening takes place in the Dragon Temple, a massive stone crater surrounded by castellated towers, stairways and arches, decorated with carvings of dragons.

Chatwin is wearing his full-on Goku costume: a short-sleeved dark yellow martial-arts "gi" with black trim, a blue sash and the emblem of the Dragon Ball: a calligraphic representation of a dragon on a white field. Chatwin's hair is also spiked into a reasonable real-world approximation of Goku's anime 'do, and it's his real hair: no wigs for Chatwin.

In the scene, Goku and Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat) are squaring off against Lord Piccolo: Marsters unrecognizably covered neck to toe in black armor and wearing full-head makeup that turns him into a greenish pointy-eared alien.

"It's a four-hour makeup job," Marsters, encased in layers of prosthetics, says between takes, sitting in a chair to keep cool so that he doesn't sweat the makeup right off.

The set is lit: amber spots, smoke, bits of flame in the background. Master Roshi is on the ground, Goku on all fours. Piccolo strides up to them to finish them off. But Goko rises to punch Piccolo in the face. Piccolo parries the blow. Cut!

Part of the challenge has been to adapt and translate for an American audience a 20-year-old franchise that comprises by one count a manga series, three anime series, 17 animated feature films, a card game, several electronic games and a series of collectible action figures.

"I looked at all the mangas, the Dragon Ball 18 books that they provided me," writer/director Wong says during a break in filming. He adds: "I didn't really know too much about it, and Dragon Ball Z [a later animated series] is so different than Dragon Ball that, you know, when I heard about it, I thought, 'Wow, I don't know ... what to do with this thing.' Because it's so crazy, with all the aliens and stuff like that. So I looked at the mangas, and it gave me a whole different perspective on what this movie can be."

Ultimately, Wong and writer Ben Ramsey settled on a story drawn from the original manga, centering on Goku, Master Roshi, Bulma and the characters Chi-Chi (Jamie Chung), Goku's love interest; Mai (Japanese singer Eriko Tamura), Lord Piccolo's shape-shifting enforcer; Yamcha (California-born South Korean pop star Joon Park), a thief who becomes Goku's ally; and Grandpa Gohan (The Matrix Reloaded's Randall Duk Kim), who teaches Goku his martial-arts skills.

"I think the most important thing to capture in the movie is the tone and the fun that Dragon Ball is, and we had to obviously just take out parts that we could do," Wong says. "I mean, the mangas are so fantastic, and so many different places you can go. It was a matter of trying to figure out the journey for Goku: ... How he comes to realize who he is and all that."

Dragonball Evolution opens April 10.