Slipping into the future

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Published:  November 16, 2010
Slipping into the future

Words: Jo Spurling

Founded in the year 2000, Imagi Studios sent its first major commercial CGI release – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) – out into the world in 2003. Since that time this young studio has built up a solid reputation, and now has a steady stream of productions in the pipeline, including a three-dimensional animated version of the popular Gatchaman anime, which is due for release in 2011. Yet it is Imagi’s most recent release that has sealed its place in animation history with the first three-dimensional adaptation of the sixties Japanese anime series, Astro Boy.

All images copyright Imagi Studios, Hong Kong

All images copyright Imagi Studios, Hong Kong

Astro Boy

Created by Osamu Tezuka, and originally appearing as a manga (comic) in 1952, the first Astro Boy (or the Mighty Atom as he was then called) cartoon was broadcast out to Japanese television screens on New Year’s Day in 1963. Following the adventures of a childlike boy robot named Astro (who just happens to have advanced weaponry like laser cannons hidden in his arms and x-ray vision), the animation soon developed a strong and loyal following. Overall 193 episodes of the show screened over four seasons. Astro Boy was then picked up by NBC (in the US) in 1965, and 104 episodes were translated into English. Over the next 42 years Astro Boy would pop up now and then on television schedules around the world. Imagi Studios finally beginning work on the three-dimensional animated film version of Astro Boy in May 2007.

Desmond Chan is the supervising technical director and production manager at Imagi, which is based in Hong Kong. Leading up to this position at Imagi, Chan previously worked within a number of other Hong Kong studios. Advising that he mainly works with particles, dynamics and MEL scripting, Chan spends a lot of his time solving technical issues and designing pipelines to meet tight production schedules. His work can be seen in TMNT and Astro Boy, and in the forthcoming Gatchaman. Chan was initially drawn into the world of animation through his love for cartoons and movies, an infatuation that began when he was young. “After high school, I went on to study graphic design. At that time I also started to learn animation software and produced my first animation. Animation allowed my imagination to become a reality,” he explains.

“Animation techniques keep changing every year,” he continues. “I need to improve our pipeline and techniques on every project, and I also need to solve different problems every day. [I enjoy] these kinds of challenges, which keep me working in animation.”
Astro Boy

Over the past few years, animation has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity, spurred on in the main by wonderful three-dimensional computer generated imagery (CGI) creations such as Pixar’s Up and Animal Logic’s Happy Feet. Chan believes this rise is due in the main to the introduction of Stereoscopic three dimensions. “Stereoscopic three dimensions is a technique that records three-dimensional visual information and creates the illusion of depth in an image. This increases the animation’s visual impress [it’s ‘wow’ factor],” he says.

As the original Astro Boy series ran to over 190 episodes, obviously not all of the stories could be translated into one film, so Imagi worked with its own version of the story to bring the three-dimensional animation to life. “Astro Boy is about a young robot with incredible powers created by a brilliant scientist, named Tenma. Powered by positive ‘Blue’ energy, Astro Boy is endowed with super strength, x-ray vision, unbelievable speed and the ability to fly. Embarking on a journey in search of acceptance, Astro encounters many other colourful characters along the way. Through his adventures, he learns the joys and emotions of being human, and gains the strength to embrace his destiny. Ultimately learning his friends and family are in danger, Astro marshals his awesome superpowers and returns to Metro City in a valiant effort to save everything.”

Astro Boy

Once this narrative was approved, it was time to get down to the business of creating the visual aspect of the story – which turns out to be quite a complicated process. “First of all, we write the story outlines and the script,” says Chan. “We cast sound actors for different characters and record the dialogue, and then artists draw the storyboard and produce a story reel with rough timing. At the same time, the art director starts on the characters and set design. Modellers create models and rigging, surfacers create shades and texture. Then the rough layout team use the three-dimensional models to produce a three-dimensional animatic with three-dimensional camera movement. After the director approves the three-dimensional animatic, animators hand key-frame to animate the characters and produce effects, simulation, lighting and composition.

“We used [Autodesk] Maya on modelling, rigging, animation, effects and lighting,” Chan adds, speaking of the equipment at the studios’ disposal. “And we used Mental Ray and PRMan (PhotoRealistic RenderMan) on rendering. We also have a lot of proprietary tools and shaders for effects, plants and crowd simulation.”

Astro Boy

Astro Boy

On a final note it seems Imagi is somehow drawn to working under the weight of expectation that comes from putting a modern spin on the much-loved two-dimensional animations of yesteryear. The next film due for release on its roster will be a three-dimensional interpretation of the childhood favourite, Gatchaman. “Gatchaman will bring another long-running anime franchise to movie theatres around the world in 2011,” says Chan. “It was originally created by Japan’s Tatsunoko Production Company in the early 1970s as a television series called Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. It aired in the US as Battle of the Planets and G-Force, and soon became one of the top syndicated shows there.”

www.imagi.com.hk

From Desktop magazine.


One Response

  1. Can’t wait to see it!

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