When you first read Eiichiro Oda’s wonderful manga One Piece, one of the things that sticks out initially is that it’s a visual gold mine — not just in its fantastical locales and outlandish character designs, but in how it relays information to the reader. So much happens at once, whether it’s action or character relationships or steady, constant world-building that in less skilled hands would easily devolve into a cacophony of imagery. So then, when you hear that it’s being adapted into a live-action series, your first question is likely: “Ummm… how?”
Luckily, with oversight from Oda himself, the crew behind Netflix’s new live-action One Piece took on translating One Piece’s world from the page to the screen with aplomb. Involved in this tricky adjustment from one medium to another were production designer Richard Bridgland and editor Tessa Verfuss. Both were tasked with figuring out the inherent logical steps that it would take to recreate Oda’s world and also deliver the kind of aesthetic assuredness that has kept fans attached to the series for over 25 years.
Verfuss was not stranger to shows involving pirates — she’d served as an editor on Black Sails, but when she watched a few episodes of the One Piece anime and was infected by the enthusiasm of co-showrunner Matt Owens, she saw a project that she couldn’t pass up: “It’s gotta be huge and it’s got this massive fan base. Who wouldn’t want to work on something like this?” Bridgland, on the other hand, got a crash course in One Piece enthusiasm from another source: “I wasn’t familiar with the manga when I started, but I asked my kids about them and they were like, ‘Oh my god! One Piece? That’s huge!’ So I started looking into it and what I saw was the most fantastic opportunity to translate the world into real life.”
The real-life part would be one of Bridgland’s main focuses. Working with so many practical effects (along with CGI to fill in the cracks and expand the scope), he remained intent on crafting something that felt believable within the show’s world. “When I pitched for the project,” Bridgland explained, “I did a big presentation of reference images of the kind of thing that I thought this world was made of.” His deep dive into the world of real-life piracy made him a solid fit for Oda’s creation, as the One Piece manga is full of tributes and allusions to piracy’s long history: “I felt that there was a really solid foundation that we could work on that was authentic and credible, and that people would recognize, both fans and non-fans.”
Verfuss, meanwhile, was working on her own style of authenticity: “We felt like these characters had authentic and realistic human emotions and motivations.” The performances ensured that she’d be able to deliver that, to focus on the big moments of emotional triumph and revelation as well as the action. Much of her work would be intensely focused on capturing the actors in a way that felt true, carrying the importance they’d had in the source material over to live action. A character couldn’t just follow a plot beat from the manga exactly — it had to hold similar weight. “Fortunately for us, Iñaki Godoy’s [Monkey D. Luffy] performance made it so easy. He is so sincere and so optimistic. He really nailed the character as far as we’re concerned.” The manga, anime, and live-action series are flush with close-ups on Luffy and his Straw Hat crew, moments that are full of swelling, dramatic emotion. Verfuss and her edits helped make their world a believable one.
Each new crew member often came with a new setting, something that Bridgland strived to load with details that felt real within the story, even if it meant a few tweaks. In the manga, the Windmill Village is a coastal community of sorts. Bridgland built it out right over the water, making a connection to the sea inescapable for the future King of the Pirates. “When we’re designing Windmill Village,” Bridgland said, “I thought that Luffy, if he wanted to become a pirate, [he’d] got to have some connection to the sea and be able to meet pirates.”
This would carry over into settings like Kaya’s mansion, a place loaded with fine plates and silverware (“Kaya’s grandparents started the shipyard, and we were thinking that when the pirates came, they didn’t necessarily have the hard cash or credit to buy ships, so they trade in fine porcelain plates or other treasure from their hold”) or Baratie, the floating restaurant with multiple huge levels (“Zeff, a pirate, likely couldn’t have just built it. So I figured he went to a pirate scrapyard and took a couple of other galleons and stacked them up”). Despite the massive workload that went into designing all of these elements, Bridgland had a lot of fun with it. The front of the Baratie is a giant wooden fish head that contains a bar: “Having built it, I think it’s the best bar I’ve ever been to in my life. And we did have a few drinks in there.”
Verfuss’ inclination was to “cut tight and then look for moments where we really needed to breathe and draw the audience’s attention by slowing down for a moment.” This would help in not just dramatic scenes but in showing off little references for the fans or even capturing some of Bridgland’s work, things that would include more of Oda’s finely crafted mythology. It’s something that the show sprinkles throughout, valuing a close look instead of hamfisted fan service that ruins the pace.
“That’s why having a showrunner like Matt Owens on board really matters,” Verfuss explained. “Because the footage will come in and you’ll see these shots and then you’ll have someone tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, it might just look like an unimportant thing, but that’s actually a big Easter egg moment that people are going to recognize.’”
Finding the logic in this adaptation also hinged on emotion. One Piece is a series full of grand declarations and characters defined by sweeping dramatic broad strokes, to the extent that the world around them, in both manga and live action, almost exists to exemplify them. The “most difficult” design in One Piece came from the figurehead of Luffy’s ship, the Going Merry. Each pirate seemed to have a distinct one for their own vessel, and combining Luffy’s hardheadedness with his tendency to laugh in the face of danger, Bridgland took the benign sheep’s head of the manga and turned it into a “laughing ram.” “Most importantly, I think it captures the spirit of Luffy,” Bridgland said.
Through the work of these two and many others, the live-action One Piece has been able to remove any pretenses that its source material is too cartoonish in look or labyrinthine in plot to turn into live action. It never manages to rebuild an exact replica of Oda’s work, but that’s a good thing, because it would render the adaptation needless and ultimately hollow. Rather, Netflix’s One Piece is proof that with careful work and consideration, sailing into the Grand Line can be accomplished in any medium.
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