Astro Boy is to be reborn as an Australian citizen. This version was made with Hong Kong, Japanese and American hands in 2009.
Behind Animal Logic Entertainment’s announcement that it is going to ‘reignite Astro Boy ™’ with a ‘live action, science fiction superhero feature film’ is a long journey on three continents that stretches back to television in 1963.
Animal Logic is that world class animation and VFX company which is a key element in Australia’s digital production landscape. Most recently it made The Lego Movie for Village Roadshow and Warner Animation Group, which followed on from digital hammering on The Great Gatsby and Happy Feet and Walking With Dinosaurs 3D.
The live action version of Astro Boy is a partnership with Tezuka Productions in Japan. Osamu Tezuka started the whole Astro Boy bandwagon off with a series of comic books created between 1952 and 1968; the rights management side of his company has done brilliantly as the property has morphed into several television versions, and an animated feature.
Also in the deal is US company Ranger7 Films, barely three years old, which specializes in elevated genre, for which read horror, detective shows and sci-fi. It produces its own material, and offers production services to other indies.
CEO and cofounder Zareh Nalbandian is very clear that Animal Logic owns the rights, is the lead company, initiated the live action concept and is in charge of development. He grew up with Astro Boy on television, and is amazed he now has the opportunity to turn it into a live action production.
'We’ve been thinking about Astro Boy for a long time', he said on the phone, 'but we found we have common ground with Ranger7, who loved him equally as much, and together we went to the Japanese producer with Tezuka Productions.
'Ranger7 is part of the executive producing team. They are not financiers, and we don’t yet have this at a studio. We have a great relationship with Village Roadshow and RatPac too, and so we would love to be back with one of those but it will depend on what is right for the film at the time.
'We ere also very lucky that no-one else has done it before us.'
While Animal Logic Entertainment, the development arm of the company, is based on the Warner lot in Burbank California, his search for potential writers is much wider. 'We are talking to a number of writers, and there is a lot of interest in the project. We are talking to Australian as well as international writers. It really depends on who we feel we can best take on the journey.
'We are focused on an accelerated development path. It is a priority for us and we would love to be shooting in 2016, but it is a big film so it is hard to set an exact date.'
Beyond his own happy memories, Nalbandian sees Astro Boy as an iconic character who is 'incredibly well known around the world, and there is a lot of love for him.' The world of Astro Boy is also very rich, with many story lines in the 23 volumes of the original post-war nuclear-age comics. What is more, there is a huge variety of engaging and distinctive robot characters. So it is enchanting material and it lends itself to a franchise.
In many ways, Animal Logic has secured a very rare commodity. The world of pre-existing intellectual property has been scoured for franchisable story worlds and characters by companies with very deep pockets.
There are a number of projects on the Animal Logic slate, including the first feature starring Betty Boop in a live action musical which Nalbandian believes will bring Max Fleischer's 1930's flapper to a 21st century mainstream. That project is a partnership with Fleischer Studios and Syco Entertainment, which is itself a partnership between Sony Music Entertainment and Simon Cowell.
Behind all this is the continuing drive by owner and CEO Zareh Nalbandian to turn the company into a post and production studio generating its own productions for international tentpole release.
That kind of company, owning its IP and mostly in control of its destiny, is a crucial building block in the struggle to go beyond the limited niche of fee-for-service company hired by overseas studios. Think Peter Jackson, Baz Luhrmann and George Miller, who have the power to initiate and control their own productions.
Zareh Nalbandian made it clear the company has been on that development path for many years. To this end, Animal Logic made Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole, in partnership with Village Roadshow Pictures, directed by Zac Snyder and written by John Orloff and Emil Stern, from a series of American childrens’ books by Kathryn Lasky.
It took US$140m worldwide – respectable but not enough in itself to pay for the production. I asked him if Legend… was ultimately profitable. 'It wasn’t as profitable as it needed to be to make Gahoole 2 and 3, that is obvious. We weren’t the financiers, but Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow would say it was a good film to make, but it didn’t deliver the results we would have liked to see.'
For Animal Logic, it did not provide the prestige and returns which would have enabled Nalbandian to move quickly into an extended slate. Instead, the company has move slowly and cautiously, developing in the background alongside the production of The Lego Film.
There is an issue about nationality behind the box office performance of Gahoole. 'We were very proud of how Australian we made the film feel. But I wonder if one of the big issues was the accents and the feel. Did that work for us or against us?'
There is a similar twist to the provenance of Astro Boy. The character and the ideas are inherently Japanese. 'It is very much at the birth of Japanese manga, and we will be very respectful of that, but when you are taking some original IP and interpreting it for a movie, you have to realise that you are actually making a movie. We will walk that fine line,' he explained.
However, with the rich body of subsidiary characters, the developers can also build a much more multicultural story world than the original. It can easily incorporate a multi-national cast list into its particular version of our future.
Why do both these treasured animation characters as live action? 'Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy', said Nalbandian. 'Audiences really love got see heroes save the world in an imaginary universe. And Astro Boy is right in the sweet box for that.'
Besides, Astro Boy's backstory is poignant and complicated, and well suited to live performance. He is a robot created by a father to replace his dead son; he is a machine in an emotional world; he is rejected by his disappointed maker and adopted by another scientist who nurtures him with true love... it floats in that weird zone between human and animated anyway.
Also, almost by accident, Animal Logic has placed itself in what Nalbandian calls 'the leading edge of convergence of live action, animation and visual effects.' The team he has gathered is 'free from the shadow of traditional filmmaking. We are doing what will be fun to do and what will be new, but I am not a producer who wants to do it on his own. We want to create partnerships with great producers and financiers and studios who we feel can bring the project together. But we do want to lead the charge in terms of innovation.
'We also feel that we are part of a new generation of filmmakers in Australia. We are in the sweetest spot – the intersection of live action and VFX. That makes us more ambitious and more courageous about the kind of thing we are proud to tackle.'