The timing for Big Hero 6 couldn’t be better for Disney. It’s not only completely different from Frozen but also captures the holy grail for animation in tapping the superhero genre. In fact, it shares a common theme with Marvel’s latest hit, Guardians of the Galaxy: the loss of a loved one as social misfits team up to thwart a mysterious baddie. This should resonate strongly as Disney flexes some new animation muscles.
Significantly, though, the core relationship between teenage Hiro and huggable robot, Baymax, is funny as well as poignant. So much so that Big Hero 6 should be a big Oscar contender in what’s shaping up to be the most wide open race in years.
Last month, Disney previewed about a half-hour of footage (focusing mostly on the set-up) and I got the chance to meet with directors Don Hall and Chris Williams and key members of the animation team. Achieving breakthroughs in animation, VFX, and rendering, Disney tackles a rich, anime-inspired CG look (as always, with a hand-drawn foundation), has built another ambitious world with its futuristic mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo (San Fransokyo), and populates it with more characters than ever before.
“You have a certain expectation of what a Disney animated should be but at the same time you want to see something new,” admits Hall, who found a new kind of Disney adventure full of action and pathos with the relatively obscure Marvel property. “We are carrying that legacy forward, and like the great Disney movies, we want to have a timeless quality, but we can’t let that limit us. We have to be able to do things you’ve never seen before.”
For Hall, the journey was about coalescing all of these disparate elements but even then it didn’t come together until the theme about loss became the thread. “Early on in the story, we meet Hiro where he’s a young genius — he’s so talented and has so much potential, but he’s squandering his gifts and Tadashi [his older brother] really wants him to get his act together and use his talents more constructively. And that gets him on the right path [when Hiro invents revolutionary microbotic tech]. And then when Hiro loses his older brother, there’s a danger that he’ll regress and Baymax is there to continue to be that mentor and that guide that Hiro needs at a formative age. They form the center of the movie, they’re a great comedic pair, but there’s also a great emotional story that we track through the movie.”
After Hiro’s invention takes a dark turn, he enlists four other tech-savvy teenagers to join Baymax and him in protecting their city: adrenaline junkie Go Go Tomago, neatnik Wasabi, chemistry whiz Honey Lemon, and fanboy Fred. But as co-director Williams points out, these characters don’t have superpowers. “They are normal people who are really smart and have access to super high-tech. I wanted to ground it in a certain reality. Go Go racing around on wheels is much better pulled off in animation than live-action where you’re able to caricature it more. You get your superhero fix but we’re able to pare things down to a more simple truth in animation. An action scene that is crystallized down to its most awesome form or an acting choice that is well observed.”
Hall says the idea of of making up their world was creatively more fulfilling than tweaking an existing one. “Once we did our research trips, it fell into place. We caricatured quite a bit to make the world more playful and fun. But then when you put the lighting in, it’s very realistic because we wanted a cinematic look.”
Production designer Paul Felix and his team took extensive research trips to both San Francisco and Tokyo. Functionally, what they designed is San Francisco with a Japanese aesthetic. The spread out topography of the city by the bay is very much the same (Hiro lives in a Victorian house in Haight), but the rich layering and sense of detail is more like Tokyo. “Tokyo skyscrapers have an exuberance not found in American skyscrapers,” Felix suggests. We paid special attention to the amount of info on buildings and on sidewalks.”
In researching robotics, the team was inspired by the soft robotics research at Carnegie Mellon. This became the inspiration for Baymax. “You don’t know what you’re going to find on these research trips and we knew that Baymax was going to be this vinyl healthcare provider and we wanted to make him very simple,” Hall explains. “I knew that we didn’t want him to have a lot of bells and whistles. We were wandering around Tokyo and saw this bell, which just looked like a very pleasant face to me. These two circles separated by a line felt like the perfect, permanent expression on Baymax.
“Your senses are on high alert and you’re soaking up all of this visual stimulus and I walked into those bells and it was the perfect aesthetic for Baymax’s face. I was always attracted to the idea that it was the older brother’s creation. And I saw Baymax as a distillation of all the goodness in Tadashi: the selflessness and the idea that you are what you create.”
The animators found inspiration in penguins as far as Baymax’s limited movement and gestures. They even dubbed him “unanimating” because of such minimalism. In fact, given that Hall directed Winnie the Pooh, it’s not surprising to find a bit of Pooh bear in Baymax. “Both Don and I share a love for very sweet, naive, guileless characters. I think there’s something real fun about that. It’s great to pair them with other types and see how they get along,” Williams adds.
Speaking of Pooh, Mark Henn was instrumental in doing draw-overs and came up with a more expressive and funny way for Hiro to bounce off the banister when trying to hide Baymax from his mom (there’s a hilarious side effect when the robot runs out of energy).
The character team (led by Carlos Cabral) created a new rigging software called Denizen (created by John Kahwaty), which allows them to blend between different face and body types, different clothing, hair, skin tones. For Big Hero 6, they created 700 unique characters and then needed to make the animation for all of those characters so they could walk, talk, sit, and text. This was necessary to populate the world so that it would appear rich, lived in, and modern. They also built 1,324 cycles for animation. A lot of them are clips courtesy of Massive software.
The technology team also created a breakthrough in-house renderer called Hyperion (created by Brent Burley, Sean Jenkins, and Chuck Tappan), which has all of the light simulation capabilities while handling extremely large data sets. This came in handy as Big Hero 6 has such enormous assets and is Disney’s most VFX-intensive feature yet. VFX (led by Kyle Odermatt), therefore, collaborated interactively with the Hyperion team to get special data functionality with water (for instancing and white water) and with the procedurally-animated microbots.
Interestingly, the interlocking behavior of the microbots creates structural forms akin to circuit board-like patterns grounded in physics (there are 20 million bots on screen in one scene). But the difference between Hiro’s vision and the villain’s for the microbots is cohesion vs. chaos.
“The range of acting and motion that these guys are able to achieve is some of the most subtle animation ever produced,” Williams offers. “And some of the coolest action that we’ve ever done as well.”
Below is the first extended clip released from the film. I can’t wait to see the rest and provide a more in-depth report. Big Hero 6 opens Nov. 7