Here you can see a massive Peacekeeper robot shredding combat drones, in exclusive Astro Boy concept art. We loved this movie's floating mountain city full of robots, so we talked to writer/director David Bowers and two designers about its creation.
Oh, and this post includes minor spoilers for Astro Boy, but doesn't give away any major plot twists. Mostly, it's about the world-building, which is unveiled at the start of the film.
We expected Astro Boy to be a fun ride, but we ended up liking it way more than we'd expected (full review coming Friday.) And a huge part of that was its fascinating world-building: we weren't prepared for how strange and vivid this world seemed. Astro Boy takes place in Metro City, which has been levitated a few miles above the ground — and they levitated the mountain it was built next to as well. The result is really cool-looking, and the city's buildings also don't look like your standard "city of the future" buildings, at all.
The movie's robot population also looked much weirder than we're used to. From the various types of slave robots to the thundering war-bots, they paid homage to their Japanese roots but also drew on influences as diverse as Wallace And Gromit and classic monster movies. Metro City also levitates over a ginormous trash heap, where the city has been depositing all of its used up robots, and we get to meet a few obsolete robots, including the ginormous Zog, who reminds me of a Hiyao Miyazaki character:
So we were eager to talk to writer/director David Bowers, plus art director Jake Rowell and character designer Luis Grane. They told us about all the thought processes behind crafting this weird future city, the various types of robots, and the rocking warships. Bowers says the production aimed to keep the fun of the original Osamu Tezuka cartoons, including the larger-than-life battles and crazy boot-jet adventures, while creating a fun new world.
It's really different to make an original robot right now," says character designer Grane. "There are so many movies and comics and books about robots, and I think it's really difficult to make one that's unique or different than the rest." Obviously Astro Boy is the only robot in the movie who looks human, because he's designed to replace Dr. Tenma's dead son — every other robot looks utilitarian and yet weird.
Bowers adds that he went for "very unique looks" to the movie's robots, many of whom are supposed to be grunt workers — the audience immediately knows they're the underdogs, doing the jobs that we don't want to do. The movie features a Laurel-And-Hardy double act of a squirt bottle and squeegee who fly around the city cleaning windows... and complaining endlessly.
Like everything else in Astro Boy, the robots are frequently assymetrical and odd-looking, rather than the sleek bots you might have been expecting. Everyone we talked to cited the work of Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi as a huge influence on the movie's basic shapes. Noguchi was famous for his odd, organic-looking sculptures. Here are a few, courtesy of Getty Images:
"I brought a book about [Noguchi] to the production designer, and he said it would be cool to base our visual language on him," says Grane.
Grane says he tried to merge that Japanese sculpture with the work of pre-Columbian sculptors in Mexico — but not the Aztec or Mayan sculpture, but more Western Mexico, where "the figures are more like caricatures, and I love that."
Getting to mash up Japanese sculpture and pre-Columbian Mexican art made this a "dream project" for Grane. A lot of the robots moving around the city sort of blend in with the architecture, because they have friendly shapes with rounded edges. And Grane says you'll have to free-frame the DVD a fair bit to catch all of the weird little robots that pop up in the film, including one tiny cleaning robot that's dancing under the feet of the bystanders during the movie's climactic battle scene.
When we meet some of the older robots on the surface, they look clunkier and more mechanical, and more rusted and distressed. For example, we meet the hapless Robot Revolution Front, a trio of former servant bots who are fighting for robot freedom — but are completely useless, because they must abide by Asimov's Three Laws Of Robotics. It's in these characters, who include a robot refrigerator, that Bowers shows his roots — he worked at Aardman Animation, which put out the Wallace And Gromit films. The leader of the robot revolution, Sparks, is also based on Peter Sellers' union organizer character in I'm All Right Jack, plus other classic Sellers comedies.
And then there are fighting robots, including the cutting-edge, terrifying Peacekeeper. Rowell says some of the sequences of the Peacekeeper in Metro City were designed to look like old-school Japanese monster movies, with Peacekeeper peering around buildings and looking huge and fierce.
The movie starts off with a hilarious, old-school-looking instructional video that explains that robots are our friends, and narrates their helpful role in our future society. Grane crafted this segment towards the very end of the production process, with just a few other people involved. The "instructional video" has a very hand-drawn feeling, unlike the CG of the rest of the film, and that's because the drawings were animated, sort of by hand, in After Effects.
Grane says that despite the tight deadline and scant resources, this opening sequence gave him a chance to experiment — like in one bit, where you see nanobots crawling inside someone's heart to repair it. Instead of using the standard image of a heart, Grane reached for an image from abstract art, which looks like arteries and heart muscles in context, and the result is a lot splashier and more stylized.
The Wall-E Factor:
So obviously, this movie features weird, servant robots who do all the unpleasant chores for people. And there's a giant trash heap that stretches for miles — so I asked Bowers if he worried about comparisons to last year's Wall-E. Pre-production on Astro Boy was already quite a ways along when Wall-E came out, but Bowers and his crew did make some changes to try and avoid looking too similar.
Bowers says Astro Boy's trash-can robot dog was originally planned to be a trash-compacter who crushes scrap metal into "little bricks of trash" — but it was "just too similar" to Wall-E and had to be changed. And Astro Boy was still doing production design on its trash heaps, so Bowers worked with his designers, and "we went to great lengths to make sure the trash looked different than the trash-heaps in Wall-E." The trash in Astro Boy, he says, has more of an "organic" feel to it, plus it's all robot parts.
Metro City floats high above the ground, and the city builders chose to levitate a mountain as well. The buildings look airy and spacious, and more organic than the sort of buildings you see in the standard Futurama future city. Bowers says he wanted Metro City to look like a great place to live, and he wanted the audience to be wondering just how much an apartment in one of those soaring towers would cost.
"I wanted to make sure the two worlds — the people who live on the surface, which first appears to be a trash heap... and Metro City, where Astro Boy is created, which is this gleaming futuristic beautiful utopian society," had as strong a contrast as possible. "It's very interesting to do worldbuilding. I love the original [Osamu] Tezuka look," adds Bowers. The city was designed to be retro-futuristic, but without any irony to it. And there was a huge Asian influence to the city's design.
Here's more exclusive concept art, showing the streets of Metro City:
Says Grane, "The buildings are weird shpes, they are not like typical buildings, sometimes they are very organic, but sometimes they are very unexpected."
The mountain sitting on one side of the floating city definitely helps it stand out — Bowers says he was influenced by Hokusai's famous woodcut prints of Mount Fuji, which are "iconically Japanese."
Rowell says when he and the production designer first heard that the floating city included a mountain, they were perplexed and not sure what to do with that. Finally, Bowers explained that the city's founders decided to raise up their oasis that had been on land, including excavating their nearby mountain and raising it up as well, and that gave the designers "something to build around."
In early design sketches, the mountain was in the center of the city, which was built around it on all sides, but Rowell decided to stick to the movie's visual theme of assymetry and avoid a circular shape. Instead, the mountain is over to one side, and the city is on the other, meaning the floating city has an odd toothy shape.
The principle of assymetry, borrowed from Noguchi, also applied when it came to the buildings in the city — they tend to be fat on one side and skinny on the other, with a slope on one side, says Rowell. "So looking at it from different angles, you get different design language," and the city looks like a much bigger world as a result. He was also influenced by some of the sloping, cool-looking buildings that China created for its recent Olympic Games.
The designers' first instinct was to go with the Jetsons/Futurama "city of the future" imagery, but instead they chose to make the buildings look more like what we have today, except two or three versions past our current iterations. The buildings also look very light and airy, and Rowell said he conceived of them as being made of lightweight carbon-fiber, which people are already using to create stuff — but this would be several generations along, and thus people would be able to use it for structural supports.
And Rowell says he and the production designer sketched out the layout of the entire city, so they knew where everything was in relation to each other. There were a few major landmarks — the penthouse apartment of Dr. Tenma, Astro Boy's creator, the Ministry of Science, where Astro Boy is created, and the mountain — and you always know where you stand in relation to them. Dr. Tenma's penthouse is at the very front of the city.
In that key scene where Astro Boy is realizing he's a robot, and then the soldiers in power suits come to grab him, he's sitting on top of Dr. Tenma's building, looking backwards at the Ministry of Science (thus, looking back at the place where he came into being) when those floodlights switch on:
This juxtaposition between his father's penthouse and the Ministry of Science lets you know that Astro Boy is torn between his identity as a boy, who seems to be human, and his origins as a robot.
The slanty, curvy "shape language" of the movie, borrowed heavily from Noguchi, shows up in Astro Boy's boots, in the "stinger" attack vehicles which chase him in that clip above, and in all the buildings and robots, says Rowell. And then when you go down to the surface and it looks more like our present-day world, it's a bit of a shock.
Astro Boy comes out this Friday.