Christmas may have come early for Francis Kao Wai-ho, founder and co-chief executive of Imagi International: a Hong Kong firm that, as Boto International, was once the world's largest manufacturer of imitation Christmas trees. Kao is hoping four mutant turtles will help him put to rest the controversy that surrounded the sale of the Christmas-tree business, when the company took an astonishing change in course - into the digital-animation movie business. Kao wanted to rival Pixar Animation Studios but few thought he could do it. Fast forward about five years and Imagi has taken a significant step towards challenging the likes of DreamWorks Animation SKG, Sony Pictures Animation and Pixar, now part of the Walt Disney Company. Imagi's 3D, computer-generated (CG) TMNT (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) - the cinematic rebirth of this storied franchise - was released last week in Hong Kong. Last weekend, it topped the US box office charts, with takings of US$25.5 million. The film is backed by heavyweight Hollywood distributors Warner Bros and the Weinstein Company - not to mention strong word-of-mouth endorsement from fans worldwide. In the wake of TMNT, Imagi has plans for a slew of new CG-animation movies based on Japanese anime franchises Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and Astro Boy. But whatever else Imagi achieves, it will be remembered for giving a new lease of life to Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello, the four pizza-loving, anthropomorphic, mutant brother turtles. The Ninja Turtles began life in the 1980s as characters drawn by American artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, founders of comic-book publisher Mirage Studios. They published a one-off comic that became an instant hit, spawning an animated television series that ran from 1987 to 1996. The plot focused on four turtles - plus a rat named Splinter - who had mutated to humanoid proportions after coming into contact with a mysterious ooze in the New York sewer system. The wise Splinter became the turtles' mentor and equipped them with martial-arts skills and weapons to battle evil. But it was the first live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, featuring actors dressed in rubber suits, that began what has proved to be an enduring relationship between the half-shell heroes and Hong Kong. As Kao admits, Hong Kong has done well from the Ninja Turtles franchise. 'The Ninja Turtles have a special bond with Hong Kong. They have [already] helped two very successful companies: Golden Harvest [movie studio] and Playmates [toymaker],' he says. Golden Harvest Entertainment sowed what would be a bountiful crop when studio bosses decided to tap the fanaticism the TV show was generating among youngsters in North America and put the lean, green heroes on the big screen. 'We found out that Ninja Turtles toys and the TV show were so popular with the kids in the US and that the Ninja Turtle live-action motion picture rights were available, so we licensed the rights and produced the first movie,' recalls David Chan Sik-hong, executive director at Golden Harvest. Raymond Chow Ting-hsing, co-founder and chairman of Golden Harvest, is known for his ability to spot martial-arts talent. In the 70s, he signed up Bruce Lee to star in a string of action films that helped make Golden Harvest Hong Kong's top movie studio. It was also behind most of the international box-office hits starring Jackie Chan during the next two decades. Then, along came the turtles and the studio's breakthrough in the US market. The live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which had a budget of US$13.5 million, opened in the US in March 1990 and went on to earn US$135 million during its run, according to Boxofficemojo.com. The movie's international showing earned US$66 million, which pushed its total box-office rewards to a whopping US$201 million. 'It was the most successful independent motion picture ever released in North America at the time,' says Golden Harvest's Chan. 'Hollywood studios were fighting to get the distribution rights for the sequel.' Golden Harvest stopped at two sequels because of dwindling US box-office receipts. The Ninja Turtles movies that followed in 1991 and 1993 earned US$78 million and US$42 million, respectively, in the US, but Chan says they were still profitable. Fourteen years later and another Hong Kong company is set to cash in on the phenomenon, and this time there is not a rubber suit in sight. The muscular turtle torsos, spectacularly bleak New York scenery and full-throttle fight scenes of TMNT have all come, ultimately, from Imagi in Hong Kong. All CG output was processed on Imagi's 1,000-processor rendering farm, comprised of a cluster of personal computers and servers in Chai Wan. Imagi's preparatory work on TMNT started in late 2004, after it obtained the Ninja Turtles film production and distribution rights from the owner, Mirage Group. Imagi had previously undertaken three major TV projects: a 26-episode, 3D, CG-animation series called Zentrix; a full CG co-production with Japanese toymaker Bandai and film company Toei Animation on Digital Monster X-Evolution, part of the Digimon franchise; and Father of the Pride, a prime-time US animated programme and the first outsourcing project contracted by DreamWorks. Some key creative talent was recruited from the US. TMNT director and writer Kevin Munroe is an animator, interactive-game creator, comic-book writer and long-time Ninja Turtles fan. He has worked with Nickelodeon and Walt Disney's ABC Family Channel. Paul Wang, Imagi's chief technology officer, chief creative officer and head of studio in the US, served as visual-effects editor on DreamWorks' The Peacemaker, a film starring George Clooney. He has worked on animated features, including Antz, Shrek and Madagascar, for DreamWorks. 'One of the things Kevin [Munroe] and I talked about on why we love being a part of this endeavour is the unique challenge of helping build a studio with hundreds of people who work in two countries,' says Wang. 'We're taking the best elements of American storytelling with Hong Kong style and sensibilities, filtered with the creative and technical innovations from Hollywood and Japan. 'We started with concepts of what the story will be and the designs involved. We really wanted the animators to get the characters, including experimenting with new archetypes of characters. We also wanted to pay more attention to individual mannerisms. We have character designers here.' The animated film features the voices of esteemed actors such as Chris Evans (Fantastic Four) and Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), erstwhile Star Trek captain Patrick Stewart and mainland star Zhang Ziyi. The film is also noteworthy for including the final appearance by American-Japanese actor Mako Iwamatsu, the voice of Master Splinter. Iwamatsu's involvement in the project was announced on July 20 last year, the day before he died of oesophageal cancer. 'The movie is a rebirth of the Ninja Turtles,' says Munroe. 'They've been through all these adventures and now the family is growing apart. [It] introduces a rich industrialist, Max Winters, and his build-up of an army of monsters as part of a plan to rule the world. The Ninja Turtles get back together as a family in time to save the world again.' If unity is a theme of TMNT, it has also been a valuable commodity for the movie's makers. When in Hong Kong, creative staff report to Imagi headquarters in Eight Commercial Tower, in the industrial section of Chai Wan. It houses about 450 animators involved with developing TMNT and the new CG-animation film projects. The size of that workforce may pale in comparison with those used by major Hollywood studios for similar productions but Imagi prefers its crew lean, mean and highly productive. Says Wang: 'There is an advantage to having a small artistic core. Imagi is a much more intimate environment. It is quicker to make changes, gather people and brainstorm.' 'This team developed many proprietary tools and software to create the look and feel that is unique to TMNT and to facilitate efficient production,' says Edward Lee, corporate development director and head of studio at Imagi. Kao insists Imagi has a significant edge over Hollywood in the superhero-movie-making business. 'We do it at about a fifth of the cost.' Hollywood typically spends upwards of US$100 million for a live-action or CG superhero movie. Instead of using an expensive, commercial computer operating system, Imagi animators adopted Linux - the free-to-use platform developed online by a global community of software engineers. 'It allows for better customisation and flexibility for our software engineers. It also offers improved security over other platforms,' Lee says. That security and reliability is vital to the Imagi set-up, where the Los Angeles-based creative studio must work closely with the office in Hong Kong. 'We sent people from Hong Kong to the US to better understand the creative-development pipeline. Of course, all things needed to be delivered and processed in Hong Kong,' says Wang. The amount of data processed in TMNT's production was staggering; Imagi used a storage area network with a capacity to handle up to 40 terabytes of data (a terabyte is equal to 1,000 gigabytes of computer memory, or roughly 50,000 trees-worth of printed paper). 'We use much of the same software and hardware that other companies use. But, ultimately, it is how these tools are used that creates special results,' Wang says. TMNT features several technical innovations that are especially apparent during fight scenes. These include highly realistic muscle movement, substantial interaction between rain and characters and a lengthy crowd-fight shot featuring hundreds of figures. Munroe says he wanted to achieve a sense of credibility. 'With the animators we have here, the action will go from level 10 to 18. It is over the top and crazy,' he says. 'You'll also notice that the city where the Ninja Turtles live looks more detailed, richer and a lot more like the real New York than what has been seen on other CG-animation films,' says Douglas Glen, co-chief executive and executive director at Imagi. Glen, a former executive at US toymaker Mattel, says Imagi has a clear view of its market position. 'Our competitors are the major Hollywood studios that make the big-budget, live-action superhero films such as Spider-Man, Batman Returns, Superman and X-Men. We're making films for global audiences, especially the eight- to 18-year-old demographic of mainly boys who spend more time playing video games than watching TV.' He says the distributors of TMNT have ensured the movie will be seen on more than 10,000 screens worldwide. In the US, the film has been scheduled to play on about 3,100 screens, according to Boxofficemojo.com. Another Hong Kong company hoping to hitch a ride on the TMNT revival is Playmates. California-based Playmates Toys, a subsidiary of the Hong Kong toymaker, secured the licence to make and sell Ninja Turtle toys in 1990. The company's fortunes soared on the back of the plastic figurines but, like similarly hyped products before them, the toys lost their lustre after a few years. Then, in 2004 - influenced by the popularity of a 2D animated Ninja Turtles TV series that launched in 2003 - sales of its turtle products grew 55 per cent. However, following weak sales last year in the US, the country that accounts for about 70 per cent of its total annual revenue, Playmates is holding out for its heroes again. 'Our new Ninja Turtles figures target boys [in a move that] could boost the company's sales significantly,' says Playmates executive director Sidney To Shu-sing. Glen is optimistic. 'If you check the results of the top films that made up 25 per cent of the total global box office last year, you'll find four CG-animation pictures, two superhero movies and five sequels,' he says. 'Our strategy covers all three: we're in CG animation, focused on superheroes and into sequels.' 'I am beyond pleased at how the movie turned out,' says Munroe, 'and we have a lot of talented people in Hong Kong to thank for that. We have not talked about a sequel but I would do that in a heartbeat.' Test audiences in the US and Europe gave a thumbs-up to TMNT months ago and, all being well, the Ninja Turtles - yelling 'Cowabunga!' until they are hoarse - will, even as you read this, be battling the Spartans of 300 for the top spot in box offices around the world.