Interview with Astro Boy director David Bowers

David Bowers began his career in animation as an in-between artist* on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. He went on to be an animator and storyboard artist for varied projects ranging from Count Duckula and Danger Mouse to The Road To El Dorado and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. He moved up in the ranks to supervising animator and storyboard supervisor on films like Chicken Run and Balto. He directed his first animated feature in 2006, the much underrated Flushed Away, which featured voice performances from Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet and Ian McKellan, to name a few. Bowers is no stranger to the field and process of animation and clearly used to working with top talent; his latest film is Astro Boy.

Astro Boy is one of anime and manga’s oldest and most beloved creations and holds the distinction of being the first comic ever to be animated in Japan. Created by the now-legendary “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy first appeared in 1951 in comic form as “Tetsuwan Atom.” Soon after, he became “Astro Boy,” and Tezuka continued to create every single Astro Boy comic story for 21 years. Tezuka organized Japan’s first TV animation studio, Mushi Productions, and Astro Boy was Mushi’s first release; it debuted as a weekly series on Fuji television in black and white on New Year’s Day 1963. 193 episodes were produced, and the show ended its run in 1966. By the late sixties, Astro Boy had been dubbed into English and sold worldwide. In 1982 a new color version of Astro Boy was created and over 50 episodes were produced during that incarnation.

By now, even if you have never watched a single episode of any version of Astro Boy, most people have heard of him or seen him in some form on necklaces, key rings, phone straps, t-shirts, bags, or any of a myriad of other fashion accessories.

I had a chance to sit down with Director David Bowers just before the film came out to ask him about taking on such a monumental project.

MS: I’m here with David Bowers, who is the director and co-writer of Astro Boy.

DB: Hello!

MS: Dave, you’ve been quoted a lot in the media saying that if people give it a chance, they should like it. What do you think are the main obstacles you have to overcome—is it just the long history and significance? Why would people not want to give it a chance?

DB: I think it’s the opposite of that, actually. I think it’s because Astro Boy hasn’t really been around or a presence for awhile, that I think audiences don’t know who he is. But I think if people do come along, they’ll see this movie that’s full of spectacle, it’s full of heart, it’s got a really, really positive message to it, and hopefully it’s very funny.

MS: It is very funny, and there are a lot of things you did that I liked, quite a lot of things, and I think it works on several levels. I brought my daughter with me—she’s a kid, so she loved it, and I loved it, too. So what were some of the most important things to you that you either wanted to retain from the old Astro Boy or do to make it more modern?

DB: I think the most important thing to me was creating the emotional story of Astro, you know, the relationship with his father and the difficulties that arise—if anyone’s listening that doesn’t know the story, it’s about a brilliant scientist who loses his son and creates a robot replica, but the robot replica doesn’t quite work out the way he wants it to. And I find that story fascinating and I knew that if I could get Astro’s story, his emotional story of not quite knowing who he was, and trying to find out who he was, and eventually realizing that he’s a hero, I could get you really caring for the character—then I could hang all the action and spectacle and special effects and all the jokes and all the new characters and all the characters from the manga that people love onto that.

MS: Well, I agree. There were a lot of little details that as an adult I love…there’s a little joke in there—I won’t give it all away, but someone asks him about his hair and he says, “It’s just gel!” (laughter), little things like that; was it important to you to make it something that adults and kids could see and enjoy and enjoy maybe if you come back in five or ten years and see it?

DB: Yeah, I think so. Somebody asked me what age group I was making the movie for when we were in production, and I gave as an example Star Wars, which when I was a kid and it first came out I was ten years old. I went to see that movie and I loved the droids and I loved the action-adventure, and I loved the lightsabers, and then going back to it a little older, I loved the story of Luke Skywalker, his hero’s journey and his relationship with his father. So I’m hoping it’s a movie that works on different levels for different ages.

MS: Now, what made you pick this? You’ve been doing animation, you’ve been a storyboard artist, you’ve been a story artist, you did Flushed Away—which I thought was hilarious, by the way—what made you want to do this project? What brought you on board, and how did this come to you?

DB: Well, I’ve always loved science fiction, and you rarely get a chance to do science fiction in the animation arena, but also I was aware of Astro Boy. I certainly didn’t know Astro Boy as well as I know him now, but I was aware of him. (It was) just a chance meeting with Maryanne Garger, the producer, who I’ve known from Flushed Away and many other movies before then. I was visiting the studio and I said, “Oh, you’ve got Astro Boy here!” And they said yeah, and I said, “That’s very cool…” I just thought it was a perfect project for me; as I said, I love science fiction, I absolutely love it. I wanted to make a cool science fiction film, a superhero movie, for families.

MS: Well, I definitely think you did, and I’m curious: what were some of the elements that you…You said you wanted to have a lot of heart and it does—towards the end I have to say, you got me, I was very moved! What were some of the things that you thought, either A) you were very strong about, or B) you thought, I wonder if we tinker with this, there might be people who don’t feel…

DB: I don’t know; the only big difference between our Astro Boy and previous versions of Astro Boy is that Dr. Tenma gives Astro Boy his son Toby’s memories, so when Astro Boy wakes up, he thinks he’s a real kid. He has no idea he’s a robot, and the discovery that he’s a robot—and not only a robot, but that the man he thinks of as his father and who he loves doesn’t want him anymore—I think is just more heartfelt. It was more interesting to me, and those questions of identity were interesting, too. As for…you know, I tried to keep as many of the favorite characters in there: Dr. Elefun has a big role (Dr. Ochanomizu, to those who know the original), and Hamegg I thought would be a great villain…President Stone—he’s a new character voiced by Donald Sutherland, he’s terrific in that. Really, I think I just took the things from the manga that spoke to me the most, and there’s just too much in the manga to include everything. There isn’t much in the manga that I don’t like, to be honest with you—it’s just that there’s an awful lot of it.

MS: Well, I have to say, my memory of Astro Boy—I don’t remember there being so much social commentary in there. Now, was that a big addition of yours, or was that something that was always there?

DB: I think was something that was always there in the Astro Boy thing: there was always the robots being treated as second-class citizens; Tezuka very much cared about the environment; there are a lot of undertones to this movie. I don’t think it’s preachy, though—I can’t stand kids’ movies that are preachy, because it comes across as patronizing—but at the same time, hopefully it’s thought-provoking.

MS: Well, I think the best science fiction always says something about the human condition.

DB: Of course! I agree completely.

MS: And on that level I think it works very well, because that’s what it is; there are elements of it that remind you of things that you might be more familiar with, or that kids might be more familiar with, but I think it’s got its own voice, clearly, and its own type of hero…Tell me a little bit about the development of the story: did you have a clear idea what you wanted to happen in this movie, or were you just picking and choosing, cherry-picking from the original anime?

DB: I cherry-picked, not so much from the anime as from the manga, but at the same time the key thing for me was Astro Boy having Toby’s memories, and who are you and what are you, and what is it that makes someone human? At the end of the movie, Astro Boy is proven to have a lot more humanity than a lot of the humans around him…that’s the thing that excited me, and from then on it was just like a giant jigsaw puzzle, trying to find the pieces that fit best and would end up being the most entertaining movie I could make. I must say, because this all sounds very heavy, I wanted to have huge action sequences, and I knew I wanted to have fighting giant robots—I love that stuff. And I wanted us to have the biggest, meanest, giant fighting robot ever and I hope he is—I mean, he’s pretty immense (laughs). He’s bigger than any other fighting robot I’ve seen…

MS: Definitely! Now, what have audience reactions been? I mean, it seems very positive—today, the audience was a mix, a lot of young people, but they loved it, so…

DB: That’s what I’ve found so far, as well. It’s been really great; I mean, people who’ve liked Astro Boy in the past, they’ve said (luckily for me) that they like it and they enjoyed the movie, and people who don’t know Astro Boy have discovered him, and I think that’s great. Ideally for me, people discover Astro Boy through this movie and they’ll start looking back and maybe read the manga and maybe look at some of the earlier TV shows, and sort of find out where it all came from…

MS: Well, you were saying that Astro Boy—in America, he hasn’t been around for awhile—but that’s not quite the story in Japan. He’s an ambassador, practically.

DB: He is, he is. Again, I was very nervous about taking it to Japan, because you have no idea how people are going to react, and also there tends to be a bias against non-Japanese movies, especially a non-Japanese filmmaker making a movie of Astro Boy, and I think people were hesitant… But once people saw the movie, again, they really liked it. Kids particularly—it was great.

MS: That must have been very rewarding…

DB: It was very rewarding. It was a big relief, to be honest.

MS: Okay, now, what’s the release schedule? Is it going to go out all over the world at the same time, or is it going market by market?

DB: October 23rd, it’s going to an awful lot of markets. Some other places, some territories, I think Latin America (and I might be wrong on this) I think it’s mainly in January; in England it’s January, and everywhere else I’m not sure…Most of the world is October 23rd…it’s a huge release.

MS: Now, a couple of other elements behind the scenes that I really enjoyed—you got some great voice talent, and you got John Ottman, who’s a great composer. Now tell me a little bit about getting those elements…

DB: Well, it was great. I mean, we were very lucky. We went out to, really my wish list of amazing actors—you’ve got a movie and it’s got Nicholas Cage and Freddie Highmore and Kristen Bell, and Bill Nighy and Nathan Lane and Eugene Levy and David Alan Grier, you know, all these great, great people… I’m sure I missed somebody out there—Charlize Theron! I don’t think you can get a lot of movies with that kind of cast, but it’s not time-consuming for them: they can do it at their convenience, they can wear their pajamas, they don’t have to wear any makeup, there’s no lighting, and I think some of them find it quite liberating to do a performance in a booth, just using their voices… I’m just very lucky that all these people said yes.

MS: Well, there are a few actors you got who have never done this before, weren’t there?

DB: I don’t think Charlize has done anything like this before… I think Kristen’s done some stuff for a video game… I think so. I know Freddie’s done a little bit of animation before, and Bill Nighy…

MS: He can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. (laughs)

DB: No, no! I worked with him on Flushed Away, I love him—I cast him twice in Astro Boy, so… it’s just a pleasure.

MS: Now tell me about getting John Ottman.

DB: Well, I wanted a score that felt modern but had a classic feel to it, and I listened to John’s music, and the day I met John we talked about movies that we liked, we talked about the kind of music that we liked for movies, and I talked about the kind of music I wanted for Astro Boy, and he seemed such a great fit. And then he just went away, and wrote this amazing score; I’d come in, I’d talk to him occasionally…I didn’t give too many notes, really. We talked about the whole movie first of all, we spotted it**, I briefed him on what it had to be, what the emotional need was for the music here, or whether it needed to drive, or whether it was exciting, and he just did an amazing job and we recorded it at Abbey Road studios in London with a huge orchestra, and a huge choir, and it’s a spectacular score. I think it sort of harkens back to classic John Williams…I love it.

MS: I think it’s perfect for the film, because like you said, it gives it that kind of epic, heroic, “birth of a hero” kind of feel. Is that always what your intention was?

DB: That was exactly it. That was exactly the intention.

MS: At the end of the movie, which I won’t give away, it’s obvious that we’d love to see more Astroboys, and I love how it goes right into what would be his next adventure. Would you come back and do another one?

DB: I’ve very much enjoyed myself doing the Astro Boy movie, I really have, so I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. It just depends—if people like the Astro Boy movie, then I’m sure we’ll make another one. But for the end of the movie, I just wanted to end on an action/adventure, exciting note—end on a high!

MS: I’m also curious, for you, as an adult now (laughs) there was a sense to me of sort of the kid in all of us, there are certain elements in there, Astro Boy’s kind of at that—he never really says his age, but you get a sense that he’s somewhere between twelve and fourteen—and there’s definitely that sense of wonder, figuring out as an adolescent what you can do, what your body can do, so was that part of what you wanted to bring out, that “kid in all of us” thing?

DB: I think it was, and I really hope that comes across in the scene where he discovers his powers, when he falls down and he finds out he’s got rocket boots, and then he finds out he can do all these amazing things like fly through the clouds, he can drill through solid rock—he’s pretty much indestructible. It’s sort of kid wish fulfillment. It’s quite empowering for kids, I think, to see a superhero who’s also a kid onscreen…I think that’s great. But hopefully, yeah—I’d display a childlike sense of wonder if I suddenly found out my feet had rockets in them!

MS: (laughs) Okay…what did you learn about yourself making this film?

DB: Learn about myself? I learned a little bit more about the kind of movies I like. It was nice as well—at Dreamworks and the other studios I’ve worked with before, you have a huge, huge machine behind you, and it’s great, and it’s hard to mess up. But Imagi, which is a much smaller company—and really, Astro Boy is, to be honest, an independent movie—it’s an amazing crew of incredibly, incredibly talented people, but you don’t have that safety net. You can’t mess up, you know—you have to be pretty definite about what you want to do, so as a director, for me, it was liberating in that I could make decisions and go with my first instincts, and then just stick with those instincts, and it was good. It was good. I’m not sure what I learned about myself…(laughs)

MS: Well my last question is, for you—having been part of a production team, a team player, a storyboard artist laying it all out—now, letting go of all of that and having other people do what you at one time would have done, what is that like for you?

DB: It’s great, because I think I see them doing their jobs from the perspective that I had when I was doing the jobs myself. So as a director, I really try not to stifle people; I really just want to get the best out of them. So, everybody from the story artist through editorial through the animators and the lighters, these are all great people with lots of experience, and as a director you’re foolish not to draw on that experience. These movies really are a collaborative effort, as well, so as a former story artist and animator myself, I know what it’s like to have your ideas crushed. (laughs) So, I try to encourage and get the best out of people.


* in between artist:
In traditional animation you have artists who do the ‘extremes’ [or key frames] which are the extreme gestures or movements of a character, and then you have a series of in between artists who do all of the frames [film is shot at 24 frames per second] of animation in between each gesture of movement to make the movements smooth and seamless.

** After a film has been shot (or some shooting has been completed), the composer is shown an unpolished “rough cut” of the film (or of the scenes partially finished), and talks to the director about what sort of music (styles, themes, etc.) should be used — this process is called “spotting.”


Mike Sargent is a nationally-quoted film critic for WBAI-FM in NYC. His late night radioshow’s web site is Lifeislikesciencefiction.com and that just about says it all.

citation

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