This week, Disney gives us its version of a superhero movie with Big Hero 6. We've got all the details on the huggable healthcare robot Baymax and the mashup city of San Fransokyo, plus how anime, Disneyland park mascots, and Clint Eastwood inspired the film.
We have already talked a bit about our visit to Walt Disney Animation Studios with other members of the entertainment press. If you haven't read that write-up, I suggest you read that one first. Very minor spoilers in both that post and this one.
While there, we learned about Baymax's origin, and how Big Hero 6 co-director Don Hall discovered a vinyl health care robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University and decided to base his huggable nursing robot on it. We learned about the individual characters and their talents, how the design team combined San Francisco and Tokyo to create the fictional mashup city of San Fransokyo, and how they had to abandon the Rocket Cat subplot (even though Rocket Cat still turns up in overseas advertising). But there is so much more that we learned there that we have to share:
When Disney acquired Marvel, the folks at Walt Disney Animation Studios were excited to do something Marvel-related. Don Hall, who would eventually co-direct Big Hero 6, originally approached John Lasseter, the studio's chief creative officer, about producing a series of short films based on Marvel characters. Lasseter, however, told Hall to "think bigger," and Hall dove into the Marvel catalogue.
Big Hero 6 producer Roy Conli explained to us that Hall deliberately didn't want to base a movie around one of Marvel's larger titles, but instead wanted to use a property he could "bring into the Disney universe." Hall was attracted to the name of Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau's superhero team, and he especially liked that served as a love letter to Japanese pop culture. But what he really latched onto was the relationship between the boy genius Hiro and the robot Baymax. As he and the rest of the Big Hero 6 team worked to reinvent the ideas from the comics, that relationship remained central to the film.
One of the key themes of Big Hero 6 is the question of what you do with your potential. Hiro is a brilliant roboticist, but his brother, Tadashi, worries that he's not applying his talents constructively. And just as people may apply their talents constructively or destructively, so too can technology be used constructively or destructively, depending on the person who is using it.
The directors deliberately didn't want technology to be the enemy in Big Hero 6, even if the villain Yokai uses technology to destructive ends. They felt that the idea of "technology run amok" that we see in so many films about artificial intelligence simply isn't that interesting. Technology is, itself, neutral. It's people who apply it for good or for ill.
To some extent, that idea is visually represented through the microbots, the insect-inspired robots that Hiro invents and that Yokai steals. The microbots are controlled through a device that reads brainwaves, and when Hiro uses the device, the microbots are very orderly. When Yokai uses it, we see the microbots manifest as his chaotic mind, taking on a more malevolent appearance in their movements and the shapes that they form. Also look out for a circuit board motif in the microbots' formations, something that the special effects team included as a nod to the computer programming behind the microbots' existence.
Loss is a huge part of superhero origin stories, and when we spoke to Conli and co-directors Hall and Chris Williams, they were quick to mention the death of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben as a key part of Spider-Man's origin. From the very beginning, the directors knew that Hiro was going to lose his older brother, who had built a robot. But as the movie developed and the directors received feedback from early screenings, the idea that Hiro needed to heal from the loss of his brother emerged as central to the movie's plot.
"One of the things I'm proud about is that I really do think it speaks the truth," Conli told us. "The message of 'they live on through you' is so true to me."
But equally important in Conli's mind is the theme of finding your family. Hiro starts the film as a person who does things on his own, but over the course of the film, he learns to work with Tadashi's friends, who become part of the Big Hero 6 super team. And as these scientists (and science enthusiast Fred) learn to apply their talents in superheroic ways, they also learn to work together and gradually form a family. It may be a film about loss, but, Conli said, "The film is also about renewal."
Obviously, the germ for Big Hero 6 is the Marvel comic book of the same name, but since Japanese design is such a huge part of the film, the animators wanted to incorporate visual elements of anime as well as Marvel Comics. Zach Parrish, who headed animation on the film, encouraged the animation team to take cues from anime, such as holding poses for longer periods of time than you would in traditional Western animation, thinking about the dynamics of the camera work and how close characters can get to the camera, and studying anime-style action sequences.
The effect, Parrish believes, actually makes the film more closely resemble a comic book in the end. He hopes that, as audiences watch the movie, they see shots that could easily be panels in a comic book.
"My favorite thing about Baymax is the less you do, the more the audience projects feelings on him," Parrish told us. "And as difficult as it is to remove all that information, I love that that gives the opportunity for the audience, for them to be Baymax for that split second, which is something you can't do with a normal character."
Like Hello Kitty, Baymax is a character with limited facial features, which invites the audience to project their own feelings onto Baymax rather than merely receiving visual information. "We were joking that a model sheet of Baymax would be a bunch of the same face," Parrish said, "but literally, that's what we do in the film."
Aspects of Baymax's character and his growth as he begins to understand the world better, are conveyed in part through timing. The animators gave a lot of attention to the timing of Baymax's blinks and other movements, which help inform Baymax's processing of information and how and what he comprehends about the world around him. Hiro grows and changes throughout the film, but so does Baymax.
Each character in Big Hero 6 has their own unique personality. Wasabi is very reserved in his movements and very precise. Honey Lemon can barely contain her own energy, something that comes out in little skip-kicks and other visual flourishes. And GoGo, GoGo is the movie's Clint Eastwood.
Mainly, Parrish explained, the animators wanted to translate Eastwood's thousand yard stare to GoGo, but Eastwood's tough western heroes also inspired GoGo's persistent bubblegum chewing. The animators asked themselves, "What is the Disney equivalent of blowing smoke in someone's face?" They settled on GoGo popping gum bubbles in people's faces.
The animators watched loads of kaiju movies in order to figure out how to animate Fred while he's in his superhero suit—a modified kaiju costume. But they also brought in the people who make the costumes for Disney's parks to explain what the kaiju suit would be made of, how much it would weigh, how Fred's movement would be limited.
"You try to get the weight and believability and limited motion you get out of a suit that size," said Parrish, "but depending on what the shot or the story calls for, sometimes you play up the monster and sometimes you play up the guy." Fred takes himself so seriously, he explained, that sometimes he acts like he really is a kaiju, and the animators had a great deal of fun playing with that.
The directors chose San Francisco as one half of the basis for their mashed-up city San Fransokyo for a number of reasons. They wanted to avoid New York as a setting since so many Marvel characters are based there, and as for LA, they immediately ruled it out. "We live here." But from a visual perspective, San Francisco offered a number of iconic landmarks in a compact space.
When designer Lorelay Bove was tasked with creating the initial look of San Fransokyo, she made a series of travel posters for the imaginary city, including one for Alcatraz. Apparently, Alcatraz was once part of a major plot point for the film, and while that part of the plot was ultimately dropped, we should be on the lookout for former prison and its Japan-inspired makeover.
We mentioned this in our earlier writeup of our set visit, but we have more photos of the San Fransokyo decorations at Walt Disney Animation Studios. The team created a lot of delightful artwork to surround themselves with and so they could, in a small way, inhabit San Fransokyo.
Full disclosure: All travel expenses were paid for by the studio.