HONOLULU — Aki, the scientist/heroine of Square Picture’s new movie “Final Fantasy,” steps from the door of her space shuttle and surveys the wreckage that is Old New York.

AKI, the heroine/scientist of the movie “Final Fantasy.”

The streets are cluttered with debris, there are human skulls on the ground, and the rubble of a fallen building forms a mound around a dirty street sign for Prudential Insurance.

Aki’s eyes narrow as she sends up a radioactive flare that will reveal the nearly invisible monsters that inhabit this city.

At first glance, it would be easy for audiences to mistake Aki for an actress. The way she forms her mouth, the way her eyes twitch and her hair sways, it is all so real. More than anything else, it is the way she moves that is so convincing.

But Aki exists only on the screen, as a computer animation. She and the entire universe of the “Final Fantasy” movie are computer graphics — 3-D models composed of tens of thousands of flat polygons laid together so meticulously that audiences will have to remind themselves that this movie is really a cartoon.

Live-action cartoon

Some of “Final Fantasy’s” reality comes from its A-list of voice actors. The cast, which includes Alec Baldwin (“The Edge,” “Hunt for the Red October”), James Woods (“Contact,” “Salvador”), Ving Rhames (“Mission Impossible,” “Pulp Fiction”), and Ming-Na (“The Joy Luck Club,” “Street Fighter”), has more stars than most big-budget thrillers.

The voice acting, however, is only part of the acting talent on display in the “Final Fantasy” movie.

Working out of a nearly empty warehouse on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, a team that includes motion picture professionals, highly-trained computer specialists and actors played out every major acting scene from the movie on a small platform surrounded by 16 cameras.

The characters and environments in “Final Fantasy” may be composed of computer graphics, but their movements are real. Dressed in black suits dotted with marble-size reflective balls, a group of actors including Gemini, a former member of the American Gladiators, ran through makeshift doorways, carried realistically weighted prop rifles, climbed ropes and fought battles. They even performed dramatic dialogue from the movie.

Rather than recording the people, however, the cameras surrounding this sound stage videotaped the movements of the reflective balls on their clothing and props. These movements were than translated into computer data that was next used to create stick figures that moved in a 3-D space. These stick figures were covered with the realistic skin of carefully crafted virtual people. “The motion capture process allows us to accurately record human beings’ movements and translate that to the computer,” said Remington Scott, the man overseeing the motion capture process. “The great thing about this is that we’re not just getting these gross movements, but we’re getting subtleties and nuances. Everything that you do that you do not realize that you do.”

There is nothing new about the use of motion capture technology. Video game companies have been using it for a decade (before joining Square, Scott worked in the motion capture studios of a game company called Acclaim Entertainment), and companies such as Pixar have used this technology in such computer animated motion pictures as “Toy Story.”

In “Final Fantasy,” the use of motion tracking technology has been taken one step further. Now, instead of using the technology for action only, Square is using it to bring every scene to life.

Games to movies

If any motion picture company should be familiar with computer technologies, it would be Square. Before striking up a partnership with Columbia Pictures and beginning this project, Square was strictly a video game publisher, and “Final Fantasy” is one of the world’s most popular series of games.

In 1997, having sold approximately 20 million copies of his first seven Final Fantasy games worldwide, game creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, decided to extend his vision to include movies.

A noted perfectionist, Sakaguchi remained the film’s director as he assembled an experienced team to create the kind of project he envisioned. Rather than writing the screenplay himself, however, he hired Al Reinert, the Academy Award-nominated writer of “Apollo 13.” Square next assembled a crew that included Tani Kunitake, whose storyboarding credentials include “Fight Club” and “Matrix”; Andy Jones, animation supervisor of “Titanic”; and Jun Aida, a man whose past credentials include producing both animated television shows and a live-action feature based on popular games from a company called Capcom.

“The thing that will hold the entire project together is storytelling,” Aida said. “That is really Sakaguchi-san’s domain, presenting stories in a very emotional way that people can experience.”

When asked if he thought that having made his first movie, Sakaguchi may abandon the games business and concentrate on show business, Aida responded, “That’s a good question. I don’t think so. He’s got enough creative capability to juggle both.”