• CGSociety :: Production Focus
    30 October 2009, by Renee Dunlop

    The digital production crew at Imagi in Hong Kong, with an average age of just twenty three, has resurrected the historical Manga character Astro Boy. First created by Osamu Tezuka, he is remembered by many in Japan as the 'god' of manga. While the 2D creation of Astro Boy happened decades before most of these artists were born, the Imagi offices in Los Angeles and Hong Kong decided it was time to flesh out the storyline into a film, and the hero into a 3D character.

    According to Director David Bowers, the transition was not an easy one. "In manga, Astro Boy is a beautiful, iconic, very graphic design. He's like Mickey Mouse; he has the two horns in his hair that are always in silhouette when he's drawn." The decision was to design the film version Astro in 3D. The Astro design, after some brief sketching, was worked out in 3D, first as a maquette that was scanned, then as a 3D model. The early designs of Astro Boy went through several iterations, testing different ages and proportions, keeping the iconic eyes, whether or not to include eyelashes, and making sure he didn't look too cute. But one of the challenges was what to do with his hair style.

    Osamu Tezuka, creator of the original manga Astro Boy.-->

    "When you put him into 3D and turn his head, one of those horns will disappear and he doesn't look like Astro Boy anymore." The cheat they used was to occasionally switch the horn from the left to the right side depending on the location of the camera. "It's a nod to the way he's always been portrayed. I think it's important that Astro Boy has the iconic two point shape."

    Tim Cheung, Head of Animation on the film and VP of Animation at Imagi, felt that while there are few technical challenges left to tackle, there is always the challenge of strong character portrayal, especially with a recognizable character like Astro Boy. "It's more about how the users use all the tools that are there to do great stuff."

    Still, some tools had to be added to the Imagi library. "When I first came to Imagi two years ago," adds Cheung, "I worked with the R&D department to develop a facial animation system that went on top of the Maya platform. It allowed the animators to have hundreds of controls that are based off my experience of what is necessary to do great facial animation.

    The tool is actually quite simple, it's very similar to the system that a lot of places use, it's a blend shape slider-based system.

    We've been able to fine tune it to make sure when the animators use it they influence the right parts of the face to make it move and feel more real." Every movie going forth will use the same facial animation system, "so that animators can get familiar with the way the controls work and they don't need to relearn from character to character or movie to movie."

    When Astro Boy, the robotic resurrection of Dr. Tenma's deceased son Toby, is first rejected by his father, Astro Boy finds himself tossed from his Metro City home high in the clouds down to Earth below, which has become a destination for discards from robotic to human. This landscape becomes a key location for the next several scenes.

    Here, Astro Boy is led into a trap orchestrated by vagabond children scouring the landscape for usable robotic parts. The massive scrap heap stretches to the horizon in a mountainous landscape as far as the camera can see, and the individual discarded items need to interact with the characters as they run through, tumble over, and hide behind.
    Art Director Jake Rowell described the terrain as similar to an airplane bone yard. "We had a sketch session to flesh out what it would look like if we had all these football to people sized parts scattered all over the place. Your frequency is going to be rather high, and that meant the mass shapes of our mountains and our terrain needed to be rather big to accommodate the smaller frequency of the smaller parts." Too heavy to render fully modeled, Imagi had to find another way to create the landscape of interactive debris.

    Rowell decided to move directly to 3D and previs the entire terrain, not including the smaller refuse, but the terrain topology. Once Rowell learned the storyline needed Astro Boy to fall to Earth, then be led to the trap where he would meet the children that were to become his friends, he knew where the main areas of visibility would be. "We sculpted out from a profile view, looking at the boards, how Astro Boy fell from Metro City to the scrap heap. The two major angles of that valley, looking to the left and right, and the path that led him to the trap. That minimized the impact of what we had to deal with, of what the characters needed to interact with. It was one mountain where he fell, the valley, and a valley path around to the trap. Anything beyond that was displacement maps and instancing."

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    Another of Chen's tasks was the character called Trashcan, a robotic dog-like companion that first found Astro Boy and led him to the scrap yard trap. One of the favorite characters in the film, Trashcan is an energetic bundle of bolts and cylinders whose original concept didn't allow him to get his mechanical nose to the ground to sniff out danger or opportunity.

    Rowell explained, "In the initial design, Trashcan ran using his back legs pushing the front legs that remained static. He could run and jump, but couldn't get his nose and mouth to the ground.

    So we made the back legs pivot higher on the body so when he needed to, his back legs would rotate forward and become the front legs, and the front would become roller balls for the back. He could pull himself instead of pushing himself.

    By doing that, his whole body would rotate and his head would be closer to the ground. The focal point of his pivot had to be shifted to accommodate that."
    The Trashcan rig.

    Imagi has offices on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, with Bowers located in the US and the production team in Hong Kong. Years ago, this would have created a production nightmare, but by working with a proprietary video teleconferencing setup, Imagi became a 24 hour studio. Bowers was pleased with how well the arrangement worked. "There were cultural differences and production pipelines that are different in the United States than in Hong Kong, but we had great production mangers and a team who made sure everything ran smoothly. It worked out quite nicely. I would work during the day in LA with my crew over here then have a meeting at the end of the day from 4:30 to 6:00 or 7:00 PM talking to Hong Kong. Then they would work through the night and the next day I would come in, and there would be new animation to look at. With video conferencing technology advancing so far in the past few years, it really is like being in the same room."

    By using artists fairly new to the field and located in economical Hong Kong, the producers were also able to save money.

    Estimated at roughly $40 million by IMDb, Bowers felt "it wasn't an expensive movie. It cost a fraction of a Pixar movie but at the same time the crew was so resourceful and so determined to get my vision on screen, I didn't cut corners at all."

    Which direction will Astro Boy or Imagi take next? In a typical British dry humor, Bowers quipped, "I suppose it depends how well Part One does. The last sequel is the one that doesn't make any money. I hope people embrace it."

    Astro Boy

    Imagi Studio

    David Bowers, Director

    Jake Rowell, Art Director

    Tim Cheung, Head of Animation

    Yan Chen, VFX Supervisor

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