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Bringing Marvel’s “Big Hero 6” to the Big Screen

We attended the interview as a guest of Disney
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For comic book fans, Disney’s choice to bring the story of a cast of not well known Marvel characters from “Big Hero 6” to the screen my not have been at all obvious. We were able to sit with the Directors, Producer and several cast members to find out how a seemingly obscure bunch of comic book characters has been brought to life in a big way.

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We learned for Disney Writer/Director Don Hall, who had been searching the Marvel vault for movie ideas, this particular comic book featuring a team of Japanese superheroes struck a chord he liked. “I was interested in the tone of it, you know. It was sort of light-hearted and fun and the characters are very appealing. The whole thing was this sort of a love letter to Japanese pop culture.”

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Comic book heroes bring action and while Big Hero 6 offers its share of action, Director/Writer Chris Williams says Hall went for the emotion, pitching Disney Animation Chief Creative Officer and Executive Producer John Lasseter, with the story of the relationship between a kid who loses his older brother and a robot his brother has created who becomes his surrogate older brother. According to Producer Roy Conli, “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.” With this as a guiding framework, a film that took years to make was underway.

In listening to Chris Williams, Don Hall and Roy Conli talk we gained an understanding of just how much thought and research went into building the story and the tools that it took to bring it to life and make the animation, the story, and the characters believable.

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One tool in making the animation believable is a system called Denizen, a proprietary software Disney Animation Studios created to populate the city of San Fransokyo, a mashup of San Francisco and Tokyo in Big Hero 6. For Hall this was important because, we’re “gonna build the city so that we can fly around and go wherever we want. And we’re gonna populate that city with a bunch of people and we don’t want them to look like the same person Xeoroxed or whatever because we hate that.” For Roy Conli, “one of the Holy Grail’s of animation is getting your crowds to look like individuals in crowds and people.” Says Hall, “There was a whole library of things that were just behaviors that people do in cities and we were able to populate the city with that type of thing.” Adds Williams, “That’s the thing I was most amazed by because our crew was so invested in the movie, (and) really wanted to do everything they could to make the world feel plausible and believable and realized.”

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A second proprietary technology created for Big Hero 6 was Hyperion, a rendering process that makes creating lifelike lighting in scenes possible, something that has been difficult to achieve in animation. The directors acknowledge “Big Hero 6” without both of these technologies, “would be a different movie”. For me, while viewing the movie, there are several scenes where San Fransokyo is so lifelike it is almost hard to tell it’s not real.

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And while technology played a crucial role in their ability to make the animation lifelike, it also played a central role in the plot and characters. Instead of assigning superpowers to the characters, they chose “super tech” allowing the characters to use their intelligence to harness technology as their powers. Hall says, “in animation you can do anything, but it’s really important for us to ground it in a believable world.” “So yeah, their powers are loosely based on some of the kind of broad stroke ideas that they had in the comic book but we pretty much reinvented that.”

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Believable technology was important in the plot as well. In the movie, Hiro invents microbots that swarm together and move in unison, and are controlled by the mind. While this technology does not yet exist, elements of it do. Says Hall, “There were some folks doing research into nanobots which are not very cinematic. It’s like this is really cool that there’d be these little molecule-sized robots that can deliver medicine in our bloodstreams. But it’s not very cinematic right? So we went the next step up and microbots are sort of the next step above nanobots.” Hall describes seeing swarm technology on videos he was sent of helicopters that were programmed to move in unison to do these air ballets without colliding. “And so it was this swarm technology coupled with this idea of microbots like we could devise something that could be very animation friendly. Something that could create shapes and we never want it to be cartoony.”

Says Williams, “One of the challenges of making a movie that features cutting edge technology is that actual technology moves so quickly we had to make sure that our stuff was far enough ahead that they weren’t going to catch up to us while we were making the movie. And so for example, even the idea of telekinesis, we thought, ‘Okay that’s pretty out there. We’re not gonna worry about them doing that while we’re making the movie.’ But in the course of making the film we learned that they were doing an experiment where they had one guy hooked up to a computer and he was thinking thoughts that were making another guy move his finger involuntarily and press a button. So we were like, ‘Boy this technology’s moving pretty quickly so we better get this movie done!’”.

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You might think with all of the tech talk, you have to be a nerd to connect with this movie and while Hall admits that “the idea of being a nerd is cool, is deliberate for the movie”, the characters are not just brilliant nerds with “super tech” powers. They are a funny group of friends who have formed a family bond of their own each with idiosyncrasies that make them seem human and relatable whether you’re a nerd or not.

“Big Hero 6” opens this Friday, November 7th and is rated PG

Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams. Written by Don Hall and Jordan Roberts. Produced by Roy Conli.

Dana Wilde grew up playing “sous chef” for her father as he churned out one amazing meal after the next for family and friends. She inherited her father’s life long passion for cooking and has spent the past two decades studying, reading, practicing, experimenting, and creating in the kitchen. Together, she and her sister, Shan are Simply Wilde, a small boutique catering business focusing on in-home entertaining.

Photos are courtesy of Disney

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