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Book Review: The Art of Big Hero 6

Fred Patten looks at Chronicle’s new coffee-table book showcasing visual development on Disney’s Marvel-based animated superhero hit.

The Art of Big Hero 6, by Jessica Julius.  Preface by John Lasseter.  Foreword by Don Hall and Chris Williams.

San Francisco, CA, Chronicle Books, October 2014, hardcover $40.00 (160 pages).

To the general public, these coffee-table “art of” books devoted to the latest mega-hit animated feature may all look alike, but The Art of Big Hero 6 is subtly different.  This is a lavish art book, yes, but the reader will have a harder time guessing the details of the basic plot and its development here.

The book begins by emphasizing in its Introduction, “A Super Hero Movie With Heart,” how Walt Disney Studios’ prime concern from the start was to develop two specialties in making the feature the first Disney high-tech superhero movie.  It had to be faithful to what the public expected in VFX-filled, action-packed, “live-action” superhero features, and it had to play up “the Disney touch” of sentimentality and the personal growth of its main characters from loss to fulfillment.  The Art of Big Hero 6 supports this.  The concentration is upon the development of San Fransokyo, the fictional combination of San Francisco and Tokyo into a complex blend of both metropolises, and upon that of the six main characters, both visually and individually psychologically.  Plot details and character backgrounds are ignored as unimportant.

“The World of Big Hero 6,” the development of the San Fransokyo metropolis, is covered first, from pages 12 to 73.  “The Characters of Big Hero 6” comes next, from pages 74 to 145.  “Cinematography” is presented as an afterthought, from pages 146 to 160.

When the Disney corporation acquired Marvel Comics, and its theatrical animation department was turned loose to find and develop whatever Marvel properties were not already tied up contractually by other studios, Big Hero 6 was almost immediately chosen.  It was a very minor superhero comic book, with only 13 issues in ten years.  It was distinctly different from the better-known Marvel superheroes.  The public’s lack of awareness of its characters and storyline made it easier for the Disney team to “Disneyfy” it, turning the bleak angst of the Marvel plot into the heartwarming character development needed for a Disney animation feature.

“The World of Big Hero 6” shows San Fransokyo with its blend of 19th-century San Francisco residential homes and 20th-century Japanese vending machines; a modern high-tech metropolis with a cultural background going back over a hundred years reflecting both its California and Tokyo pasts.  “It was important to the directors that San Fransokyo be a place that audiences would want to visit.” (p. 16) Scott Watanabe, art director, environments, says, “Don [Hall, co-director] wanted to figure out a logical explanation for how a mash-up city like this could exist.  I came up with idea that, after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, Japanese immigrants rebuilt the place using techniques that allow movement and flexibility in a seismic event.” (p. 19)  This section progresses from the broad cityscapes of San Fransoyko and its vehicles, from the distinctive cable cars to the generic early 21st-century cars, vans, and trucks, to the specific locales of the feature:  Hiro’s family home, San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, Fred’s mansion (“… is a fanboy’s dream come true.  It’s just over the top full of figures and nerd references and is by far one of the most graphically dense sets in the film.” – Chris Williams, co-director; p. 61) and The [Teleportation] Portal.  Even the architecture of Krei Tech Industries is shown on two pages, significantly because Alistair Krei himself, one of the most important supporting characters in the movie, is totally absent.

“The Characters of Big Hero 6” is devoted almost entirely to the six who become costumed superheroes:  14-year-old Hiro Hamada, the robot Baymax (much emphasis is placed on the total originality of an inflatable vinyl robot, and how its “balloon-man” design makes it appropriately “Disney”), Hiro’s older brother Tadashi, Hiro’s Aunt Cass, her cat Mochi, and Tadashi’s classmates at San Fransokyo Institute of Technology who become the rest of Big Hero 6; Go Go Tamago, Wasabi, Honey Lemon, and superhero-wannabe Fred.  There is the usual mixture here of preliminary discarded character sketches and approved designs, but the arrangement is more of a hodgepodge than is usual.  For example, an early sketch of Wasabi is identified as Wasabi no Ginger; there is no explanation that this was the character’s name until it was decided to simplify it to just Wasabi.  There are only two pages for “Callaghan,” another of the more important supporting characters in the movie; his full name (Professor Robert Callaghan) is never mentioned in the book.  There are four pages given to Yama, a minor villain shown only at the beginning of the movie, and a brief mention of other “vanished villains” discussed but never used in the movie.  A more complete profile would have been appreciated of Hiro’s and Tadashi’s Aunt Cass Hamada, with whom they are living, since the boys are clearly ethnically Japanese and Aunt Cass is Caucasian. I suppose that this book could not be expected to profile Fred’s father, since he appears mostly as a post-credits surprise at the end of the movie, yet his existence belatedly justifies Fred’s obsession with superheroes.

As usual, each image in the book is identified by its artist or maquette sculptor, or in the case of cinematography, lighters and VFX developers:  Sara Airriess, Marty Baumann, Lorelay Bove, Justin Cram, Paul Felix, James Finch, Don Hall, Jin Kim, Shiyoon Kim, Shige Koyama, Adolph Lusinsky, Jim Martin, Kevin Nelson, John Ripa, Armand Serrano, Tadahiro Uesugi, Scott Watanabe, Mike Yamada, Victoria Ying, and others.  Much more of the art in The Art of Big Hero 6 is in full color than is usual in these art books, and is “Digital” rather than a pen-&-ink sketch.

Disney’s Big Hero 6 feature is a major favorite of the public, so The Art of Big Hero 6 should have a bigger demand than usual for these coffee-table art books, and should be a more prominent one on your shelves.  Whether or not you collect these animated-feature art books, don’t miss this one.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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