Period films are hard, and we imagine that period pieces with multiple, awe-inspiring sets are even harder. In The Ningyo, we are transported from museums to mansions, underground lairs to under the ocean—locations replete with fantastical creatures too numerous to describe. The ambition of film’s design is breathtaking, as VFX artist Miguel Ortega and his partner, Tran Ma, have created a supremely tactile and gorgeous world for their adventure-fantasy proof-of-concept. Oh, and by the way—they shot most of it in their living room!
Nothing will give you a crash course in modern digital movie magic like watching the 7min making-of, but the film’s ambitions are not merely visual. At 26min there is a lot more going on than in your typical proof-of-concept short. Professor Marlowe is a famed hunter of mythological creatures, famous for discovering Africa’s famed “zebra-giraffe” the Okapi. But, in a crisis of conscience, he has renounced killing animals. He still wants to hunt mythological beings, but now only for scientific study. One particular creature obsesses him and that is the ningyo, a Japanese fish often referred to as a “mermaid”, and which, according to legend, will grant unusually long life to whomever tastes its flesh. After receiving a map that purports to reveal the location of this the ningyo, he tries to rouse the support of his colleagues in academia for an expedition, only to be roundly mocked. The mockery hides a deeper conspiracy however, as the ningyo is protected by a Japanese clan whose ancestor was cursed by the creature’s gift, and is also pursued by a mysterious collector whom possesses seemingly limitless wealth and reach.
Like I said, there is a lot going on, and, to be honest, it’s probably too much. The Ningyo is titled “episode 1” revealing the team’s desire to craft an ongoing series, and Ortega and Ma felt the need to include too much of the larger concept into this introduction. As a result, the film is burdened by over-exposition and some pacing issues. Subplots, like that of the Japanese clan, exist on the periphery of the main plot, and combine awkwardly.
We found these issues worth overlooking though, as The Ningyo, achieved with never more than 5 people on set, is such a showcase of what is possible visually in independent film. Ortega and Ma’s experience is not in writing or directing, but consists of 12 years of VFX creature design. Ortega is transitioning toward directing however—his previous effort was The Green Ruby Pumpkin, a highly entertaining 3min film I Staff Picked 4 years ago while at Vimeo, and with The Ningyo a primary motivation was to establish himself as a director of actors. With this film, backed by a massive 1000+ Kickstarter backers, Ortega accomplishes that goal to satisfaction.
Others agree, The Ningyo was selected for numerous genre fests over the past year, and was invited to special screenings at Walt Disney Animation and Blizzard Cinematics. After setting up a preview event in L.A. this fall, Ortega was able to land CAA representation as a director. Creating The Ningyo independently on a shoestring is massively impressive, but if the series is to expand, it will need professional backing, and the team is now well set up to absorb the expertise of new talents while still maintaining creative control of their vision. We’re optimistic that a deal for The Ningyo will be announced soon.