Earlier this summer, GeekMom was invited to participate in a preview day at the headquarters of Disney Feature Animation in Burbank, Calif., to get a sneak peek at the studio’s next big animated film, Big Hero 6. Due in theaters on Nov. 7, the film is a fascinating blend of graphic design and artistic influences, from comic books to anime to Disney’s own rich catalogue. We got to see some footage from the film and speak with the talented filmmakers and technicians who had a hand in creating this intriguing new project.
There’s no denying that the partnership between Disney and Marvel Comics has turned out well, for both the companies and the fans. The partnership has resulted in a complex cinematic universe, encompassing an impressive number of films and television series. So it was only a matter of time before the jewel in the Disney Studios crown, the feature animation department, got into the act by creating a comic-book-inspired world of its own. But Big Hero 6 is unlike anything Disney animation has ever done before. It introduces a fantastic, stylized world of tech-powered heroes and villains to rival anything that’s been done in live action.
It was co-director Don Hall who first saw the potential in a mash-up of these two distinctive influences. “As a lifelong fan of comic books and a lifelong fan of Disney animation, I started imagining what a combination of those two things would look like,” he said. “So in the course of research I came across a lesser known Marvel comics series called Big Hero 6. And it was from there that we were inspired to create the film that we’re going to share with you today.”
Big Hero 6 takes place in the fictional city of San Fransokyo, itself a blend of Eastern and Western cultures. The story centers on young Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter), a 14-year-old robotics genius. Aspiring to take after his big brother Tadashi and attend the prestigious San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, Hiro creates a revolutionary invention, microbots. Controlled by telepathic thought, these tiny machines can work together to create anything. But Hiro’s dreams are crushed when the invention is stolen and his brother is killed. Enter Baymax, an inflatable medical nursebot created by Tadashi, who assumes the responsibility of caring for Hiro in his brother’s absence.
Hiro sets out to track down the person responsible for his brother’s demise, a mysterious figure known only as Yokai (the name comes from Japanese folklore and refers to a spiritual entity). The directors were very secretive about the villain’s origins, saying only that he has “a fractured mind,” as evidenced by the erratic, menacing constructs he creates when controlling the microbots.
Helping Hiro in his quest are some of Tadashi’s friends and fellow students. There’s Wasabi (Damon Wayans), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung) and Fred (T.J. Miller). Hiro develops high-tech super suits for all of them, even Baymax, according to their specialties. Together they become a formidable super team. All of the suits and special powers are cool, but I predict spunky daredevil Go Go will be a standout character among the team. She zooms around on adjustable discs that are both wheels and weapons. It’s so much fun to watch.
Speaking of fun, one of the scenes we got to see was an exhilarating flying sequence in which Baymax and Hiro soar above the city in their suits. Co-director Chris Williams describes it as “one of the most aspirational scenes in the film.”
“My 8-year-old self would love this clip,” he said in his introduction. “My 5-year-old self loves this clip. We hope you love it too.”
In a sit-down interview following the presentation I had a chance to ask Williams and Hall about their specific influences and what kind of research they did while working on the film.
“Name your kid robot Japanese anime, we watched it,” said Williams.
Hall added: “I mean, in this building we’re surrounded by fans of animation and fans of anime and knowing that was going to be part of the influence of this film we knew that we would have license and would want to kind of push some of the action scenes. You guys have not seen some of the really over-the-top action scenes that we have in this movie.”
He went on to explain that they also drew inspiration from some sources that weren’t as obvious.
“I love superhero movies, I love action movies, but we knew that this movie had to have a really emotional center,” he said. “And we knew there would be a really unique relationship between Hiro and Baymax that was going to be the center of the movie. And so I thought a lot about My Neighbor Totoro and the relationship in that movie. That kind of character that seems so sweet and so naive and maybe there’s something a little bit more going on than you might at first recognize. And so I think some of those moments in Miyazaki’s films were also a guiding influence on this movie.”
Williams also elaborated on the ideas that went into developing the robot Baymax. In the course of their research, the team visited some of the most advanced robotics labs in the country and met with actual scientists and engineers in the field. One of the most interesting things they came across was the work being done in the new area of soft robotics.
“Soft robotics is sort of a new, bleeding edge technology that’s coming,” Williams said. “And then the other thing, as we were researching early on was just the idea of the uncanny valley where if things start to look too realistic they look creepy. So we looked a whole range of robots on this trip and the ones that were super human ones were like [scary]. My instinct is to go the other way. You have to project more of yourself into it as opposed to a super realistic thing that was looking back at you. And that’s what led to the idea of a very simple approach to Baymax.”
Stay tuned for more coverage from the press day, including a look at the adorable short film “Feast,” which will play in front of Big Hero 6 when it opens in theaters on Nov. 7.