IAR Screens 'Big Hero 6' Footage and Goes Behind the Scenes of Disney's Next

Wednesday, 03 September 2014 07:57 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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IAR Screens 'Big Hero 6' Footage and Goes Behind the Scenes of Disney's Next

The Walt Disney Animation Studios have been on an unprecedented roll, a hot streak that propelled Frozen to historical status as the biggest animated film of all time.Anyone worried that the legendary studio is attempting to recreate that fairy tale with its next film can rest easy. 

In fact, fans can expect the thrill of the new this November, because Big Hero 6 is something without precedent from the animation experts at Disney.

The studio's next animated event, Big Hero 6, is a loving riff on superhero comics, manga, and blockbuster adventure, all nestled snugly in an affecting story that belongs to the finest Disney tradition, a boy-and-his-buddy tale that in some ways evokes classic Disney relationships like the one between Mowgli and Baloo.

Set in a high-tech city that is a stunning funhouse mirror of our own high-tech culture, the studios' 54th animated feature follows Hiro Hamada, a teenage robotics prodigy who, with his trusty robo-sidekick Baymax, assembles an unconventional team of superheroes to protect their home.

IAR was recently lucky enough to be invited to Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, where we, along with select other entertainment journalists, were lucky enough to see a substantial slice of Big Hero 6, as well as a unique look behind the scenes at the making of the film, talking with the filmmakers tackling the unfathomably complex process of creating a whole world from scratch.


The film is, in fact, based on a Marvel Comic. "A few years ago I was looking at what my next project would be here at Disney Animation," co-director Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) explained. "And as a lifelong fan of comic books and a lifelong fan of Disney Animation, I started to imaging what a combination of those two things would look like.  In the course of research, I came across a lesser-known Marvel Comics series called Big Hero 6."

"What we most have in common with the source material is the title and many of the character names," he continued. "But from there we were inspired to create an original story and set it in a new, unique world."

While the course material takes place in Tokyo, the film unfolds in San Fransokyo, a Northern California metropolis that's a futuristic fusion of San Francisco and Tokyo, two technological hubs on either side of the Pacific Ocean.

"Early on, when we first started talking with those awesome dudes at Marvel, they really encouraged us to make this our own.  'Make your own world, take what you want from this material, but do your own thing with it.'  Because we set in this fictional world," Hall explained, "this mashup of San Francisco and Tokyo that is strictly our creation, it automatically kind of severed the ties to the Marvel Universe so that it's our own world we're making."

The place also reflects how Hall and company have incorporated Japanese influences into the very marrow of the movie.  "Technology, a lot of times in Western culture, is the villain, the antagonist," Hall said.  "You look at Terminator, robots and computers are taking over the world and they're the villain.  In Japan, it's actually the opposite.  Technology is sort of our path to a better future.  Those thematic ideas do run through the movie.  They made their way in there."


The footage shown made it abundantly clear that Big Hero 6 is its own animal, and nothing expressed that more fully than San Fransokyo itself.  It's recognizably the Bay Area, but with countless Japanese twists and a sense of scifi all its own.  Blimp-like windmill farms tethered to the ground float along the skyline, geishas on roller skates zip by, and a beautiful sunset plays out behind the Golden Gate Bridge as you've never seen it before.  Animators utilized the Denizen program to create hundreds of individual inhabitants to populate the city.

The production design team revealed to us that they conducted extensive research in both real-world cities, capturing tiny details like Tokyo's distinct manhole covers.  San Francisco's Haight Ashbury served as a major inspiration for Hiro's home, where he lives with his loving Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph, Bridesmaids) above her coffee shop.

Hiro (Ryan Potter, Supah Ninjas) and his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney, The Last Stand) are both brilliant with robotics, and the younger Hamada hopes to study with his brother at San Fransokyo Tech.  He certainly has the ability, as the first scene Disney showed us found Hiro on the SFT campus publicly unveiling his latest innovation: microbots.  These tiny hinged objects are controlled neurally, working together thousands at a time to instantly create any shape or structure the user can imagine.

The triumph of Hiro's microbot innovation is followed by tragedy, however, and a distraught Hiro reluctantly finds solace in Tadashi's final creation, an inflatable emergency medical robot called Baymax (Scott Adsit, 30 Rock) programmed in over 10,000 procedures.  Against Hiro's wishes, Baymax begins ceaslessly tending to his grief, attempting to help him cope with devastating loss. 

Disney just unveiled the first clip from Big Hero 6, and it offers a two-minute glimpse into the relationship between boy and robot at this early juncture. The excerpt really gives a sense of the film's energy and the dynamic between its two leads. Check it out:


Before long, this odd-couple follow Hiro's last remaining microbot to a dark warehouse where the duo discover the mysterious Kabuki mask-wearing villain secretly manufacturing millions more.  When the bad guy, Yokai, appears, he and his microbots give chase.

The chase sequence showed off the masterful work of the visual effects artists responsible for the microbots, whose behavior and movement incorporates references like ants, circuit boards, and contemporary architecture.  Moving as swarms that eventually comprise more than 20 million individual pieces, the bots are strangely menacing when mind-controlled by Yokai, who despite sharing Hiro's efficiency also imbues his microbots with unnatural staccato movements and sinister purpose.

After escaping with his life and failing to raise alarms with the San Fransokyo police, Hiro must deal with a Baymax who is low on battery power, basically turning him into a robo-drunk.  What follows is delightful bit of slapstick sitcom comedy in which our hero Hiro must sneak his lurching robot back into the house without alarming his attentive Aunt Cass.

Putting two and two together, Hiro sets out to investigate the mystery of Yokai.  Recognizing the danger, he takes to his garage workshop like an amateur Tony Stark, designing super-modifications that turn the squishy, huggable Baymax into an armored mech, an unstoppable machine capable of flight.  Hiro builds himself an accompanying super-suit, one that connects him magnetically to Baymax.

The final scene to which IAR was privy finds Hiro and Baymax going for their first flight together.  As the robot barrels around above the Golden Gate Bridge, he executes rollercoaster maneuvers to coax joy out Hiro.  As they get a sense for flying, the duo go whipping through downtown San Fransokyo in a sequence hat's vertiginous, breakneck, and beautiful.  It's an exhilarating scene, one that takes cinematic flight to delirious new heights and ultimately incorporates emotional catharsis and growth, ending on a truly wonderful image that earns its place in Disney's collection of classic, sweet visuals.


As a sample of the movie's action, this high-velocity scene promised true spectacle.  The film is, after all, a full-blown action-adventure.  Head of Animation Zach Perrish declared it "The biggest action movie we've ever done."

All the material we saw came from the first act of Big Hero 6.  As the story unfolds, Hiro custom-designs superhero weaponry and costumes for the robotics students as San Fransokyo tech, creating a team of heroes consisting of daredevil Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung, Premium Rush), bubbly Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez, Identity Thief), straitlaced Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr., Let's Be Cops), and nerdlinger Fred (T.J. Miller, Silicon Valley).

Each of these characters has super-abilities perfectly matched to their personalities.  Fred, for example, is a huge fan of Kaiju cinema, and he pilots a suit that looks like a proper monster, complete with fire-breath that evokes Godzilla and really shows off the dynamic potential of Hyperion, an entirely new rendering tool that's getting its first use in Big Hero 6.

Going behind the scenes of an animated film is odd for a number of reasons.  Obviously, there's no set.  But there's also a more fluid process that plays out over the course of several years as the filmmakers proceed from storyboards to scratch tracks to animated sequences, constantly overhauling and refining the story on the micro-and-macro levels.

"The story is constantly evolving," said co-director Chris Williams (Bolt).  "We have five or six screenings for a movie internally along the way, but even between the screenings, there's constantly challenging of assumptions, so the movie is always improving.  The idea is to put it up and figure out what's working and what isn't working and get a better vantage point from which to see what the movie is ultimately going to be.  It was changing in little ways every day."

The filmmakers embraced that state of flux from the conceptual stage. "In addition to doing a story that's based on a comic book, and a Marvel Comic to boot, but we were also telling a kid and a robot story, which has a rich tradition in Japanese films," Hall said.  "So we watched a lot of those and it was very clear to me early on that it was vital to this movie that we come up with something unique for the robot.  It's been done so many times, so what is our robot going to be?"


"Our first research trip to Carnegie Mellon, that's where we found Baymax," he continued.  "We found the soft robotics and right then and there it was like, 'Okay, that's our guy.  Never seen that before in a movie.'"

Months before Big Hero 6 arrives in theaters, Baymax himself is already a hit. Baymax is a peculiar character, one who is undeniably endearing and filled with personality, despite having a face that consists of two dots joined by a parallel line.  Because of that, a lot of tricks are used to convey just who he is through motion. Animators incorporated elements of penguins in Baymax's walk, for example.

Still, his overall character was a function of his programming. Hall and company drew inspiration straight from their research.  "When we came back from that research trip and found the soft robotics, the character of a health care robot emerged from that, because the practical app for vinyl, soft robotics will be in the healthcare industry.  When we're all old, we're going to be taken care of by a Baymax.  His personality emerged from that.  As we worked on the story, we made him more sentient and obviously he grew from there.  Early on, he was always a breakout character for us," said Hall.

"From the start, there was just something about this character that is completely naive and sweet and good and pure," Williams explained.  "You almost aspire to be as selfless and good as Baymax is.  That idea of almost a newborn who is experiencing the world for the first time and only sees things in that pure simple way was so attractive to us from a story standpoint and the way other characters could bounce off of him.  That was my entry point into loving this movie, was loving that character and knowing that Hiro and Baymax were going to be not just an incredible comedy duo, but that emotionally, that was going to be really solid.  The idea that Hiro suffers this loss and that this robot is there to fill the void, there was just something so potent about that, we knew that was going to be the absolute center of the film."

Baymax and Hiro ride the skies of San Fransokyo on the big screen when Big Hero 6 opens nationwide on November 7th.

Stay tuned to IAR for exclusive interviews with the filmmakers and some more special treats from Big Hero 6.


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