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Don Hall and Chris Williams Talk Disney’s ‘Big Hero 6’

Co-directors of Disney's most technologically advanced film to date discuss production challenges, creating a robot that learns, and Hyperion, the studio's new global-illumination rendering system.

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Disney’s Marvel-inspired Big Hero 6 landed in theaters on November 7, accompanied by the studio’s latest short film, Feast.

Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, Big Hero 6 is a superhero origin story centered on robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter), who's growing up in San Fransokyo, a mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo set in the near future. He hangs out with his tech-savvy friends -- adrenaline junkie GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), neatnik Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), chemistry whiz Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and fanboy Fred (T.J. Miller) -- and an inflatable compassionate healthcare companion robot named Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit). When the group discovers a plot to destroy the city using a swarm of 20 million microbots, designed by Hiro and controlled by neuro-cranial transmitters, they band together to defeat the nefarious plan and set things right.

The Big Hero 6 animation team reached 103 members, roughly 15 more animators than 2013’s Frozen. The studio’s most technologically advanced movie to date, Big Hero 6 is the first feature to employ Hyperion, Disney’s new global-illumination rendering system that allows animators to project, reflect and refract light, create realistic shadows, and show varying levels of light/dark contrast for objects and characters.

Created by Walt Disney Animation Studios' technology team in collaboration with production artists, Hyperion has been in development for more than two years. Using Hyperion, animators can now create frames containing highly accurate simulations of 10 billion simultaneous rays of light as the system calculates the illumination, bounce, shadows, and redirection of every single beam -- something that would have been computationally impossible prior to development of this technology.

Disney’s proprietary system Denizen allowed filmmakers to create bigger, more believable crowds for Big Hero 6. Crowds were created using 670 unique characters (compared to 270 in Frozen, 185 in Wreck-It Ralph and 80 in Tangled), and the “Port of San Fransokyo” scene alone has over 6,000 characters in it. The city’s 23 districts were all built in 3D, comprised of 83,149 separate lots and including 18.8 million building parts, 215,000 streetlights, and 260,000 gorgeous illuminated trees.

The combined story, animation, visual effects and technology teams took several fact-finding trips to Japan and visited both the Carnegie Mellon and MIT robotics teams. At MIT they discovered the inspiration for the film's microbots. The Soft Machines Lab at Carnegie Mellon established ground rules for Baymax's soft robotics functions.

Both Marvel fans and WDAS veterans, Williams and Hall first joined the studio during the mid-1990s. Williams joined Disney in Florida's animation studio as an intern in 1994 and last directed Bolt in 2008. Hall, who has been at Disney since 1995, last directed Winnie the Pooh in 2011. AWN sat down with the Big Hero 6 co-directors to discuss the film’s genesis, production challenges and creating a robot that learns. Check out the full Q&A, below:

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AWN: How long have you each been working on Big Hero 6?

Don Hall: For me, it's been three-and-a-half years. When I finished Winnie the Pooh I talked to John [Lasseter] about possibly taking a Marvel property and bringing it over here and that led to finding this little gem, Big Hero 6. Chris came on about a year-and-a-half ago.

AWN: Talk about your dynamic a little bit; how do you decide who does what?

Chris Williams: Initially I think Don was in the same situation I was in on Bolt where a ways into the production there are 500 people that work on one of these films; you’re pulled in too many directions, and so just as I had asked Byron [Howard] to come on and co-direct on Bolt, Don asked me to come in and co-direct on this film. And, we come from a fairly similar background. We are both storyboard artists, both from the story side....

DH: Yep.

CW: And so we tried to stick together as much as possible. We were in the story room together with the writers and other story artists for days on end. As we branched out into the other departments, again we tried to stay together as long as possible to make sure we were always on the same page. And then there was a point where we were in the heat of production and we split up a little bit. Then Don spent a little more time with the animation department. I spent a little more time with effects and lighting but we tried to stick together in the editorial and story room as much as possible.

DH: It's not like we finish story and start production. Our process is just not linear like that. Parts of the story gel and you may start to sneak those into production but generally you’re still cracking story as you’re producing the movie, doing production stuff/shots. So that’s when it becomes hard to be in the same room at the same time.

'Big Hero 6' concept art by Tadahiro Osage.

AWN: Talk a little about Hyperion -- when did you know that was coming and what kind of impact did that have on the process?

DH: As we started the movie I knew they had been developing Hyperion and this would be the potential first show that would use it. There was a little reservation in the beginning because the paint was wet. I mean, it was just done and we hadn’t even tested it out on a short yet really. Would it stand up to the rigors of this super-complex movie with this really detailed, very rich world, this lived-in world and all the cinematic lighting that we wanted to do? It was perfect for it. It was built for it actually. But you know we just didn’t know. And so we just held hands and jumped in, and actually it allowed us to do things that we never would have been able to do otherwise, to have a world this rich. The older rendering and lighting packages couldn’t handle it and Hyperion really was a superhero.

CW: And it was nice to know, though, that we were taking on this story line that had these outrageous ideas of superheroes and this kind of thing. But at the same time we knew that the look of it -- because it was able to have the light bounce as many times as it did, because the world felt so resolved -- it really grounds things and makes you believe in what you are seeing, and so to see these super heroes flying around the city but believe in what you are seeing, it was really helpful for us.

AWN: The concept art, when it was first shown, was so exciting. All this time later, it appears that much of it made it into the finished film. How did that happen?

CW: Well, we like to take all the credit.

DH: Yeah, that was all our doing.

CW: Between [production designer] Paul Felix, [art director] Scott Watanabe, and Adolph Lusinsky, who’s the head of lighting, we have all these amazing artists. It was really important to them to create a complete and immersive world, a world that truly has a history. When Paul thinks about designing something, he thinks about the history that led up to the creation of that building or that space, and so, yeah, we benefited from how much they pushed themselves to create worlds that feel believable.

DH: Yeah, and also, just going back to some of the first developments on the movie, we hired Tadahiro Osage and he did about 15 paintings. His style is fairly stylized and it was never meant to be literal. That’s what I love about Tadahiro’s work; it starts from a very stylized place, but right out of the gate he kind of just nailed it. I had expected him to nail the Japanese part, because he lives in Tokyo and he is Japanese. What blew me away with some of his first concept paintings was how well he integrated the two cities and how well he seemed to know San Francisco and how imaginative he was and sophisticated in how he wove the Japanese esthetic into San Francisco. Because it could have been a little bit ham-fisted. I think because Tadahiro got us off to such a sophisticated start that everyone just got really inspired by the work and took it from there and then when Scott [Watanabe] came on he echoed that kind of sophisticated approach.

CW: Going back to Hyperion, one of the things I love about this place -- there’s a cultural thing in this building right now where we, in the story department, are always very ambitious; we want to push to make something more emotional, more thrilling, more funny, and take on difficult subject matters. On the technology side they are the same way. When they’re faced with a challenge they don’t run, they get excited. They really embrace this, they wanted to push to use Hyperion on this film and there is that feeling that nobody wants to be the one to back away from the challenge and we all inspire each other in that way. So I think it’s a credit to the technology side that the movie looks the way it does.

DH: Absolutely.

AWN: In the film, Baymax learns, which is just so exciting. How did you move from him being more or less a compilation of if-then sequences to actually developing this sort of intelligence and learning? And there’s that moment in the film, when Baymax says ‘Flying makes me a better healthcare companion,’ and everyone cheers.

DH: That was meant to do that; that was meant for everybody to stand up and cheer.

Quite frankly, there were versions of the story early on where he actually didn’t show much learning potential through the course of the movie. He always worked as a character, everyone loved the potential of this character, of this healthcare robot who only viewed the world through that function. But when we started to just give him a little sense of learning throughout the movie, giving him a little bit of that wisdom behind the eyes, like ‘what’s going on behind there’ -- it’s almost like he’s got a soul --that the movie started to gel.

Those are some of my favorite moments. Like when Baymax says ‘I cannot be sick; I am a healthcare robot.’ But it’s just one of Hiro’s expressions that he utilizes up on the wind turbine. Later you really get a sense that this robot, in addition to trying to heal his patient, is actually developing an emotional connection to this boy.

CW: And I would say just to add to that I think that the reason why it feels powerful when he does have these moments of leaning is because we were very restrictive initially. It happened very slowly over the course of the movie, and because initially we were saying he is a robot, he’s not a guy in a robot suit, he’s a robot; he solves one problem at a time. If-then, like you were saying, I think that’s really smart. Very methodical. And even with Scott Adsit, who’s a very funny guy and very versatile, we were very restrictive with him. ‘You have to work within this band,’ and he would find these little nuances within it and we were trying to sort of impose little restrictions on these bands so that each of those moments when you feel an evolution in his thinking it’s powerful and meaningful. That was totally by design.

DH: Yeah, we meant to do that.

AWN: Working with Baymax must have been thrilling. Was he always meant to be inflatable?

DH: Not in the original comic book, he wasn’t. He was more of a mech robot, but the first research trip I did was Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Harvard, and at Carnegie Mellon I found a researcher doing soft robotics, and I was very concerned, early on. I knew that was a big challenge to tackle. Once we had the world set -- we knew it would be in San Fransokyo not in the Marvel universe, right? We created our own. Next challenge: Baymax. How can we put a robot on screen that we had never seen before? Because we're tasked with that, from John Lasseter, and then when found soft robotics and learned that it would be used in the healthcare industry, it lead to the birth of this character.

CW: One thing I love about Lasseter is that if he sees that something is popular he doesn’t   try to recreate it, he doesn’t try to morph from it. If you’re going to put a robot in a movie or a dog in a movie, like Bolt, he will say, ‘Line up all the famous dogs and all the famous robots, and give me something I’ve never seen before.’ So he sets you off for that challenge and I think Donnie [Don Hall] found it with Baymax

AWN: Baymax must have presented some challenges in terms of visuals because he’s shiny and soft and squishy.

CW: Yes, and the light also has to pass through Baymax to sort of sell that idea that he’s vinyl. It goes through him and the fact that Hyperion allows for that, allows for the number of bounces that it does, it really feels like real vinyl, you get a sense for how soft and touchable he is.

DH: It was actually a challenge too, because early on, again, I was always concerned that people wouldn’t understand that he was a robot. I knew that in the context of the movie they would but if you just looked at it at face value you know you might not. Some of our earliest drawings of him -- my son, when he first saw him the first time, was like, “Who’s the ghost?”

AWN: [Laughter] Our sternest critics.

DH: Early on we thought it would actually be really cool, because it’s vinyl and semi-transparent, to see some of the internal architecture. You know, see some of the carbon fiber skeleton underneath, and the actuators and stuff like that. So we actually designed him with that in mind. There is an internal skeleton and we know where all of that is, it's all modeled, but we found that when we lit it in such a way, even that bedroom scene, when he pops up, pshhhh, from behind the bed and washboard, we had versions where you actually -- because there is such strong light source from the sun -- we thought, ‘Oh we could really illuminate him and see that skeleton inside.’ He stopped being the character. It was almost too much of a reminder that he was a robot. So our initial instinct was to do that because we thought it would be really interesting but he lost the appeal so we lost that.

CW: Yeah, he used to be more transparent but then he became more opaque because we didn’t want to see that internal skeleton, but it's there the whole movie. It's in there, and because it’s affecting the light, ever so slightly you get a sense that there is something in there because of the way the light is bouncing inside.

DH: If he ever got hot -- it’s just like Terminator, when he got all his skin melted off -- if you took all that off you would see this kind of weird skeleton inside there.

CW: And when he gets deflated he is hanging off of his actual internal skeleton.

AWN: And yet all of that collapses into his little unit.

CW: Exactly.

DH: Exactly.

AWN: The film has a mix of hyperrealism, almost like photorealism, with other, more painterly aspects that recall more traditional animation. How did you arrive at that look?

CW: Well being influenced by traditional animation, that is just so part of our DNA. We’ve worked at Disney for, I’ve been here almost 20 years. We’ve worked a lot of 2D movies, worked with great 2D animators, and our animators can draw really well. We’re not shy about embracing our heritage. We are influenced by the earliest Disney movies, as kids we loved those movies and we are constantly referencing back to that style of acting. It's how we approach our characters.

DH: Yeah and [Big Hero 6 lead 2D animator] Mark Henn, who is one of the best 2D animators out there. He did Jasmine [for Aladdin] and on down the line of all these famous 2D characters.

CW: He did Simba too, right?

DH: Yeah he did Simba, and most recently he did Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh. I have always equated him to Jimmy Stewart, as an actor and an animator; his stuff was always appealing and likable. So Mark was our 2D liaison and he sat in dailies with us and would sketch over people’s stuff if he thought he could push a pose. He also worked with the animators outside of those dailies -- a lot of those animators were passing stuff through Mark, and he would give notes on it.

 I love the fact that we have these legends like Mark Henn who have now integrated with this animation department that’s actually pretty young. We have a very young animation department, but they’re amazing and hungry to keep pushing themselves.

CW: And there is a thing at Disney where we are looking forward and backwards at the same time always.

DH: Yes.

CW: And I think there is a great sort of tension that comes from that, and in our animation style you feel echoes of the great Disney movies; at the same time, with CG, you’re allowed to do really tiny, subtle, nuanced acting and so I think it’s really the best of both worlds.

DH: Totally.

CW: I really do, I'm not just saying this; I really think we have the best animation department in the world. I think you see it in the movie.

DH: Because human characters are hard, they are really hard because you see them all the time. And even in the old Disney films, they would spend a lot of time doing film reference and shooting scenes like they were live action to record the human movement. The animators never drew on top of it. The animators would take that as inspiration because it's hard, it's hard to do, and these guys are just masters at it, starting you know, with Bolt did a great job, Tangled, and then Frozen and then here.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.

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