The most striking thing about Imagi's Chai Wan headquarters is its jovial ambience. The company's young employees can often be seen huddled together, gleefully sharing their views on the merits of the images flashing across their state-of-the-art LCD screens. Hovering above them are shelves that line the walls with posters of classic manga and anime, while all sorts of pop detritus - fluffy dolls, miniature figures, comic books, even game consoles - compete for space on their desks, allowing just enough room for their computers. To the uninitiated, it resembles a playground more than a workplace, but the reality couldn't be more different. The light-hearted banter and youthful hyperactivity belie the serious tasks at hand, as Imagi's army of young animators hustle to complete Astro Boy, a feature film remake of Osamu Tezaku's anime classic of the same name, featuring the voices of Hollywood stars such as Nicolas Cage, Donald Sutherland, Bill Nighy and Freddie Highmore. The film will premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival in October, before going on wide release in the US and Europe. 'I never thought there would be so much freedom working here,' says Vincent Yu Chun-wing, one of 55 animators working on Astro Boy. 'I thought it'd be like just another desk job in an office, but it's not. It's been great fun working with my colleagues here because there's not that much of a hierarchy. 'Communication is quick, which means we get our work done faster. There was a time, for example, when I was asking around about a certain image sequence I saw on another film. Very quickly, two teams [of animators] were looking for it and we eventually gathered to discuss that clip's artistic values. Such enthusiasm really keeps us buoyant in our work.' Yu is an embodiment of Imagi's operational ethos. He joined the company in 2006, armed with only the limited knowledge in multimedia technology he acquired as a student at the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education. At 22, he remains the youngest member of the company's animation team. Not many of his colleagues are much older: the company was founded in 2000 and most of the staff are still in their 20s. Their ages aside, what brings these budding animators together is an unbridled enthusiasm for all things anime - a trait that could prove crucial in an animation studio trying to compete with its more established American counterparts, according to Tim Cheung, the company's vice-president of animation. 'Their passion is so refreshing,' says Cheung. Just like his staff, he has adorned his office with animation-related paraphernalia, including mementos celebrating some of the projects he worked on for DreamWorks, the Hollywood studio he left two years ago to return to Hong Kong. 'I'm here to help them learn, and if they don't have the passion for their work it's going to be difficult. In America there are animators who are very experienced and also willing to learn and improve, but it's not on the level of these youngsters here,' he says. 'I spend more time working with them now than drawing animations myself.' Cheung says Hong Kong's young animators have an edge over their foreign counterparts in the way they grow up exposed to a wide variety of cultural influences. 'Their perspectives are multicultural,' he says. 'They read western comics and Japanese manga, and it would be effective if they could produce something that is a mix of all these elements. Look at TMNT [the 2007 animated film Imagi produced, based on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles] - the fighting scenes were done really well because they could also watch Hollywood films for inspiration. And Astro Boy is a character they have been familiar with since their childhood, so they know what is expected from the story.' Hollywood studios have dominated the world of animated films for years and have made big advances in technical sophistication, as seen in recent releases such as Monsters vs Aliens, Coraline and upcoming films such as Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. For this reason, it is crucial that local animators create a niche for themselves. 'That's why we [at Imagi] place emphasis on producing films revolving around superheroes,' says Felix Ip Wai-ching, the company's worldwide creative director. 'If we were to do cutie-pie stuff, we would immediately be overwhelmed by the work being produced by DreamWorks and Pixar. So we had to do something which has a Hong Kong speciality to it - and we've always been strong in action films.' Imagi's first fully fledged production was Zentrix, a 26-episode television series in 2002 about a team of fighters battling an evil computer that has taken control of the titular city; then there's Highlander: the Search for Vengeance, a 2005 anime television series adaptation of the story about Scottish clans that mixes in Hong Kong-style action scenes. Imagi has expanded rapidly in recent years - the company now boasts a team of nearly 400, most of whom are young local recruits, says Cheung. Astro Boy will serve as a showcase of Hong Kong's burgeoning talent in animation. According to Ip, who joined Imagi when it began producing animated series in 2000, it has always been the company's aim to establish a training regime that would eventually provide Hong Kong with its own pool of crack animators. When he joined, none of the local tertiary institutions were offering courses related to the genre. But while there are more opportunities for aspiring animators these days, Ip believes youngsters are less dedicated. 'When the company was first founded, everybody was up for anything because it was the first time we realised we could achieve something like that here in Hong Kong,' says Ip. 'People were working overtime all the time, and we worked seven days a week - it's as if we lived here in the office. Now that everything's more institutionalised, people do not have that same hunger. Maybe it's easier these days, as everyone can dabble in animation with easily available computer software. A decade ago, that would mean working with complicated and expensive programs.' Cheung, who helped introduce a more westernised and free-flowing working environment, also sees the lack of discipline as a weakness among his staff. 'They are on average in their mid-20s, and came here after finishing school, so they might lack maturity,' he says. 'Sometimes I would allow them to spend some afternoons reading manga or playing computer games to relax and recharge their batteries, but it could get out of hand. Maybe it's because the environment makes them feel like they are still in school.' Another drawback for the young animators here is a lack of traditional artistic skills, Cheung says. While they usually equip themselves well with computer animation programs, they are sometimes less adept at the more painterly aspects of their work, such as mise en scene or the use of shadows. 'I have to ask them to go and watch films, and sometimes I'll get them to practise drawing pictures of live models I bring to the studio,' he says, adding that more of his animators are taking arts courses in their spare time. It's a failing that Yu also recognises in himself. 'Animators elsewhere begin with two-dimensional drawing, so they have a better foundation than we do,' he says. 'We just begin from animation. And the mentors we had at school might only have five or six years of experience in what they do - in other countries, they might still be regarded as rookies.' Looking back, Yu says Hong Kong still lacks specialised courses that could better prepare aspiring animators for a professional career. 'You just look at the courses being offered outside - people tend to believe that if you can use the software, you can do animation. I can see clearly now that it simply isn't the case.' Then there's the competition from mainland animators, Ip says. 'They have well-established skills - what they lack is the vision to make things marketable to foreign tastes,' he says. 'A lot of resources have been put into the industry [on the mainland] in recent years: there's an animation exposition in Hangzhou and now nearly every province has a city trying to style itself as an animation hub. I think the real obstacle for them is getting their work past censors, something which has restricted their creativity. But if their skills and the [censorship] system become more mature in the near future, they will give Hong Kong a real run for its money. And their costs are really low, too.' Astro Boy might soar, but whether its creators do depends on how well they rise to the challenges that lie ahead.