‘One Piece’ Adaptation’s Biggest Foe? An Animated World on a Real-Life Budget

There’s a version of “One Piece” that follows Eiichiro Oda’s original manga more closely. In the original story, the East Blue Saga chronicles Luffy and his pirate crew’s adventures right until they hit Loguetown, the last big port before they hit the Grand Line — a stretch of sea known for bigger, badder pirates and more impressive treasure.

It’s a storytelling formula that’s common in manga. You spend the first major arc building up your hero and introducing viewers to the stakes of this world and end the story right before the next major challenge. But instead of ending with a multi-enemy fight at Loguetown, the first season of Netflix’s live-action “One Piece” stops right before that, ending with Luffy’s (Iñaki Godoy) fight with Arlong (McKinley Belcher III). The culprit? Berries — er, money.

“There was a version of the season that included Lowertown, but it was 10 episodes long, and cost a lot more would have been a lot longer to shoot,” Steven Maeda, who developed the series for Netflix alongside Matt Owens, told TheWrap. “At that point, it was really how much story can fit into eight episodes in a way that feels organic and natural without having things feel rushed.”

Talking to Maeda, you get a sense of the myriad of headaches that went into creating what’s currently the No.1 series on Netflix. There are the expected ones. For example, how do you make a snail phone or a clown pirate that can disembody himself look realistic? But when you get into the more granular details of how the live-action “One Piece” came to be, the fact that exists in any form — let alone a critically and commercially successful one — becomes all the more impressive.

One prominent example revolves around camera lenses. “Our director, Marc Jobst, and our DP Nicole Whitaker, for block one came up with this idea of using extra extra wide lenses. Those wide lenses are beautiful, and they make the show look different than just about anything else on TV right now,” Maeda said. “But those wide lenses also brought in so much more of the world. In shooting with them, we very quickly discovered, ‘Oh, my god, we’re bringing in more sky, we’re bringing in more space.'”

Bringing in more of the sky and the sea meant more CGI, which meant more money. It was a concern that seeped into everything, down to how the series’ ambitious fight scenes were choreographed and filmed.

“Our VFX producer and supervisor were on set every single day telling us stuff like, ‘You can’t look this way. You’re going to be seeing the ocean in every single shot, and the cost of that ocean replacement for the tank is going to be too onerous.’ So we can look that way 25% of the time, but the rest has to be looking back towards ships and other surfaces that we won’t have to extend with VFX,” Maeda said. “So it was a huge, huge collaboration.

Another giant toll on “One Piece’s” finances had to do with the nature of the series itself. At its core, “One Piece” is a travel show. Nearly every episode sees Luffy, Nami (Emily Rudd), Zoro (Mackenyu) and the rest of the Straw Hat crew facing a new adventure in another expansive, lavishly designed area. Most of these sets “are never returned to again.”

“It really is insanity as a television series in a lot of ways because you could theoretically spend an entire season or an entire series at Baratie, for example,” Maeda said, referring to the upscale restaurant where Luffy and his friends meet the waiter and aspiring chef Sanji (Taz Skylar). “It was such a big, wonderful set. Only using it for two episodes and a couple of scenes and then having to tear it down was a heartbreaker, for sure.”

But knowing that the series would require these ambitious and expensive setups and takedowns is partially why Capetown was chosen as its filming location. “They had the ship infrastructure there from ‘Black Sails’ that we could repurpose and use. They had the people who knew how to rig those ships and make them look real, even though they’re not sailing on the open seas,” Maeda said. “Then also their construction and their crafts people are so good and can really handle doing a ton of construction, which we needed for the show.”

Maeda also praised the series’ line producer Chris Symes, who worked as the lead producer on ‘Black Sails’ for years. “Having Cape Town Film Studios, plus the bones of those ships, plus Chris was the only way we could get the show done on any budget.”

Since the series has been released, Maeda has seen some blowback from manga and anime fans about his adaptation. Maeda admitted that getting in a story about Gaimon, a former pirate compressed into a treasure chest who protects the Island of Rare Animals, “would have been wonderful.” He also noted that he’s seen criticisms around the decision to abandon Usopp’s (Jacob Romero Gibson) signature long nose and eyebrows (“It was a decision that was based on a lot of discussion and wanting the show to feel as grounded as possible,” Maeda said).

“There were a lot of considerations that went into what story ended up in and what story fell out,” Maeda said. “I appreciate what everyone has to say. For the most part, people seem to be really liking it OK.”

Despite all of the hard work that went into “One Piece’s” casting, choreography, visual effects, directing and cinematography, it’s Oda’s original manga that Maeda perhaps praises the most.

“One of the ways we really got lucky is the underlying material is so optimistic. It’s got a genuine and sincere sweetness to it in spite of the fact that there is darkness, and there are bad things happening in the world,” Maeda said. “It feels like a very good show for our times. Right now, it’s something that we really need.”

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