The heroes of Big Hero 6, Disney’s blockbuster animated film, are nerds—proud science geeks inventing gadgets and technology with super-cool applications in the real world. But unlike someone like James Bond’s Q, who never really got to step out of his lab coat, Hiro and his genius friends get to wield their own wares and be 007-like action heroes themselves—with the help of a cuddly robot named Baymax.
It’s no accident that the characters in Big Hero 6 are so vivid and delightfully fun. After all, their world isn’t unlike that of the Disney animators tasked with bringing them to life—making their onscreen exploits an undeniable vicarious thrill.
And what do animators do for fun and to stave off cabin fever during the long creative process? They mock-up a scene with some joke lurking in the background or mix in some pop-culture cross-pollination to get a laugh from the boss. In an exclusive gag reel that will become available on Disney Movies Anywhere on Feb. 24—the day the film arrives on Blu-ray—co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams explain how the clip’s many snafus, intentional or not, fit into one of two categories: Computers are Weird or Animators are Silly.
Big Hero 6, which is already available on DMA and Digital HD, is EW‘s pick to take home the Oscar for Best Animated Film. Hall, Williams, and producer Roy Conli spoke to EW about the obscure Marvel origins of the characters, how they came up with the perfect look for Baymax, and how John Lasseter has rejuvenated Walt Disney Animation.
EW: Big Hero 6 is based on a Marvel comic book from the early 1990s, right? But the film goes in a totally different direction. So what was the essence of the original comic-book story and characters that made you think there was a movie here?
DON HALL: Yeah, Big Hero 6 was early 1990s, and then Marvel reinvented it in the early 2000s. The movie came out of a desire on my part to follow my childhood passions. John Lasseter always encourages us to look at what we’re passionate about, and I loved Disney as a kid, I loved Marvel as a kid. And lucky for me, Disney had just purchased Marvel, so I pitched that idea of grabbing something of Marvel’s and bringing it over here. John got very excited so I got to looking around. I came across Big Hero 6—at first it was just the title, to be perfectly honest. I had never read the comics before, so I looked it up—they have a great Wiki page—and saw that it was a Japanese superhero team. Kind of a Japanese Avengers. And I thought, Oh, that’s cool. I got my hand on the comics, and I thought the characters were very fun and appealing. I really liked the tone of the books. You could tell the creators just loved Japanese pop culture. There were a lot of references to anime. Everyone in this building loves that stuff too. But most importantly, you could look through all that and see that there could be a really emotional story, with this 14-year-old super genius who loses his brother and this robot that essentially becomes his healer and his surrogate big brother. So even though it was really obscure by Marvel standards, it actually had all the really cool ingredients for an animated story.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Don has been a hardcore fan of the genre his whole life, since he was a kid. So to me, I feel like it took about three and half years to make this film, but I really think it was more like 40 years in the making. I was not as hardcore a fan of the genre, so my in was really the character that Don created, Baymax, this really sweet and guileless character. The relationship between Baymax and Hiro is what I really connected with. Because I grew up loving the earliest Disney movies, specifically Bambi and Dumbo, and there is this pure, good, innocent quality that those characters have that is shared by Baymax. I think you see a lineage there. So I saw so much potential in this character and was so excited when Don asked me to join him.
What was the formal pitch to the Disney brass like?
WILLIAMS: I remember Don’s first pitch. It was a very short, simple pitch that talked about the dynamic between Hiro and his brother Tadashi, and we knew Hiro was going to lose his brother but be left with his brother’s creation, Baymax, to heal him. There was so much power in that. We all thought, “Man, this is really heavy and there’s so much emotional potential.” People from a distance might look at Big Hero 6 and think, “Oh, it’s a fun rollicking superhero story,” and there’s nothing wrong with the action and comedy that comes with that. But we always felt there was a much deeper story and a deeper idea there.
ROY CONLI: It was that emotional content that really grabbed everyone, and it’s that concept of the boy who needed healing and this amazing robot who comes in and actually helps him move on in his life—that was the thing that really seduced the studio to take this.
Does the Disney pitch process still resemble speed-dating or The Gong Show?
HALL: Oh, that’s the old days. It’s very different now. John is the one that sort of taps you on the shoulder when he feels like you’re ready to come and possibly direct something. You’re asked to pitch three ideas, and it doesn’t matter if you’re an established director or an up-and-comer. John wants you to pitch three ideas. They do it at Pixar as well. The idea with that is you don’t put all your emotional eggs in one basket, that one out of those three will emerge as the stronger candidate. For this one, it was a 14-year-old super genius who suffers the loss of his older brother and a robot named Baymax becomes his surrogate big brother… aaaaand there’s a superhero team, too, in there somewhere.
WILLIAMS: John’s not looking for something really elaborate. It can pretty simple, pretty straightforward. He’s looking for a central thematic idea: What’s the movie about at its core? And he’s interested in the world. Where is it set? He doesn’t want you to pitch a whole prolonged storyline, because he knows that that’s something that’s going to evolve and change and improve over the course of many years. But I think what he saw in Don’s pitch was a very powerful, emotional storyline. He saw Don’s passion for the genre. And he saw this world of San Fransokyo, something that Don talked about that got John very excited, because John loves creating new worlds.
CONLI: Speaking from a producer’s standpoint, that transition in the studio over the last eight years has been phenomenal, because it’s really my job to help these guys get their vision onscreen. When you have directors who own the story and so fundamentally are passionate about what they are talking about, I think that’s reflective of the movies that have been coming out of here.
WILLIAMS: The next step after John gets excited about something is really the research, going and visiting these places you’re inspired by. So people went to Tokyo, people went to San Francisco, Don went and toured universities to learn about robotics. That’s a very important early stage and you want to do it before your story really starts to take shape, because you want to give an opportunity for the research to not only effect the world but to effect the story as well. In this case, Don’s research into robotics led directly to the uncovering of Baymax. That’s a really critical stage—sometimes it’s a stage that people want to jump over. It doesn’t seem like the sexy part. You want to get right to the writing of the story. But if you take it seriously and really immerse yourself into it, it will definitely pay dividends.
Your Baymax looks much different than he did in the comics. Chris, you hinted that Don’s trip to universities, like Carnegie Mellon, gave some ideas. Were there other early iterations of Baymax and how were they different?
HALL: Yeah, not really. Again, in this early exploratory phase when it was just wide open, it was really more about the world. It seems that every piece that a conceptual artist did always was a really beautiful piece about the world and then there would be a really round robot with a kid flying on him. That’s what lead me to Carnegie Mellon: we don’t have a concept for this robot, and I want there to be a concept. There has to be a concept. Because he’s got to be unique. He can’t be a Transformer. He can’t be WALL•E or C-3PO or anything like that. And I wanted him to be different from all the Japanese robots too. He had to be something unique. So it was sort of the panic of “We’ve got to tackle this challenge right up front,” and “What is this robot going to be” that led me to MIT, Harvard, and Carnegie Mellon, and at Carnegie Mellon finding soft robotics. So it is a testament to John’s approach to research and that you never know what you’re going to find. You just have to jump into the deep end and really be a sponge and soak up everything you can, because it inevitably will lead to something groundbreaking. Baymax is a testament to our approach to storytelling.
WILLIAMS: You have to resist the urge to make the research fit the story in your mind. You have to let the research inform the story, and Baymax was such a perfect example. This idea of telling a superhero ensemble story and having the lynchpin character Baymax, the fact that he is an inflatable nurse robot—that is so strange actually, and that came purely from the research.
His face is so spare—just two black dots connected by a black line. Was there much debate about how much personality had to be in that face?
HALL: There wasn’t. That idea of the uncanny valley kept coming up, so it was always going to be very simple. The only debate was whether or not he should have a mouth or not. I was in Tokyo, and I was at this temple, and I looked up at one point, and they had these beautiful bells, kind of just staring down at me. The feeling I had was one of serenity and peacefulness and calm, and I thought that’s what Baymax’s face should evoke. Because much like his voice, he should be somebody that is soothing and calm and have a really non-threatening presence. So I took pictures of it and gave it to Shiyoon Kim, our character designer, when I got back. The only thing, Shiyoon’s first drawings had a tiny little mouth on him. John looked at it, and thought, “Yeah, I don’t think you need the mouth. I think it’s much more expressive with those two dot eyes and a line through.” And it wasn’t even much of a debate. John’s opinion was, “I’d go for it, make it as simple as you can.”
CONLI: One of the things that they referred to here was instead of animation, Baymax is un-imation—UN-animation. The gentle physical movement that the animators used to evoke so much emotion was really impressive.
WILLIAMS: One of the things that’s so amazing about Baymax is that because he’s so limited—because he just has the two eyes and he can blink quickly or blink slowly and he can tilt his head a little bit—what it does is it allows the audience to really impose emotion and to impose thinking on to him. And in doing so, they really connect with the character.
You mentioned before the culture shift that occurred when John Lasseter and Ed Catmull came over from Pixar in 2006. Can you explain what that meant to you guys, and basically, how does it work now, between Pixar and Walt Disney Animation?
HALL: Really, it was so earth-shattering to have them come and take over the reins. We were very hungry for it, to be honest, at the time. We wanted somebody like John Lasseter to come and lead us, and we woke up one day and John Lasseter was there leading us. What he did essentially was empower the directors to tell the stories. It wasn’t any kind of focus-grouped idea, coming from some team of creative executives. It came from the directors’ passions. But with that came the responsibility of telling a great story. And you are beholden to your other directors as well—that was a big difference. Before, we kind of found ourselves in these little fiefdoms and everybody’s kind of silo’d away in their own little film. Now it’s very different. We feel like we’re all part of each other’s stuff. We all drop whatever we’re doing at any point to go help out whoever’s in need. It’s definitely a team collective.
WILLIAMS: I certainly remember what it was like before John took over, and there was a sense that we may be heading towards the end of things, that we may get shut down. It was such an amazing day when they invited us all across the street to the main lot and one of the big sound stages. And John and Ed came out on the stage and everybody lost their minds. Everybody was so excited. Everyone sensed that this was going to be the beginning of something amazing. All the artists had a sense that John and Ed were going to find ways to improve the culture, to allow their passion and talent to get more directly on the screen. And so, we went from a place where we were pretty close to the end of the line, to now, a place where there’s an incredible confidence here at the studio. We exist because of them, so I’ll forever be in their debt.
CONLI: We had kind of fallen in to what I would call executive leadership before John came. It was much more focused on executive approvals, and when John came, it was all about filmmaker, because John is a filmmaker. I can say that having your boss as a filmmaker is an amazingly wonderful thing. Because we talk about filmmaking; that’s what we talk about. We don’t talk about anything other than what makes the film better. There’s an egoless communication that has been developed here over these last eight years, and it always blows me away. I realize that John now has been here longer than any other regime before him, and yet, it still feels fresh, it still feels young, and we still feel like we’re opening the door to where we can grow.
So how much overlap is there between Pixar and Walt Disney Animation? Is there a lot of cross-pollination or are there boundaries?
CONLI: There’s no real boundaries, in the sense that we are able to talk to those guys, And we interact with them occasionally. But on Big Hero, we didn’t ever show our film up there.
WILLIAMS: Obviously, the big common denominators are Ed and John. They’re leaders of both studios. But there’s not a ton of interaction between the two studios. Every once in awhile, one’s movie will screen at the other studio, but pretty rarely.
CONLI: I think John was really wise when he came in not to make Disney Animation into Little Pixar, or not to make Pixar into Little Disney. We have our culture, they have theirs. I think Glen Keane said it really well years ago; he said Pixar is a What-If culture and we’re a Once-Upon-a-Time culture. And even though we’re sitting in a [Big Hero] universe that’s possibly alternate or in the near future, it is Once-Upon-a-Time.