Space Invaders
October 16, 2009

Space Invaders

Manga lands on the big screen as Imagi Studios helps Astro Boy blast into theaters

Space Invaders

Manga mania is expected to invade theaters on Oct. 23, when Astro Boy blasts into theaters. Set in the future, Astro Boy is a classic superhero origin story. The CG-animated feature film-created in the popular Japanese anime manga styl--tells the story of a young robot with incredible powers and his adventure-filled journey in search of his destiny.

Presented by Summit Entertainment and Imagi Studios, Astro Boy is directed by David Bowers (Flushed Away) and stars Freddie Highmore (The Spiderwick Chronicles), Kristen Bell ("Heroes"), Nathan Lane, Eugene Levy (Over the Hedge), Matt Lucas, Bill Nighy (Flushed Away, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3), Donald Sutherland, Samuel L. Jackson, Charlize Theron, and Nicolas Cage (G-Force, The Ant Bully) as "Dr. Tenma." The film, adapted from a story by David Bowers, is based on "Astro Boy," the manga created by Osamu Tezuka.

In the futuristic world of Metro City, a gleaming metropolis in the sky, the brilliant scientist Dr. Tenma creates Astro Boy to replace the son he has lost, programming his creation with the best of human characteristics and values, as well as endowing him with extraordinary superpowers. Cast out when he cannot meet the grieving father's expectations, Astro Boy is dealt a cruel double blow--he is also crushed to learn he is a robot, not even a human being.

Astro Boy, who carries within himself the Blue Core, a power source made of positive "blue" energy, is sought out by the troops of the militaristic President Stone, obsessed with obtaining the Core for the "Peacekeeper" robot, in fact invented to be used as a weapon to dominate Earth.

Fleeing from the military, Astro Boy crashes to the surface of the Earth. Lost and unsure of his identity, Astro Boy simply seeks to fit in. Denying his true nature, he tries to pass himself off as a human being with a gang of child-vagabonds. He falls naively under the sway of their leader Hamegg, in whom he sees a father figure. To Astro Boy's horror, Hamegg exposes him as a robot and tries to turn him into a robot-gladiator.

In "Hamegg's Robot Games," Astro Boy is forced to face wave upon wave of robots. Refusing to fight, but only disabling his opponent when the safety of spectators is threatened, Astro Boy's nobility wins the crowd over. Alerted by the Core's power surge, the military swoops down and captures Astro Boy, who resigns himself to his fate. As Dr. Tenma, the man who created him, removes his energy source, Astro Boy forgives him for what he is doing. This display of innate goodness finally opens Dr. Tenma's eyes to the terrible mistake he has made. Reconciled to the son he had wrongly rejected, he allows Astro Boy to escape.

The destructive Peacekeeper, which has been given the incredibly dangerous negative Red Core energy by presidential order, is out of control and causing havoc in Metro City. Astro Boy returns to help the citizens, fighting the Peacekeeper and saving Metro City from crashing to Earth. In the climactic battle, the strands of the story come together as Astro Boy accepts his mixed human-robot nature and finds his destiny as mankind's savior.

Astro Boy Grows Up

Few animated characters have made as powerful or as lasting an impression on international popular culture as Astro Boy. The little robot first appeared in 1951 as a character in Osamu Tezuka's legendary manga Japanese comic book and became an instant icon. In 1963, he starred in a black and white television series produced in Japan. With his large expressive eyes, a trademark of manga, Astro Boy became the standard for a new form of animation that has become well known as anime.

The original series also garnered a devoted following when it debuted in the US that same year. Astro Boy continued to inspire fans in a 1980 television series, and then again in a series that debuted in 2003. Airing in 40 countries, including Japan and the US, this third series appeared on the WB and Cartoon Network.

Tezuka has been honored as both the "god of manga" and "father of anime," and Astro Boy and his creator became such enormous celebrities in their native Japan that they even appeared on postage stamps. In 2004, Astro Boy was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame alongside Star Wars' C-3PO and Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet.

Astro Boy's story, with its themes of displacement and the need to belong, touched director David Bowers. "Astro Boy is a timeless story in the tradition of Pinocchio or Oliver Twist," he says. "It's very Dickensian, but at the same time, it's very modern. He is a child created to replace the son that a father has lost. The father comes to realize that the boy can't truly replace his lost son. The boy, who thought he was a real kid, finds out he's a robot, and from there his life just goes crazy.

Thinking back to films I've loved and that have really influenced me over the years, I realized that the first movie I saw in a theater was Pinocchio," says Bowers, an animation veteran who previously directed Flushed Away for DreamWorks and Aardman Features. "My father took me to see it and it had an enormous impact."

Then, when he was researching Astro Boy, Bowers learned that Osamu Tezuka was highly influenced by the work of Walt Disney. "It was easy to see where Astro Boy came from. There are all sorts of similarities with Pinocchio-plus he improved it with giant fighting robots!"

Staying faithful to the original "Astro Boy" while updating its sensibility for a 21st century audience was a central concern for everyone involved with the film, says Maryann Garger, the film's producer. "Astro Boy is a national treasure in Japan. He is their Mickey Mouse. We wanted to create that same excitement and passion for the character in Western audiences.

"I think viewers who know the character will see Astro Boy's story in a way they haven't seen it before," she adds. "On the other hand, if you're new to Astro Boy, it's an incredibly emotional story. It's sort of Pinocchio, but it's also Star Wars. And it's not just for kids. It's for grownups, too, and hopefully moviegoers around the world will discover that."

Bowers is confident that longtime fans will be happy with this updated Astro Boy. "He is still the Astro Boy we know and love, except this is the first time on the big screen, so it's a much bigger story. It has much more scope and much more scale, even in things like the emotional aspects of Astro Boy's journey."

But while Astro Boy has a poignant side, the filmmakers have not skimped on the action-or the humor, says Bowers. "We have Astro Boy flying down the streets, cars blowing up, buildings collapsing. We have flying cities crashing to the ground. It's heartwarming, but at the same time very exciting and very funny, too."

Easy to Love

While Garger admits she did not grow up with Astro Boy, she says it was love at first sight. "It's a very enriching story, a wonderful emotional journey and Astro is a great, great character. It's easy to understand how he became a worldwide icon."

Actor Freddie Highmore, who voices the pint-sized superhero, points toward Astro Boy's innate altruism as one reason for his enduring popularity. "He's a real superhero in that he uses his powers for good," says Highmore. "There are so many people in the world who are very clever or talented in some way. They usually use their gifts for their own benefit. Astro Boy never puts himself first. He goes to save the whole world.

"Astro Boy is the individual who sets out to change the society," the actor continues. "In our world, just like in his, there are so many rules and restrictions that make it hard for the individual to make a difference, but that's what Astro Boy always tries to do."

The opportunity to direct Astro Boy was too good an opportunity for Bowers to pass up, he says. "My job, first and foremost, is to be a storyteller. I helped harness the creative energies of all these amazing people surrounding me to get the story out there as something that people can enjoy. I hope that it's something that will be around for a while. If we can move people, if we can make people laugh and make people cry, then I think we've done our job. If we can excite them and have them at the edge of their seats, too, then we've done our job really well."

Putting together the best project possible meant assembling an all-star creative team, says the director. "We managed to get these amazing talents to work on our film. Everybody was committed to making Astro Boy the most spectacular, fantastic, exciting and funniest movie that we could possibly create."

CG Challenge

The film is produced by Imagi Studios, a Hong Kong-based animation studio with a creative development and production facility in Los Angeles and an office in Tokyo. The company's first major CG-animated theatrical movie, TMNT, was released domestically in March 2007 by Warner Bros. and opened No. 1 at the box office.

"Imagi has all these great artists from around the world who are very passionate," Bowers adds. "A lot of top creative people that I worked with at other studios are there, so it really felt like we were getting the band back together. I was thrilled to be reunited with Maryann Garger, who was the co-producer of Flushed Away." 

Garger echoes his enthusiasm. "Imagi is especially exciting for me because we have an opportunity to help build the studio," she says. "That was something I loved doing when I was at DreamWorks. Because Imagi is a young studio, there's a lot of artistic energy which translates to the screen. We have made a film that we're very proud of that will compete in today's global marketplace."

Imagi Studios' mission was to produce innovative and original animated motion pictures, according to Paul Wang, the studio's executive vice president of development and executive producer of Astro Boy. "We are especially interested in superhero movies, like Astro Boy," he says. "At Imagi, we are willing to take on the challenge of making groundbreaking movies. We've gathered an eclectic group of artists. Each of them dreams about doing films that are influential and event-driven. They still want to make big feature films, but they want to make artistic films at the same time. So this is a chance for them to realize that dream."

Francis Kao, founder and chief creative officer of Imagi Studios, grew up in Hong Kong where Japanese anime was a staple. "I had the best of both worlds as a kid in Hong Kong," says Kao. "I was able to see anime series in their original Japanese formats, as well as the versions made for Western audiences. When I started Imagi Studios in 2000, I wanted to create entertainment that brings together the best of East and West- the enduring, popular characters and stories of Japanese anime and the Hollywood expertise in making movies that resonate with audiences around the world."

"From day one, we've moved forward with love and respect for Osamu Tezuka's original manga which serves as the core for the movie," adds Kao. "We have been working very closely with Tezuka Productions and with the creator's son, Macoto Tezka, to ensure we got everything right."

Erin Corbett, president of Imagi Studios U.S., says that it has been gratifying to see how warmly fans and media alike have embraced this motion picture since it was first announced. "Making Astro Boy has been an amazing journey for Imagi Studios," according to Corbett. "He is a legendary, beloved superhero who has captured hearts around the globe for over 50 years and we're honored that we've been entrusted with taking this iconic property to a new global stage."

Content Focus

The film's designers aspired to create a world that would resemble nothing that audiences have ever seen before. Much of the inspiration for Astro Boy's world comes from the work of Isamu Noguchi, the famous 20th century Japanese-American artist and landscape architect.

Noguchi's work with abstraction inspired them to use simple shapes which they brought to life using the most advanced computer lighting, texturing and modeling techniques available. The results go far beyond the souped-up, fuselage-based spacecrafts or flying cars with fins already seen in a host of movies from the past.

The designers also turned to Japan for ideas for the film's backgrounds. They turned to the work of 19th century woodblock artist, Katsushika Hokusai as a jumping-off point. Hokusai's work takes a simple approach to landscapes, eliminating visual clutter in favor of distilling an image to its essence.

Actor Bill Nighy calls the look of Astro Boy "very modern, very 21st century. It has been modified from the original and yet retains the Japanese influences beautifully integrated into a kind of Western look and feel."

According to Wang, the film is representative of the kind of movies that Imagi wants to build its reputation on.

The creators of the new Astro Boy movie know they have set the bar high for themselves by taking a well-known, beloved property and presenting it to audiences in a new form. "Astro Boy is the original anime property," says producer Maryann Garger. "He was first introduced in America back in the 1960s, but we have the opportunity to reintroduce him to the world as a new icon who can hold his own with the biggest blockbusters out there."

As for the content creation, the team had its hands full. Imagi developed a standard template for authoring the shaders used in the film, whereby each shading component was generated in a separate channel, while the artists could fine-tune the lighting during compositing. The template also has a built-in point-based GI feature, such as point-based occlusion, which facilities the computation.

In addition, Imagi added a number of effects to the film, including procedural wind breezes and object interaction for the studio's in-house grass and tree systems. The technique developed is temporarily independent and faster than traditional methods, the studio states. Meanwhile, to generate dusters, the group used a combination of a volumetric approach and a particle approach.

As for the characters, the artists developed a highly controllable texture-based technique that breaks the buildings, ground, and so forth into fragments, and renders the cracking process by automatic CSG generation. For the crowds, the studio added a new behavior and motion-blending engine to its in-house crowd simulation system. Every detail is controllable and can be previewed within Autodesk's Maya.

It's a Wrap

Bowers says that as a parent, he was particularly excited to be making Astro Boy.

"When kids go to the movie theater to see Astro Boy, I hope it will be an amazing experience for them," the director says. "But when they come out of the movie theater, I want that experience to expand into their everyday lives. That's how Astro Boy is in Japan, and I'd love for it to be that in the United States

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