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'Astro Boy' Gets Re-imagined by Imagi

AWN gets a sneak peek at the CG challenges of bringing Astro Boy to the big screen.

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Imagi has resurrected Astro Boy as a CG feature. But despite the polish and added dimensionality of the format, he's still a simple-looking heroic icon. All images copyright Imagi Crystal Ltd.

Astro Boy is back! In anticipation of Summit Ent.'s Oct. 23 theatrical release, a select group of online journos recently got a sneak peek at Imagi Animation Studios in Sherman Oaks. Not to worry: they'll be showing off some of the new CG incarnation of Astro Boy next Thursday at Comic-Con 2009 at the San Diego Convention Center (Room 6BCF at 10:45 a.m.).

Introductions were provided by Erin Corbett, president, Imagi Studios U.S./chief marketing officer worldwide; Producer Maryann Garger; Writer/Director David Bowers (Flushed Away); Character Designer Luis Grane (Ratatouille); and Animation Director Jakob Jensen (Flushed Away).

Among the clips, we witnessed the high-tech birth of Astro Boy and lots of action, including the robot trying to fend off yellow jackets and outlast a myriad of attacks. There was also some comic relief supplied by the Fagin-like Ham Egg (Nathan Lane). The animation is certainly a step up from Imagi's last effort, TMNT: it's a lot richer and more sophisticated looking while retaining the core simplicity.

Based on Osamu Tezuka's groundbreaking 1952 manga and popularized by the further groundbreaking '60s anime TV series, Astro Boy is set in the futuristic world of Metro City, a gleaming metropolis in the sky, where scientist Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) creates Astro Boy (Freddie Highmore) 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 super powers. 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 (Donald Sutherland), 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, including street urchin Cora (Kristen Bell). He falls naively under the sway of their leader, Ham Egg in whom he sees a father figure. To Astro Boy's horror, Ham Egg exposes him as a robot and tries to turn him into a robot-gladiator. Through his struggles and adventures, Astro Boy must learn to accept his mixed human-robot nature and his role as mankind's savior.

"It's primarily an origin story," Bowers offered. "It's hard -- it's a very emotional story. Actually, when I started, I wanted to have something to hang all the action and comedy and adventure from so I really went back to the father/son relationship between Astro and his father… This film explores all the problems that come with attempting something like that."

Meanwhile, Grane discussed what influenced his character design. "I had the opportunity to use some of my heroes that I always look at and since we had to create a lot of new characters and robots and sets and props for the CG, I used some of the basic shapes from Noguchi, the Japanese/American sculptor that I've always loved. And some classic Japanese artists like Hokusai and Kurioshi. They all have something in common -- they feature really simple shapes that are flat and expressive at the same time. Of course, we had many characters from the manga to use. And the biggest challenge was to create this super flat and 2D style into 3D, so for that, I used a lot of influences, including from Western Mexico that I really like.

"You have these really elongated shapes -- almost like caricatures -- that I used for robots and different characters. If I had to do a robot or a building or a tree for this movie, I went for basic shapes inspired by some of these artists, and also inspired by Tezuka's work. And then I created shapes within the shapes. We had 30 robots that are everywhere, so it was fun to explore different shapes. I didn't want to just use anthropomorphic robots but also very abstract shapes."

They found a new costume for Astro Boy so it didn't appear like he was flying around in his underwear.

Of course, the biggest challenge was the iconic Astro Boy himself -- and the Argentinean admitted that he was afraid of ruining it. "At the beginning, they wanted to make him a little older than the original one to appeal to a broader audience, so we tried different things. One of the big issues was having him with the classic costume, so they were concerned about seeing a boy flying in underwear, so we put clothes on, but which clothes? So we came up with different costumes. "

They were also concerned about his appearance. One early model had him as a 12-year-old, but he looked 30, so they changed the proportions while retaining the essence of the character. And the final version displays some of the original powers, but with a more modern high-tech sensibility, including the somewhat controversial "butt canon."

"One of other characters, Dr. Tenma, has the Jacometti influence: he looks like a stick from the front but in profile takes on more dimensionality. A big problem was with Dr. Elefun [Bill Nighy]. He has a balloon nose that you can cheat in 2D by moving it around, but, in 3D, it stays in the same place and you can't see the eyes. So we had to work on it."

We were shown a series of walk cycles and rigging and blocking tests by Jensen. "The main challenge was to maintain the simplicity so inherent in the original. We very quickly figured that this trash can character [a robotic dog] was going to be golden for us because he's limited in his movement and we had to figure out the [balance between the mechanical and the organic and keeping him cute]. When we decided to approach Freddy Highmore for the voice, I decided to put together a little test from August Rush to see how it would feel with his voice coming out of our character."

From what we glimpsed, it proved to be a good match.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.