Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams Discuss ‘Big Hero 6’

Don Hall and Chris Williams Big Hero 6 interview
The characters of ‘Big Hero 6’ (Photo © Walt Disney Animation Studios)

Since Disney bought Marvel, comic book fans have been waiting for the first totally animated Marvel movie. That’s coming this fall with Big Hero 6, a Disney animated movie based on a lesser known Marvel comic. Disney invited the press to the Disney Animation offices this summer for a preview of scenes from the film and a tour of the Animation building.

Big Hero 6 begins with a tragedy when Hiro loses his brother in an accident. Hiro discovers his brother’s health care robot Baymax, who wants to help Hiro recover emotionally, while Hiro is obsessed with avenging his brother. With Baymax’s help, Hiro and his friends become a team of heroes with advanced technology, in the fictional city of San Fransokyo. Big Hero 6 directors Don Hall and Chris Williams gave a roundtable interview after screening the footage of the film, which opens November 7, 2014.

How hard was it to find the balance between Western and Eastern styles of San Fransokyo?

Don Hall: “It was actually kind of a fun challenge, actually. That’s why we chose these two cities to mash up. John [Lasseter] is always encouraging us to create new worlds. We could’ve set this story in San Francisco. We could’ve set it in Tokyo but the idea of making up our own world was far too enticing. We just felt like it would just have been creatively more fun to set this story in a world that’s more of a mashup. Once we did our research, we did research trips to Tokyo and San Francisco multiple times, things just started popping up. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but the research gave us nice guidelines to go by as far as we’ll take the cable car. How can we push it until it breaks? It was actually a really fun challenge for our artists to take on.”

How did the adaptation from the Marvel comic come about?

Don Hall: “There’s a lot of people you can imagine in the building that have a similar sort of origin story as I have, as far as loving Marvel comics and Disney animation. So, imagine the excitement when those two crazy kids got together. When we started talking early on, it was very clear from the get-go on Marvel’s part and our part that we wanted to take something of theirs and make it our own. Marvel really encouraged us to take Big Hero 6 and really just do our thing with it. From the ge-go, they were very, very encouraging, very gracious actually with our property to let us do that. They became friends to the court. Every so often we would show them stuff and they would look at reels just like our story trust, and again they became friends of the court in a way.”

What is it like to introduce Disney animation’s first superheroes?

Don Hall: “It’s kind of a dream come true. There’s that part of the story, the superhero part of the story which appeals to my eight-year-old self, but the core emotional relationship between Hiro and Baymax also appeals to my eight-year-old self but also the 45-year-old self. Early on we knew that that would be the core relationship of this movie. It all had to hang on that core relationship between Hiro and Baymax. Luckily it has. No matter what, if it’s a superhero movie or romantic comedy, all movies boil down to just relationships, finding that core relationship and nurturing it through the film regardless of genre.”

Is the theme of loss and grief a hallmark of Disney ranging from Bambi to The Lion King?

Chris Williams: “Yeah, and the journey of making this movie, so much of it was there’s the Marvel thing and there’s the Disney thing. We’re blending an Eastern culture and a Western culture. You have a boy and his robot story but you also have a superhero origin story. There are all these disparate elements and I love the challenge of I’ve been here 20 years and every movie is exciting because every movie is its own challenge. A lot of what this journey was going to be was finding the personality of this movie that would be all encompassing, that would make everything play nicely together. So tonally, personality-wise, what is this movie going to be and how can you balance all these disparate elements? So that was a lot of what our journey was for the past couple years is trying to make these things play together.”

Don Hall and Chris Williams Big Hero 6 interview

What could you do through animation with a superhero movie that makes it unique from live action?

Don Hall: “It was really important early on that nobody’s really super powered. Nobody can fly. Nobody got bombarded by gamma rays, cosmic rays or anything else. They’re all just normal people that are really smart and have access to super high tech. I thought that was important because I wanted to ground it in a certain reality. It put limitations on the characters but to me those limitations are kind of liberating. So when you see Go Go in scenes where she’s racing around on those wheels, it’s pretty awesome and probably something that wouldn’t have been pulled off in live action that we can pull off better in animation.”

Chris Williams: “We’re able to caricature a little bit more and I think people who come to this movie, obviously we want to have a movie with heart and a core relationship and we want to make people really invest in the characters, but also we like superhero movies and for people who are coming for that superhero fix, we definitely deliver. What is animation? So much of it is caricature and being able to pare things down to a more simple truth. Sometimes that can just mean that a particular action scene or an action moment is really crystalized down to its most awesome form, or it can mean an acting choice, a really subtle acting choice where you can really pare things away down to something that is really well observed. I think those are the reason to do anything in animation, to get down to those simple truths. I think it makes our emotional scenes play that much sweeter and the action scenes play that much more awesome. It’s really all animation.”

Live-action superhero movies are obsessed with plausibility. You don’t have those constraints with animation. How does that affect the direction of the story?

Don Hall: “Early on when we were trying to design the tech and what their thing would be, to me I looked at it like, ‘Okay, we have some of the best animators on the planet. What do I want to challenge them with? What would they do the best with?’ So Go Go for instance racing around on these magnetic wheels at supersonic speeds I knew would give them a lot of freedom to come up with really cool ways to make her move. The same with Fred and everybody. Just trying to think about what would the animators do with this? Even Baymax, making him so simple and elegant, not having a mouth. Challenging the animators to be able to express things with very few of the bells and whistles that they normally do have.”

Big Hero 6 Visuals

Chris Williams: “Also just storywise, plausibility is important too. If Hiro had said, ‘Hey everybody, let’s become superheroes,’ and they’d all said okay, it wouldn’t have felt like a world that I recognize. So it was important to have the voices where characters will say, ‘Wait a minute, what are we going to be? Are you sure that’s a good idea? That sounds a little dangerous.’ We could have the fun of that but it also grounds things and makes people think, ‘That’s how I would react, or I know the person who would have reacted that way.’ So we need to make sure that we’re not permitting ourselves to do things that people will find unrecognizable in their choices. So plausibility is something we think about a lot. We may be able to heighten some of the actions and things like that a little bit, caricature a bit more, but we do have to ground things at the same time.”

What’s an example of an idea from a story trust meeting?

Chris Williams: “I guess one of the ones was Lasseter suggesting the thing about Baymax in the flight scene, that moment where Baymax acknowledges that it’s helping Hiro’s readings. That was one of the things that came out of one of those meetings.”

Can you talk about the voice cast?

Don Hall: “The cast we have is just fantastic and what we love about them is that they’re all really good at taking what we provide as far as the scenes as written and storyboarded and worked over by us. But then you get down to the recording room and everybody’s so game to play. When you get people like Maya Rudolph, T.J. Miller, Damon [Wayans Jr.], Genesis [Rodriguez] ad libs… And we encourage that because it just gives life. They just bring new iterations on the scenes when they come up with stuff that they’re improv’ing. That’s not to say the whole movie’s improv. It’s not but that’s one of the things that I love about this cast is that to a person, they’re all really good at it.”

Chris Williams: “One thing that’s nice is we operate in a fairly egoless environment here at Animation. As actors go, these were the nicest bunch of people. No egos, so happy to work and work with us. They gave so much of themselves. They’re all really nice people.”

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