After enjoying international success with his debut feature “Akira” (1988), Katsuhiro Otomo comes up with the idea for his second feature, “Steamboy,” from an animated short, “Cannon Fodder.” One of three segments in his 1995 animation omnibus “Memories,” “Cannon Fodder” tells an Orwellian tale, set in what looks to be early 20th-century Europe, of a city fighting a perpetual war with giant cannons. Fascinated by the film’s images of early industrialization, Otomo decides to expand on this in “Steamboy.” Otomo successfully pitches the story to a Japanese backer in July and pre-production begins.
In April 1996, Otomo goes to England for research and in June starts working on storyboards. That summer, however, Otomo loses his backer, who balks at the vague production budget. Because “Steamboy” will be made entirely with digital effects, a first for Japanese animation, Otomo is unable to come up with a precise budget figure.
Otomo pitches “Steamboy” to Bandai Visual, a leading film and animation production company. Sharing Otomo’s interest in digital animation and impressed with his track record and creative talent, Bandai Visual senior managing director Shigeru Watanabe signs on as executive producer and starts recruiting other backers for the 1.1 billion yen ($9.1 million) production budget.
Known for his workaholic dedication to his films, Otomo becomes involved in every step of the production; from character designs and backgrounds to the complex work of combining manually and digitally created images. As a result, Otomo requires much more time than usual to finish the storyboards.
“In an animated film, two thirds or even more of the production budget goes to labor costs,” says Shinji Komori, a Bandai Visual producer for “Steamboy.” “As the production drags on, production costs snowball,” At the end of 1998, Bandai Visual estimates the total budget as 2 billion yen ($16.6 million).
In May 2000, after five years of hard work, Otomo finally finishes 180,000 storyboards — the largest number in Japanese animation history. With costs mounting, Bandai Visual pitches the project to a U.S. film studio. Unwilling to make the changes to the story that the studio thinks necessary for the U.S. market, Otomo and Bandai Visual decide to find domestic backers instead. In the spring of 2002, the total budget is finialized at 2.4 billion yen ($20 million) — as big as those for the films of Hayao Miyazaki.
A total of eight backers, including Bandai Visual, Bandai, Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan, Toho, Dentsu, Sunrise, Imagica and Cultural Publishers sign on for the project. “All the companies believe that ‘Steamboy’ will be one of the most talked about films in animation history,” Komori says.
“Steamboy” is originally scheduled to be released in autumn 2003. In June 2003, however, Bandai Visual officially announces a delay. “The last 30 minutes require many digital effects and is taking more time than we originally estimated,” Komori explains.
Bandai Visual expects “Steamboy” to gross over 6 billion yen ($50 million) in Japan alone. “Unlike ‘Akira,’ ‘Steamboy’ is not an edgy, violent film but is more like a Hollywood entertainment that will appeal to a wide audience, from elementary school kids to adults in their 40s-50s,” says Komori. “We believe that ‘Steamboy’ will be rival the animations of Hayao Miyazaki as a major box-office hit.”