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Conceptualizing Disney’s ‘Big Hero 6’

Disney Feature Animation’s first Marvel collaboration pins high hopes and big expectations on a little-known comic book.

Disney’s Big Hero 6 is only a couple of months away from hitting theatres and already excitement is brewing. This is the first collaboration between Disney Feature Animation and Marvel, and given the recent box office success of both studios, it’s clear this partnership has the potential to pull in megabucks. It was Don Hall, co-director alongside Chris Williams, who stumbled across the little known comic-book the film is based on. “I was encouraged to explore the Marvel universe,” explained Hall, “and one of the projects I found was called ‘Big Hero 6.’ I’d never heard of it, but I liked the title and its Japanese influences — it just sounded cool.” Disney encouraged the filmmakers to take the existing property and make it their own. “We thought about sticking more closely to the source material,” he added, “but the idea of creating our own world was far too enticing.”

The story is set in the vibrant city of San Fransokyo; an eclectic mix of eastern and western influences. “I thought about [setting the movie in] San Francisco,” recalled Hall, “which is cool, but I thought ‘What if it was San Francisco mashed up with Tokyo?’ It felt more interesting as a setting. More playful and exotic. And the visual possibilities of those two cities mashed together, which are pretty different aesthetically, felt like a really cool place to set the story.” The filmmakers took a number of trips to San Francisco and Tokyo, scouring each city for inspiration. Skyscrapers and architecture were obvious sources, but the team was also impressed by the attention to detail in things like manhole covers as well as street and building detailing. They channeled all of their research into an early vis-dev test of the bustling cityscape.

Because the world of the story is based on a real city, much of the geography of San Francisco was carried across. In fact, many of the buildings and landmarks in the city of San Fransokyo are based on real places. Take Aunt Cass’s Cafe for example, which is one of the key locations in the film. This building was based on a real place in San Francisco that the filmmakers photographed during one of their research trips. This photograph was passed to the vis-dev team who tweaked and refined the design of the building to better fit into the world of the story.

The film centers around 14-year-old robotics genius Hiro Hamada. His older bother Tadashi is a student at the prestigious San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, which Hiro, being a typical teenager, doesn’t think is cool. He’s way more interested in using his talents to win underground bot fights. But Tadashi manages to persuade Hiro to apply to the Institute, and Hiro agrees to present to them his latest project - mind controlled Microbots. “Tadashi is a smart mentor,” notes Producer Roy Conli. “He very subtly introduces Hiro to his friends and what they do at San Fransokyo Tech. Once Hiro sees Wasabi, Honey, Go Go and even Fred in action, he realises that there’s a much bigger world out there that really interests him.”

Lead character designer Shiyoon Kim describes Hiro as having a combination of eastern and western influences while maintaining that Disney appeal. He also described him as a typical teenager. “When I was developing the character designs for Hiro I was thinking a lot about teenagers of today, and myself when I was a teenager,” explained Kim. “I imagined Hiro to be very plugged into technology and always multi-tasking. The initial character designs reflected that.”

After a terrible tragedy at the Institute Hiro’s world is thrown into chaos. This is when he meets Baymax, a medical robot created by his brother Tadashi. This unique character, a robot unlike anything we’ve seen before, was actually inspired by real life experimental technology. “We had some really great conversations about robots in pop culture,” says Hall. “And I learned that scientists were actually researching soft robotics, including this vinyl arm that was inflatable and non-threatening. It could do simple things like brush somebody’s teeth, but the possibilities were endless.” By the time Kim was brought in to design Baymax, Hall and Williams had a pretty good idea of where they were going. “I remember Don saying he wanted Baymax to be this huggable inflatable robot,” explained Kim. “This isn’t something you get asked for every day!”

When Hiro and Baymax discover that a mysterious masked villain named Yokai is producing Microbots of his own and using them for evil, Hiro decides they need to stop him. But they can’t do it alone, so he recruits his closest friends from San Fransokyo Tech - adrenaline junkie Go Go Tomago, neatnik Wasabi, chemistry whiz Honey Lemon and fanboy Fred - and using his robotics wizardry turns them into a high-tech crime fighting team. Visual development artist Lorelay Bove was responsible for developing the look of the characters beyond the initial sketches. “We wanted to make sure each of the characters had their own unique colour palette that worked with their personality,” she explained. “And that meant that the designs changed and evolved as the production went on and we learned more about who these characters were.”

Following in the footsteps of the phenomenally successful Frozen, this is an exciting and important release for Disney. The filmmakers are clearly passionate about the property. “There are a lot of people here at the studio who love Disney animation and love Marvel comics,” commented Hall, “so you can imagine the excitement when those two kid’s got together.” Producer Roy Conli was equally hopeful about the Disney/Marvel partnership. “The original source material gave us six very interesting and brilliant kids that we could explore,” he said. “And because we decided to take them into a heightened world, we were able to reinvent the characters for today’s audiences.”

Big Hero 6 hits theatres November 7, 2014 (USA).

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Paul Younghusband is a producer and writer based in Los Angeles. He has currently served as editor of Visual Magic Magazine, and has contributed to publications such as VFX World and Animation World Magazine.

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