Will Big Hero 6 bring the same heart-wrenching emotion and sense of family to superhero movies that Frozen did to princess stories? We went behind-the-scenes at Disney Animation and learned that their Marvel-inspired movie isn't just a celebration of superheroes; it's also a story of a boy moving past his grief.
Along with other members of the press, we were invited to Walt Disney Animation Studios to get an early look at Disney's first superhero movie. There are some spoilers for early in the movie below.
How It All Began
While Big Hero 6 shares its name (and the names of many of its characters) with a Marvel comic book, the movie isn't actually an adaptation of the comic. Rather, the comic serves as a jumping off point for a Marvel-inspired Disney superhero movie. Big Hero 6 co-director Don Hall explained that he had just finished working on Winnie the Pooh and was looking for his next project, and Walt Disney Animation Studios Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter encouraged him to search through the Marvel archives for inspiration.
Hall was originally attracted to Big Hero 6 because of its title, but as he read the comic, two key things jumped out at him: that it served as a love letter to Japanese culture and that it featured a strong relationship between a young teenaged genius and a robot. Hall decided that he wanted to build a movie around that relationship.
Hall and his co-director Chris Williams emphasized that Lasseter believes that a movie's story will emerge from research, so the Big Hero 6 team visited various robotics departments to see what is currently being done in the field of robotics. They wanted a robot that had never appeared on screen before, one that was somehow huggable. It was at Carnegie Mellon University that they learned about soft robotics, inflatable robots being developed for medical uses.
And thus Baymax was born.
While Marvel comics may have been the germ of Big Hero 6, the production team said that Japanese animated movies were actually a key inspiration. They likened Baymax to Totoro from My Neighbor Totoro, and talked about how they wanted to evoke something of the heroic robots in Japanese popular culture.
"Technology in Western culture a lot of times is the villain or the antagonist," Hall said. "You look at Terminator—robots and computers are taking over the world! In Japan, it's kind of the opposite. Technology is our path to a better future. And those thematic ideas do run through the movie. But it was interesting to talk to the different roboticists about what inspired them to get into that field and a lot of them, the American guys would always so, 'Oh, I played with LEGOs as a kid.' And every Japanese roboticist would tell me, 'Oh, Gigantor" or whatever. It was always an animated robot.'"
But at the heart, this is a story about forming a family in the wake of a tragedy, and about how the people we've lost can stay with us in some form. Just as Frozen was a princess movie that centered on the love between two sisters, Big Hero 6 is a superhero movie about forging familial ties. Screenwriter Robert Baird told us, "I think that stories that deal with families and trying to explain life and what you're going through in life and having your family around you, those are powerful stories that need to be told."
The Tragic Tale of Two Brothers
At the start of Big Hero 6, Hiro Hamada is living in San Fransokyo with his older brother Tadashi and their aunt Cass. Tadashi is Hiro's best friend, but he's worried about the path that his younger brother is taking. Hiro has been using his engineering talents to build battle bots, which he has been fighting in back alleys. Hoping to turn Hiro's energies toward something more productive, Tadashi takes Hiro to the robotics lab at his school, San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, and introduces Hiro to his friends.
Hiro is wowed by the projects Tadashi and his friends are working on—especially Baymax, Tadashi's mobile healthcare robot. Hiro is determined to attend San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, and he develops his own robotic technology for the school's showcase. If he impresses at the showcase, Hiro will be admitted to the school.
Hiro develops Microbots, small robots that connect together through electromagnetism to form various shapes and perform tasks cooperatively. Hiro can control the Microbots through a neurological headband and, sure enough, he wins acceptance into San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. But when disaster strikes at the showcase, Tadashi's instinct to help kicks in, and he is killed.
Hiro mourns the loss of his brother and best friend, but a piece of Tadashi still remains in the form of Baymax. As a healthcare robot, Baymax aims to help Hiro through his grief, and when a mysterious masked figure called Yokai takes control of Hiro's Microbots, an opportunity presents itself. Hiro eventually becomes a superhero in order to thwart Yokai, but Baymax becomes a superhero (and summons Tadashi's friends to help form a superhero team) in order to improve Hiro's emotional wellbeing.
Building a Huggable Robot
From the very start, the production team viewed Baymax as their breakout character—the immediately solid element of the film that they built everything else around. But they also set up a number of design and animation challenges in the process.
Baymax's face was inspired by a set of bells Hall picked up during a research trip to Japan. Character stylist Shiyoon Kim found something appealing in the slits in the bells as a way to connect two eyes. And although the development artists played with the idea of giving Baymax a mouth, Kim pitched the idea of a mouthless Baymax. Instead of relying on a mouth to convey emotion, the animators have had to use Baymax's body language and blinks. It means that, to some extent, the audience will project emotions onto Baymax themselves.
The animation team coined the term "unimation" when it came to animated Baymax. Because Baymax's movements are so limited, they needed to boil the animation down to its very essence. At the same time, they wanted to make sure that Baymax came off as cute and curious about the world around him. (Cuteness was definitely an important part of the design process as well; Kim gushed over the adorable rice cookers he's seen in Japanese infomercials.)
The animation team considered three different models for Baymax's movements: a toddler, a toddler with a full diaper, and a baby penguin. The baby penguin, with the seemingly curious nature of its head movements, its limited arm motion, and the squee-inducing waddle. And so, they had their huggable soft robot.
Meet the Superhero Team
The title of the movie isn't Baymax, however; it's Big Hero 6. That means we've got a six-person super team to flesh out. Tadashi's school pals help Hiro in his quest against Yokai, and give him people to hang onto in the wake of Tadashi's death.
There's Wasabi, the laser expert, who is deliberate in all of his movements and obsessed with precision. His weapon is a pair of electromagnetic beams. Honey Lemon is a bubbly chemistry whizz—probably the happiest person on Earth. She keeps colorful chemical potions on hand (which she dispenses from her purse) that erupt with colorful, over-the-top effects. Go Go Tomago is an adrenaline junkie with a Clint Eastwood dead-eyed stare and a habit of popping bubble gum right in people's faces. She skates around San Fransokyo on her rotating discs.
And finally, there's Fred. Fred isn't actually a student at San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, but he is a "science enthusiast" and the school mascot. He's a huge fan of Kaiju Big Battel, where people dress up in kaiju costumes and fight each other, so it's no surprise that his supersuit is a fire-breathing kaiju outfit.
Building San Fransokyo
San Fransokyo is, as the name suggests, a near-future mashup of San Francisco and Tokyo. In order to get a sense what this combined city would look like, the production team tapped visual development artist Lorelay Bové to create a series of travel posters and asked other development artists to combine the iconic images of San Francisco with Japanese detailing. For example, the Victorian and Queen Anne-style houses received a fun makeover:
One thing that struck the production team during their research trip to Japan was all of the fit and finish of the designs, the careful details that touched everything from the trash cans to the vending machines to the tiles on the sidewalks.
While San Fransokyo is built atop the map of San Francisco and maintains a lot of San Francisco's lighting and environment, the design team integrated that level of finish, as well as the layering of signage an the technological touches that we see more in Tokyo. The result is a city that looks very much like San Francisco, but celebrates Japanese design:
Incidentally, parts of the studio were also dressed up as San Fransokyo, complete with fake posters for stores and events on the walls:
The Science of Microbots
The Microbots are to Big Hero 6 what snow was to Frozen, a major special effect that involves a lot of small moving parts. Although there is a fanciful aspect to the Microbots, with Hiro's thought control headband, the special effects team took pains to ground them in reality.
Individually, the Microbots don't look like much—two cones surrounding a spherical bearing. But they're extremely versatile, especially when they connect together in large groups. The Microbots are cooperative, and the special effects team looked to ants to inform the movements of the tiny robots. Just as ants will form a bridge for other ants to walk across, so too do the Microbots work together to move in large groups.
And while they're controlled by a particular person, the Microbots will work out for themselves the most efficient to accomplish something, usually by forming devices. If the Microbots want to hurl a car, for example, they won't form a claw to pick up and throw the car; they'll form a catapult underneath the car and launch it. As a result, the Microbots have a deliberately staccato movement, performing an action and then pausing to calculate their next move.
Like Baymax, the Microbots illustrate one of the theses of Big Hero 6, that technology can be good so long as it is being utilized for good. When we see Hiro using the Microbots, they create orderly forms. When the villain Yokai uses them, they become more chaotic. And if you've seen them in the trailer, you know they can be downright creepy.
The Best Thing that Didn't Make it into the Film
Walt Disney Animation Studios films go through numerous iterations. Big Hero 6's head of story Paul Briggs said that he has a file on his computer 40 documents thick that is just different versions of the movie's first act. And they screen versions of the movie in-house over and over again—for each other, for Lasseter, for new audiences—before it's ever finished.
But if there is one thing that Briggs and screenwriter Baird wish they could have kept in the film, it was Rocket Cat. For a long time during the film's development, Hiro was working on rocket boosters for his cat, Mochi, so that the cat could fly around. Ultimately, though, they weren't able to fit it in with the rest of the story.
Some people have had a really hard time letting go of Rocket Cat. Baird told us all, "The Japanese marketing, they saw a version of Rocket Cat in the movie and they fell in love with Rocket Cat. Just a month ago, we saw some advertising campaign for Japan and we said, 'You guys do realize that Rocket Cat hasn't been in the movie for a year now?'"
Full disclosure: All travel expenses were paid for by the studio.