‘Big Hero 6’ Producer Roy Conli discusses story, production challenges and the boy and his robot at the heart of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest feature.
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 stunning mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo set in the near future. Hiro 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 Baymax, an inflatable healthcare robot companion voiced by Scott Adsit. When the group discovers a plot to destroy the city using a swarm of microbots Hiro designed, they band together to save the city and set things right.
Producer Roy Conli says that family -- the kind that you’re born with and the kind you find -- is at the core of the movie. ‘It’s a powerful theme that audiences relate to,’ he says. ‘The nuances of the relationships in deeply emotional films like Bambi or The Lion King are so interesting. There’s something about these stories that can really touch people.’
Conli joined Walt Disney Animation Studios in 1993, and after assembling all the creative elements for The Hunchback of Notre Dame and launching the project, he relocated to France to oversee the contributions of the Paris-based animation team over the two-year production schedule. Upon completion of the film, he remained in France and guided production on Hercules and Tarzan. He returned to the studio in Burbank to produce Treasure Planet and, as part of the WDAS executive leadership team, went on to serve as the producer of Tangled.
For Big Hero 6, the filmmakers set out to create a movie that balances action, humor and emotion, but according to Conli it’s not necessarily an even split. ‘When all is said and done, heart and humor are so important to us -- we want to make sure that the action always has meaning --an emotional context to live in. Emotion and humor tend to come along with the action in Big Hero 6.’
AWN sat down with Conli to discuss the film’s story, production challenges and the boy and his robot at the heart of it all. You can read the full Q&A, below (Warning: if you haven't already seen the film, this interview contains spoilers):
AWN: What an amazing film. How many times have you seen it?
Roy Conli: Probably 400 times.
AWN: When did you join the production?
RC: Oh, it’s probably well over a year now. It’s been great.
AWN: What were some of the challenges this time around?
RC: The challenge is always the story. That’s number one. We always work on the story until we get it right, even when that means holding off on production. On this one, we had such a breadth of story to tell. You had a boy and his robot story, you have an origin story, and the challenge became how to make those two worlds connect and literally build a family. Because the big theme in this is family. And it’s not necessarily the family you’re born with but the family you acquire, which I think is a neat message. I have many dear friends who I consider family, and this is part of that.
So that’s always the number one challenge. It’s the biggest nut to crack. But then, technically, there is a lot of great stuff that happened on this film. The look of this film is pretty stunning. I’ve not seen a film that looks like this.
The big story is our new rendering system, Hyperion. We developed a whole new rendering system while we were still making the film. I’ve been through that before on productions where we’re developing systems while we’re actually producing the film, but it’s always a challenge.
AWN: Because Hyperion was still largely untested?
RC: Yes, exactly. When we started Hyperion was still kind of in beta. We were getting images in March that had lots of noise on them. The beta versions -- where we were still trying to work things out -- were coming in from November all the way into March. April is when we started seeing what we could do with the renderer. And we were all incredibly, pleasantly, surprised -- maybe not surprised as much as just glad -- that it had finally landed when it did.
'From day one, we knew the story was going to be about a boy who has a loss.'
We did the same thing on Tangled. On Tangled, we actually restructured the whole production pipeline and we weren’t getting really good strong images out until around April. So I knew in my heart that the technologists in this building are so brilliant that we would be getting what we needed when we needed it.
AWN: It must have been very exciting to be pushing these new technologies, knowing you’re working on something that, like you said earlier, you hadn’t seen before.
RC: I’ve been here 21 years, and the last few years with John have probably been the most exciting time ever in my career. It’s that wonderful confluence of art and technology and great storytelling. There’s a kind of magic that’s happening right now that I attribute to John [Lasseter] helping the studio reach a maturation process. When John came in eight years ago, essentially everyone who was there at that time is still here now. It’s really been through his amazing vision that he has helped the directing base at this studio mature. I would say he has helped the producing structure of this studio mature. And there’s a new transparency that I think is really a testament to his leadership. So I love it. I love it.
AWN: So talk to us a little bit about your role. For instance, how involved are you creatively in building the story?
RC: My job, as I see it, is to get the director’s vision on screen. And one of the aspects of that is making sure that they are really getting what they want. So I’m creatively involved in terms of being in all the story meetings, the casting meetings -- I work with those guys, and sometimes play devil’s advocate. I sometimes challenge them but what’s wonderful about Don [Hall] and Chris [Williams] is they’re not threatened by that at all. I come from a kind of a literary background and was in the theater before I came to animation, so I’ve worked on developing new plays and I know a little bit about story from a literary standpoint. Those guys know so much more from a visual standpoint.
Working with them is a delight, because I absolutely trust them. But I think one of the things -- and this is big part of the studio’s maturation -- is that we are asked to challenge one another, you know? As soon as John and Ed [Catmull] came, they put a structure into place called the ‘story trust,’ which is essentially all our directors, and our directors work as a team on each individual director’s film. So every time we bring something up for a screening, which we do about every 12 weeks, we screen the entire film in storyboard form.
We get together with the story trust, and we get into a room, and we talk about it, and we identify what’s working, what’s not working, what’s going on, and that kind of clarity, and that kind of transparency, and also that kind of bravery, is something that is kind of stunning because everyone has a voice. People get confused when you talk about the story trust, and ask, ‘Well, isn’t that story by committee?’ Not at all. What it is, it’s having some of the greatest story minds in this business in a room giving you feedback and then the directors can go away and use their craft to do what they want to with it. You know, if you’re in a meeting of 13-14 people and nine people say, ‘I think you have a problem here, and you should do this’ the director at least knows that he has a problem. He doesn’t have to listen to anyone, but frankly he would be foolish not to.
AWN: For instance, was there a lot of discussion over the death of Hiro’s brother Tadashi?
RC: Yes, but we knew we were dealing with some sensitive issues in this film. First of all, you’re dealing with a 14-year-old kid. A 14-year-old kid is a very tough thing to crack. I don’t know if you have any kids but the 14-year-olds are really a pain in the keister, you know? And to try to find the root of where a 14-year-old boy is coming from, it’s a good hunt. Then you have the fact that we’re dealing with Tadashi in that relationship and how special that relationship is. From day one, we knew the story was going to be about a boy who has a loss and is basically healed by the robot, by his brother’s robot.
‘In my position, one of the things I have to do is kind of hold the production thoroughbreds back while the story is able to fully flesh itself out.’
So that structure was always there. It was really figuring out how to get there. One was getting truth in the relationship of the brother with the brothers. You know, brothers have such amazing relationship. I have two. You can be at each other’s throat but if somebody threatens the other one, you are behind him and you’re there for him. And that was one thing we wanted to find. And we knew that what that would do if we could find that was actually increase the emotional stakes of the film when we did lose Tadashi.
I think we were all aware as we were going into this emotional landscape, that, obviously, we want to build these stories for families. And, you know, we want six-year-olds to love them, fall in love and understand them, and we have 66-year-olds to fall in love. We were always aware of where the parallels would be and how that would affect people, and I was really pleasantly surprised.
In June, we had a test screening. We were about 50 percent done. It was 50 percent storyboard and 50 percent rough animated essentially. It was so great to see how kids, and parents, and general audiences dealt with it. Because I think both Don and Chris were able to maneuver in such a way that it wasn’t shocking, but it was poignant. I mean, I hand it to those two guys, and also Nathan Greno and Mark Kennedy, who were creative consultants on the piece, with Dan Gerson and Rob Baird who were our stalwart writers in the last phase of the production. They were able to find that line that was emotional and not damaging.
AWN: Talk a little bit about the decision to have Callaghan serve as the film’s villain.
RC: As we were working, we knew we needed a villain and we knew that someone was going to end up being the villain. We found an interesting parallel path with Hiro in terms of Callaghan’s story. They both have a loss and, in a certain sense, Hiro is on the same path that Callaghan is on.
AWN: Yes, Hiro becomes very angry.
RC: Hiro becomes angry and vengeance-ridden. And so, the onus then became, ‘What does Baymax give Hiro, and how can loss affect individuals?’ We spent a lot of time with psychologists and social workers just talking about loss, and specifically teen loss, because we wanted to make sure that Hiro’s journey was something that was authentic.
AWN: Well, and Baymax is specifically addressing Hiro’s puberty issues.
RC: Well, puberty issues, but the wonderful thing about the film is that he starts off with the diagnosis of puberty, and then there’s that beautiful scene, which we call ‘Diagnosis Change,’ when they’re up in the bedroom and Baymax is recharging, and Hiro falls on the bed and says, ‘This doesn’t make any sense.’ And Baymax says, ‘Tadashi.’ And it just, like, springs us back into the root issue.
AWN: And why it makes sense.
RC: And it’s at that point when he recognizes that it isn’t puberty, it’s loss. It’s this wonderful thing in terms of the progression of Baymax because in essence Baymax is a sentient being.
AWN: He learns, yes. In the film, Baymax goes from being this bundle of if-then sequences to actual learning.
RC: Yeah, exactly.
AWN: And then there’s that moment where he understands that flying makes him a better health-care companion.
RC: Scott Adsit, who voices Baymax, is so wonderful. We gave him a very narrow envelope to work in. ‘Here is a robot, make him a robot, and let’s make him appealing.’ And I think he does a pretty amazing job at it, but, you know, it’s Baymax’s growth as a robot that will support Hiro’s growth as a human being.
AWN: Can you speak about any of the changes you’ve observed on the business side of things since, say, Tangled?
RC: The biggest change that I’m contending with right now is how we deal with media. Back, four years ago, Facebook and Twitter were just coming online, and it was essentially about posting stuff. Now, it’s about newsfeeds. The whole digital landscape has changed the way we get our message out. And that’s been a bit of a lesson to me.
The thing that I love about animation is that every film I’ve worked on, the technology has changed, every, the approach, the medium, you know, with which you use to actually produce your film. This, the biggest surprise on this one was how social media is totally different now than it was four years ago and how it keeps evolving, you know, so.
AWN: What kind of impact did that have on how you chose to promote the film?
‘I’ve been here 21 years, and the last few years have probably been the most exciting time ever in my career.’
RC: It’s interesting, because I think it’s still about letting people see bits and pieces that are really wonderful and getting the buzz out. I still kind of like old-school media where you can actually tell a story as opposed to just delivering a blurb. So, from a business standpoint, marketing is one area that has changed significantly.
As far as actually making the films, it’s always been story-centric. It’s always story-centric. In my position, one of the things I have to do is kind of hold the production thoroughbreds back while the story is able to fully flesh itself out and that has to do with making sure that the animators, that the lighters, that everyone is fed with tests and new, you know, working with a new technology and whatnot, and getting them ready to jump out of that gate like the thoroughbreds that they are.
AWN: It will be very interesting to see how the film unrolls.
RC: It’s interesting for me because every film that I’ve ever made, I’ve had what I call ‘cringe moments’ where you sit and you go, ‘It could have been better.’ And with Tangled, I didn’t have a cringe moment. I was very happy with Tangled and I thought, ‘Wow. This isn’t going to happen again.’ And I’m walking away from this project pretty cringe-free. I am really proud that we were able to find that fusion of a superhero story with the heart that a Disney animated film should deliver and the comedy. So it’s a good thing.
Jennifer Wolfe is AWN’s Director of News & Content