Big Hero 6 comes at an interesting time for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Not only is it their first story based on a Marvel property, the studio has to live up to their recent successes like Frozen and Wreck-it Ralph
Disney Animation was about two weeks away from completing animation on Big Hero 6 when we were invited to the studio on July 30. An exciting day of presentations, footage viewing, and one-on-one interviews were planned for our visit (this writer’s first time on the Animation Studios lot).
Big Hero 6 follows Hiro, a 14-year-old robotics wiz who’s forced to face a life-altering event that no kid his age should have to deal with. The unfortunate incident leads Hiro to team up with Baymax, a healthcare robot created by Hiro’s older brother Tadashi, when evil begins to cast itself over their home of San Fransokyo. Hiro and Baymax work with a group of new heroes to create the “Big Hero 6” team.
More on the feature film in a second. First…
Our day at Disney began in Animation Studios’ screening room where we watched the completed short film Feast which will run in front of Big Hero 6 in theaters. The film is the first to be completed through Disney’s new short film program Spark, where artists in house can pitch projects and work towards getting green-lit for production.
Feast is an adorable short story about a Boston Terrier named Winston who has a big appetite and notices changes in his owner’s life through the food he’s given. The delicious food that Feast’s production team chose for the dog are items that Americans will identify with on first glance and find delicious, according to director Patrick Osborne, who was the head of animation on the 2012 short film Paperman.
At the end of Feast there’s a disclaimer which warns kids (and parents) to feed their pets responsibly. Like when kids wanted to free their fish after seeing Finding Nemo, so too will they want to suddenly give their pets all of what we eat.
Feast is another excellent short film from Disney that makes you yell an audible “aw” by the end.
What we saw from ‘Big Hero 6’ (spoiler free)
After seeing Feast we were treated to a large group of completed footage from the main event.
Scenes that we watched from Big Hero 6 included young Hiro demo-ing his unique robotics technology called microbots at a science fair, a sweet scene where Hiro and his older brother Tadashi bond over the former’s future, a big life event for the brothers (which we don’t want to spoil here), and a beautiful flight sequence for the two unlikely super heroes.
The footage left me very excited to see the final product. Several interesting arcs were set up which looked like they’d yield great development over the course of the film. Disney didn’t show us footage of the Big Hero 6 team all suited-up and in action, but from what the crew told me, the scenes towards the end are big and exciting. Unsurprisingly, I think this movie is going to go over very well with kids thanks to the lead character, his entertaining new friend Baymax, and their ambitions.
One more scene we watched was one Disney released on Tuesday, in which Baymax and Hiro meet following a tragedy (no spoilers, just some fun interactions):
We also saw plenty of footage depicting the film’s setting.
Welcome to San Fransokyo
The team behind Big Hero 6 decided to mesh two iconic cities together to create a unique setting for their heroes. San Fransokyo is a hybrid consisting of elements from San Francisco, California and Tokyo, Japan. The decision to divert from the comic’s location of strictly Tokyo stems partly from the fact that the Big Hero 6 movie doesn’t pull from the comic at all, other than the title and names of characters.
Explained producer Roy Conli to Hypable, “Don [Hall, director], when he decided that he wanted to work with this material, was really pushed into — you do not have to keep it in this universe, you do not have to do anything other than let this be an inspiration to you. And one of the things that John Lasseter wants to know before any film is, he wants to know what the film is. Don decided that he wanted to explore an alternate universe so to speak, but alternate in a way that was just paralleling us.”
While San Fransokyo doesn’t exist in the real world, the team wanted it to feel like it’s the San Francisco or Tokyo that you already know. “We talked about the fact that it was just a couple years ahead of us, but we didn’t want it to be an alien universe,” said Conli, “and we wanted to create a world that people just want to be in. And to do a pure San Francisco or a pure Tokyo, just didn’t seem as enchanting as doing a mash up where, oddly enough I think everybody – people in Tokyo and people in California – are going to feel very comfortable in this world. It becomes in a sense a celebration of the Pacific Rim.”
The two cities were selected in part because the comics the film is based on are set in Tokyo, but also because San Francisco hasn’t been used by Marvel before. “Don wanted to stay out of New York because that’s the Marvel universe,” explained Conli. “And Los Angeles doesn’t have the amazing, iconic aspects of a city the way that San Francisco – it’s so iconic. You have the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ve got the Bay Bridge, the hills, you’ve got Alcatraz, you’ve got Angel’s Island, Market Street. It also has a certain aesthetic that we thought would blend well with Tokyo.”
Adapting and Cracking a Story
This is the first time that Walt Disney Animation Studios has taken a Marvel property and turned it into a film. Rather than going the live action route and adapting elements of the comics, WDAS decided to take virtually nothing from the comics but the “Big Hero 6” title and the names of its characters.
One of the biggest character changes may be the character of Baymax. The only similarity between the comic and film versions is his interest in protecting Hiro. Take a look at how he appears in Marvel comic books:
Disney came to turning Baymax into a white and puffy personal healthcare companion after doing research at robotic departments at schools like Carnegie Mellon. After discovering a robot with inflatable vinyl (pictured right), the team knew what they wanted to do with Baymax.
As demonstrated by footage we saw during our Animation Studios visit and what you’ve seen in promotional footage, Baymax is funny. But it’s his “naivety,” in the words of Conli, that’s what makes him an amusing robot to watch.
“Look at [actress] Judy Holliday,” he said. “There was something absolutely engaging in Judy Holliday because she had this naivety, and Baymax it’s on a narrower band on a certain sense. And Scott Adsit – he was the head writer on 30 Rock, one of the best improv artists around right now. We gave him a very narrow band to play in, but he was able to always shape a line in such a way – in the three to four note range we were giving him to play – bend a line and just get it perfectly.”
Said Big Hero 6 co-director Chris Williams about Baymax, “He’s so simple and clear and pure, and a lot of times that’s a fun character to play with. He’s absolute good and absolute selflessness, and then to pair it with more complex characters is really fun, but I think one of the things that animation is really good at is the slightest little thing allows people to infer and interpret a lot. And to project a lot onto the character.”
Baymax’s limited physical features and very simple looking face created an interesting opportunity for animators. “You’ve got two eyes that can blink and sort of do a nod or a head tilt, but that’s all you’ve got to work with from an acting standpoint,” the director explained, “and you can actually have an array of lots of different thoughts that people can impose on Baymax. That’s so much in the fun of this character and the promise of this character.”
The differences between the movie and comic don’t stop there. Big Hero 6 screenwriter Robert Baird admitted to us he has yet to read one of the comics. “This story was inspired by the comic books but I knew it was going to be Disney’s take on this story, so I haven’t looked at the comics yet,” he told us with a “I don’t know if I should say this” preface. “We didn’t really want to be influenced by another property, we just wanted to look at this as its own story.”
Paul Briggs, Head of Story on the film, noted that Frozen took a similar approach. Brings told us he didn’t read many of comics while preparing for Big Hero 6 because he was “just focused on a fresh, original new story.
“Much like with Snow Queen, we pulled some things for Frozen, but Frozen is a very unique, different story. So same thing with this, we have a different take,” he said.
Bringing Disney Animation to Marvel and a property like Big Hero 6 was a tough situation to “crack,” as it was described to me so many times during my visit to the studio. By the comments Briggs and Baird made me in our interview as well as during a group presentation, the process of finding a story that goes over well with their in-house screening audiences is extremely difficult.
A big moment for the team was nailing down the first act which mean putting Hiro on a path to using his skills for the greater good.
“There are dozens of different beginnings to this movie that sit in a drawer somewhere that we tried,” said Baird. “We always knew that we wanted Hiro and his brother and the super hero team to be these smart, academic characters who are passionate about science and so on. And we also knew – and we came to this sort of late in the game – we wanted Hiro to have a sort of want. What is his want in the first act?”
The “crack” came from putting him into college. “When we said his want should be to get into this college and use his gift for something bigger, and that college would bring this out, once we landed on that it felt like that’s something interesting and relatable and hopefully inspirational to people too.”
Another challenge, which had left them suffering from lack of sleep at night, was finding a good balance in tone. “There are some heavy things that happen in it and it so easily can become one way or another. And so once at that screening when we were like, ‘I think we found the right tone,’ it’s this balance of drama and comedy, that was a moment where I felt like, ‘Finally, I can sleep again.'”