Jensen has 'Astro Boy' flight plan


HONG KONG -- For Danish-born animator Jakob Jensen, to animate Japan's classic manga "Astro Boy" at Hong Kong's Imagi Animation Studio seems like a difficult challenge, despite his background at DreamWorks.

After all, Astro Boy is virtually a national treasure of Japan, but far less well known in the rest of the world. But Jensen has confidence that he can make "Astro Boy" fly.

" 'I want to apply my DreamWorks experience and implement philosophies I learned at that company into the work flow and the pipeline of the studio in Hong Kong to make Astro Boy as empathic in the U.S. as he is in Japan," said Jensen, 32, the animation acting director for "Astro Boy" at Imagi.

Now in production, "Astro Boy" is set for release in 2009. It is a computer graphics adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's famous manga about a boy robot, first published in 1952.

The film is Imagi's third theatrical feature, following "TMNT" ("Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles") and "Gatchaman," also now in production. "TMNT" debuted at No. 1 at the U.S. boxoffice when it opened in March, with $25.45 million in ticket sales.

But unlike Imagi's "TMNT" and "Gatchaman," both action-heavy films, "Astro Boy" has a largely emotional core, pushing the performance, acting and movement principles of the animated main character into the spotlight, Jensen said.

Jensen's career in film animation began after quitting school at age 17, working in Denmark, London and the U.S. for companies such as A-Film, Amblimation Studios and, eventually, DreamWorks.

Jensen might be at the top of his game, but working at Hong Kong's Imagi, a young animation studio with potential, has offered him new perspective -- and an education in a whole new culture.

"A large part of my experience in animation stems from my training in traditional animation. The schools here in Hong Kong are great for technical knowledge and are very software driven, but in the U.S. we focus more extensively on character performance," Jensen said.

"My new colleagues in Hong Kong know their software in and out, and look to me to open their eyes towards performance and emotional nuance. The crew here is enormously talented, so it's just a matter of unleashing their inner rough diamond."

Jensen, however, noted that when it comes to choreographic fight sequences, the animators at Imagi are masterful, acting out such scenes among themselves and then storyboarding them in great detail.

Jensen was not familiar with "Astro Boy" before being approached by Imagi in June to work on the film, and was immediately attracted to the Pinocchio-like story. He notes that Imagi is being faithful to Tezuka's original story arc, at the same time bringing out elements needed for those unfamiliar with the story.

"I was intrigued with the possibility of the project. I'm in the process of educating myself about the 'Astro Boy' universe, and I love what I see. 'Astro Boy' utilizes very classical story principles of the hero's journey that we see in all good storytelling around the world, Jensen said. "Astro Boy has the moral underpinning and strong emotional resonance that a lot of animation today is lacking."

Helping perhaps to build that fiber at Imagi is the way the office is arranged, Jensen said.

"At DreamWorks, everyone has their own office, a luxury, but also somewhat isolating. Here in Hong Kong, we all work together in cubicles, which is less private but more conducive to sharing. Of course, there's a language barrier, but the techniques I use to overcome it, such as physically acting out scenes, actually improve communications in surprising ways."