We’ve only seen two trailers for Disney’s upcoming animated film Big Hero 6, but the marketing team has been quietly making the promotional rounds by holding film panels during the D23 Expo and Comic-Con. But if you are looking for something more extensive and in-depth, we’ve got it all right here. Earlier this summer we were invited to Disney Animation Studios in Burbank to look at the animation process that goes into a film like Big Hero 6. Our behind-the-scenes look also included an interview with directors Don Hall and Chris Williams, and producer Roy Conli.
Hall (Winnie The Pooh) was the first to be named director back in 2011, and Williams (Bolt) was named co-director December 2013. While the two have different aspects from a personality standpoint, the their love of Disney Animation and the source material brought them together for this project.
Our interview reveal a number of things, like did you know that a research trip to Carnegie Hall helped shaped the Baymax character? How about the number of Japanese Animes that influenced the film? How they managed to balance the work between two directors? How many times the story changed throughout the years? What it was like to work with Marvel on this film? Read all about that and more after the jump.
What are some of the biggest differences between what you’ve made and the source material?
Don Hall: This movie is Disney animation, and it is inspired by Marvel Comics as far as the title and most of the character names. But early on when we first started talking with those awesome dudes over at Marvel, they really encouraged us to make this our own. Take what you want from this material, but do you thing with it. Like I said, the title and the character names, but because we went in this fictional world, this mash up of San Fransisco and Tokyo, that is strictly our creation, it is automatically just severed the ties with the Marvel Universe
Chris Williams: Yeah, they are really encouraging ans supportive. And the not having the Marvel on it was part of the original agreement on it, it wasn’t something that evolved during the process.
Were there any inspirations that you pulled from not just the source material, but Japanese animation as well?
Hall: There is too many too talk about. I mean [Hayao] Miyazaki is a huge…
Hall: Yeah. But we looked at several things early on. I watched Akira. It’s such a classic. There are so many people here that love, not only Disney Animation, but also anime and comic books. So it’s just naturally – it wasn’t just one thing we looked at, you know we are all into that.
Roy Conli: I think the anime thing, the richness of the emotional life in this film is what I really love. It’s balanced with this wonderful humor, and this wonderful comic book action that takes place.
Williams: I think being somewhat inspired by anime allows us to push the action scenes a bit further, but I do think movies like [My Neighbor] Totoro, that the relationship in that movie I see a lot of Baymax and Hiro. I think we are all a bit inspired by Totoro, we all go back to it, and there is something about that sweet and naive character that Baymax and Totoro have in common.
Hall” We knew that we were kind of – in addition to a a story that is based on a Marvel comic, we were also telling a kid and a robot story. So we watched a lot of those. It was very clear to me early on that it was vital to this movie that we come up with something unique for the robot, you can’t do, it’s been done so many times, and that’s what led to that first research trip to Carnegie [Mellon]. That’s were we found Baymax – the soft robotics. Right then and there – that’s our guy. I’ve never seen that before in a movie, and it sort of spun from there.
Williams: Didn’t you say in your research in Japan, they said, robots can be good, they can be nice.
Hall: Yeah. You know, watching a lot of movies, reading a lot of things, just a my own perceptions of western and eastern cultures, and that technology, a lot of times in western cultures, the robots are the villain the antagonist. You look at terminator, and computers are taking over the world, like they are the villain. In Japan it is actually the opposite, like technology is sort of our path to a better future. Those thematic ideas run through the movie. But it is also interesting to talk to the different robotists about what they – inspired them to get them into that field, a lot of them, sort of more western American guys cite “I played with them as a kid,” and every Japanese kid would say Giantor, or whatever, it was always animated robots.
This movie is very coming of age, and while there is a large ensemble, there is definitely a marketing push on Baymax, and of course marketing and merchandise that plays a large part in Disney, so did you know that Baymax would be the one that would be the center of this honor?
Hall: We are strictly marketing driven. It was all kind of organic. When we came back from that research trip, and saw the soft robotics, and then the sort of character of a health care robot emerged from that, because the soft robotics – the practical app for that would be in the health care industry. When we are all old we are going to be taken care of by a Baymax. His personality emerged from that, and the idea of asking “on a scale of one to ten what is you pain,” all that kind of stuff, kind of came fully formed from that idea. As we worked on it, we made it more sentient and obviously eager. Early on he was sort of a breakout character for us. We knew he was the one to be the most solid, and we built around him, sort of the MVP.
Williams: We spend years in this room talking about story and don’t think anyone – what are people going to respond to two years from now, three years from now, what do we love right now, what do we respond to, what do we care about. We all really love Baymax, this character that is completely sweet and good and pure, and you almost inspire to be as selfless and good as Baymax is, and that idea of a newborn who is experiencing the world for the first time, and only sees things in that pure and simple way, is what attracted us from the story stand point, and the way that other characters could bounce off of him, that was my entry point to loving that character, and knowing that Hiro and Baymax was going to be an incredible – not only incredible comedy duo, but also really solid, and the idea that hero suffers this this loss and this robot is there to fill the void, there was something so potent about that was going to be the absolute center of this film.
Conli: From a studio stand point, the studio has never pointed the finger at us and said “make us something for marketing.” In the 21 years that I have been here, it’s always been a story driven studio. How you market it evolves the story.
Williams: Yeah, it’s John that permeates through the whole building. It’s never this calculation of what are going to come to see, it’s always “what do I love, what do I respond to,” and he talks in those terms, and we talk in those terms. And it’s nice to see that in John, that he is never thinking long those lines. He is really an emotional guy, and a passionate guy, and he cares about these movies very deeply, but he is never a marketing guy, and that is a pleasure to work with.
Hall: I don’t even know how you could do that, because Baymax didn’t – he evolved out of something, he evolved out of a research trip, he wasn’t like when we first started taking the comic books and being inspired by it, there is no Baymax the healthcare provided soft robotics in comic books, and it’s strictly research. You can’t predict that kind of stuff, but that’s what I love about research, that you are sent off in the wild. There is no story at that time, there may be sort of a loose overall idea of what it may be, but there is no story. John really believes that research, that you will find that story during your research, and Baymax is case in point. That first one, and we – there was no healthcare robot, it just came out of a arm.
Williams: John never says pitch me this story. He never says what’s the beginning, middle, and end. He wants to know what it is roughly about, and wants to talk about the world, the potential of where the story could go, and your allowed over the years, and many iterations what the thing is going to be. It’s a great way to work. I think it’s part of why we’ve had this wide variety of kinds of movies that come out.
So what was that pitch?
Hall: July of 2011, I was doing the Carnegie Mellon research trip, we had already decided on Big Hero 6. It was a little conversation I had with John about finding something within the Marvel treasure trove, and I just finished up Winnie the Pooh, and he was excited, and I was excited. So we put together this thing. And based on being a comic book fan as a kid to just looking on their wikipage. Big Hero 6 I never read the comics as a kid, I just saw the title. We talked to Marvel, and I presented it to John, and I think it was the potential for – the characters were really fun, the tone of the original comic was kind of light, you can tell that the creators of the original comic were doing it as a love letter to Japanese pop culture as opposed to bad ass superheroes. That love of Japanese culture got woven into this superhero story. SO that really inspired me, as was the potential of this emotional story between this 14-year old super genius and his robot named Baymax, which at the time, like I said, was not a healthcare robot. I think just because we have been so immersed in those kind of stories, me and John thought that could be a great relationship for a story.
Conli: And what’s cool is that its a celebration of nerds.
So how many times did the story change, and did you ever go back and add things you took out or vice versa?
Hall: That one is tough to answer because that is what story, story is change. I think the best way to think about it is a lot of really fantastic ingredients, ours, these characters, there’s a boy and a robot story, the superhero origins team story, so there is a lot of these elements, and trying to make the “soup” taste good with all these ingredients, and its about what you have,and what amount. But we always knew the story was going to hang on Hiro and Baymax. That was the emotional core of the movie. Nothing else would work until that was solved.
Conli: It was all about balance. There was so many good things you could tell stories about, finding which way – and it’s balance between characters too. You make Hiro a little snarky, he’s unlikeable. You make him a little soft, he’s unlikeable. So where is that line? Same thing, how sentient is Baymax, how robotic is he? Those are all questions that come up, and it’s moving dials through the process.
Williams: To Donny’s point, the story is constantly evolving, we have five or six screenings internally along the way. But even in between the screenings, there is constant challenging of assumptions. The movie is always improving, and it is to put it up and figure out what is working and what isn’t working, and get a better vantage point of what the movie is going to be. It was changing in little ways everyday.
Hall: The screenings I always equate it to awkward photographs of you when you’re a preteen. You know like whatever it is, 12, 13, there is always that, and a screening is kind of like that, you’re always showing everyone in the studio your awkward teen photo. But eventually you work your way through that and it becomes this beautiful handsome glorious thing.
Williams: The nice thing is we have these screenings, no one is ever going to see them except for people in here, we know it is just a tool to find a movie. And the great thing with this environment is there is constant challenge, everyone understands you’re making it work, and it’s okay if it’s not perfect, nothing can be perfect.
Hall: That freak everyone out.
Williams: What is perfect, it’s just keep making everything better and better and better, and really just finding the movie, and having a better picture in your head about what the movie is suppose to be with each iteration. With John Lasseter and the other directors here it’s a great place to be because we all take turns being that person, there’s screenings, and you’re proud with some of it, and you’re not proud of other parts of it, and you’re figuring it out as you go, and everyone is there to challenge you and ask you what your intentions are, but also offer you support and understanding, and we relied on other directors coming in, and storyboarding scenes from us, and the heart of our process, and we in turn do that for other movies, and it really is a collaborative environment here that is unbelievable. And the support between productions, and between directors that is unlike any other place.
So all these months later, your eyes get stale watching this, but there comes a point where you have all seen it to a certain extent, but how much are your senses heightened when you’re watching or listening to us watching the movie?
Hall: Constantly, we are constantly looking for a new audience to watch out for. It’s a weird thing, that happens, there is sort of a mass psychosis when you are watching it with a mass audience. We’ll watch it in editorial ourselves, and we are not the greatest audience, but when you watch it with other people who haven’t seen it before, and you kind of see it through them. So I think we are always hungry for that kind of experience to see it through other people’s eyes.
Williams: It can be challenging because we can show a screening of the same movie five or six iterations, and it is the same audience over and over, and so by the third or fourth screening its dead, and you start saying “but that joke killed a year and a half ago,” and that’s where it is important to bring in fresh eyes. We will try to make a point of bringing in fresh audience, then you remember you can laugh but also feel engagement, and that actually is more important when watching with a fresh audience. It’s nice to hear the laughs. But when you hear that “aw” that’s like “yes, we did it,” people are losing themselves in this world with these characters, and that to me when was when we get that we did our job.
What was the collaborative effort was like?
Williams: We tried to stay together as much as possible, sometimes production needs we would sort of split off, we tried to stay every much in touch with each other a constant back and forth. We spent a lot of time in this room together with the group, and a lot of times just balancing ideas off each other, sort of testing off ideas off each other, so we were physically together for duration of this movie.
Hall: We were together for as much as we could, and at a certain point during production we had to split a little bit, only because we were here around the clock.
Conli: It’s a big thing. Because you have to wrap them into what we just did, there is a lot of communication on hallways, in between meetings. We also have little before certain meetings we have half an hour of here they get together for brain storming.
So did one director go back and change something without the other one knowing?
Hall: It was never like that. Are you trying to start something between us? We would perhaps have a discussion, again it is sort of that fresh eyes thing or “you weren’t there when this decision was made so you may question it,” and that’s within each other’s right to do that. If you have an issue you need to bring it to the table.
Conli: These guys are pretty much in sync. They both offer different aspects from a personality standpoint, I think intellectually they are equals, but they do have really great instincts, and there is a lot of respect for each other.
Did you have to change some aspects of the story in order to adapt to the constant technological changes?
Conli: Well, we basically reinvented our rendering system here. So it’s a totally new rendering system. We literally were handing by our finger nails waiting for that lighting system.
Hall: We kind of held hands on this one.
Conli: Technology is kind of like the story process, it is constantly changing. Literally when were looking at the film six months ago, there were little speckles everywhere. They were hopeful. Hopeful speckles.
Williams: We are masochists here. You guys saw the effects stuff. You saw what this movie was going to be. This looks really hard, and that’s awesome. And our technology people, the culture of this place is constantly pushed and improve, and challenge. Everybody here, that’s what we expect of ourselves, and that’s what we expect of each other. I think that’s why the movie turned out the way it is.
Hall: The Mircobots took a while to crack, but it is giving that department ownership over something really big, sort of esthetic choice for a movie, they are sort of a character. So they are not just doing the sort of typical things effects things does, you know water, smoke, they are doing that too, but what I like about working in animation is challenging that department, with something they can take on and create on their own. Something that comes out of that department. And just stuff and climax…
Conli: What until you see the climax
Williams: Yeah, you guys haven’t seen nothing yet. It is amazing.
Conli: The effects are magnificent.
Hall: Yeah, what they are doing is taking something and creating it, and I love challenging them, and just like challenging the animators with something like Baymax like, meh he’s not going to have a mouth. You got a basically a blank canvas to act with to which to act with. Finding those blinks when they became so imporant, and the timing of the blinks. So it was fun challenging those departments.
Williams: And they all push each other, the animators, the different departments. The animators will see see the lighting – “oh my gosh, my animation has to live up to that lighting,” the layout artists will look at that animation and vice versa and be so inspired by it and by each other and the level the different departments are at, and they want to be at that level as well, and so it is nice for us to be in the middle of people who are so dedicated.
Conli: It’s kind of a cool thing with CG too. Working within CG pipeline we go back and change the camera all the time. We adjust camera, once it gets to animation, if it is better to open it up, if it is better actually move the camera, we will go in and do that.
Hall: It’s super collaborative. In animation dallies, there is somebody from layout whose sole job is just to adjust camera. Likewise with effects, there is somebody from effects as well where guys are doing mircobots, because animators might block something out with just blocks, so the intent was there, but the effects animator and Eric Daniels was there too.
Big Hero 6 opens in theaters on November 7.