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INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTORS OF BIG HERO 6

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Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Disney and my travel and expenses were paid for to attend this event. As always my thoughts and opinions are my own.

As part of my Disney Big Hero 6 Event experience, I was given the opportunity to interview Don Hall & Chris Williams the directors of Big Hero 6. Today I will be giving you access to an exclusive interview that I had with them along with a fun drawing demonstration that I got to take part in with Jim Kim , the Character Design Supervisor on Big Hero 6.

Drawing Demo

Drawing Demonstration:

I have to admit, I have never been an artist. In fact anything I try to draw could be mistaken for a toddler painting. So when Jim Kim invited us to sit in for a personal drawing demonstration, I was a little nervous. There were eight of us who sat down in a room with a big screen projection on the wall. We are all given a sketch pad with a pencil. The first thing I thought to myself was, OH NO there are no erasers on these pencils, the panick started to sink in a little. The panic didn’t last long though, Jim Kim literally walked us step by step and gave us simple directions and pretty soon I had a big fluffy inflatable character on page. So what do you think? It’s definitely no Picasso but I don’t think we all did to bad?

Big Hero Directors

Interview with Don Hall & Chris Williams:

Q : I have a question for Don. So, what attracted you to the story of Big Hero 6, being that it’s sort of a small-publishing in the comic book world?

DON : That certainly helped. There were a few — I always say — I’m going to say a sentence, and then everybody is going to say “What were the other ones?” in a second. But — so there were — you know. We never pitched one idea. We pitched a few, at least three. And this was like five or six. And, um, uh, what originally attracted me to Big Hero 6 was just the title. It just sounded interesting. And then I researched it a little bit more. Um, and I — I saw the Japanese superhero theme, thought that was super cool, and then read the books and you know, I was really struck by the characters.

They were just so fun. They were fun and appealing characters. They had goofy names, like Honey Lemon. And you could tell that the creators loved Japanese pop culture, and that’s why they did the book. They wanted to take their sort of love and anime, and, you know, all things Japanese, and infuse that with a sort of Marvel superhero story. So, I love that. And, um, but, most of all, y’know, we could see amidst all of that that there was en emotional story, you know, about a 14-year old super genius who loses his big brother.  And his robot that becomes a surrogate big brother and heals him. So it had all of these elements, but, even then, it still was, to me, a dark horse, you know, that it would get picked by John. I mean, there were some other ones that were a little bit more popular, maybe, but he gravitated towards this one, as did the other directors when I pitched it to them. And I think it was that emotional hook that got everybody.

CHRIS: Yeah. I remember pretty vividly, about three, three and a half years ago.

DON : Yeah.

CHRIS: Don and I did a pitch in this room, on that wall, of Big Hero 6, and, you know, it was real skeletal, like a broad-strokes summary of what it could be.   And, at that stage, you’re not looking every character, every scene. It doesn’t have to be worked out. You’re just — you have to show the potential for a fun story. And everyone was really taken with the idea of a kid who was going to lose his brother and who would be left with his brother’s robot, a surrogate big brother, to help him move on. That just struck a chord with everybody. And so it was my favorite. I was really glad when John Lassiter green-lit it, and in a way, the fact that it was an obscure property really helps us, because the way we make movies here is, we’ll sit at this table and talk about it for years. And it evolves quite a bit, and we have screening after screening, and the story changes a lot. And, so, we know that whatever we start out with, it’s going to end up being something different. And, so, the fact that we — that it wasn’t a well-known property where people were going to have their own idea of what it should be really helped us. And, so, it did — it did evolve a lot with the way we work around here, but I did — myself, I met the man who created them.

DON : Yeah. Duncan Rouleau and Steven Seagle came to the premiere last night, it was pretty cool, and we — I met with them once during the making of it and, um, and then Duncan, who was actually at our New York Comic Com screening — Stephen couldn’t make it — but, uh, it was actually pretty cool, talking to them last night.

‘Cause they — they really love the movie, and I felt like, well, okay, if the creators of the original comic book love this movie, then hopefully I think we did something right by them. But yeah. It was great.

Q : I have a question from Twitter. This person wants to know: what was the biggest change from the initial script to the final cut of the movie?

CHRIS: Biggest change?

DON : Biggest change? Well. I know that one — it may not be the biggest. One thing that just comes to mind is that, um, Baymax became more central, and he really started — we sort of realized that when he is driving the story, and driving the plot
CHRIS: Mm-hmm.

DON : — it really helps. And he became a real interesting character in uniting the sort of “boy and his robot” story and the superhero origin story.

CHRIS: Yeah. But I don’t know if it’s the biggest. I think it’s the most significant. Um, because, um, to that point, you know, Hiro was really driving it.  Which makes sense. You’d want the protagonist driving the story. But the story wasn’t coming together, and it didn’t come together, until we put Baymax front and center, and really took — take that idea that he wants to heal him and put it in the forefront and make it really proactive, as opposed to you know, being reactive. Because, before, he was really reactive to Hiro and he just followed Hiro around. And he was always a great character, but when you’d put him front and center and make him proactive, he’s the one engaging a lot.

If you look at it, it’s a little sneaky, but he’s the one that’s really kinda pushing the story forward, and he’s the one that brings the friends in, and he’s the one that furthers the flight because it’s making Hiro feel good. Youknow. And forget about the loss of his brother for a little bit. So, once we did that, that’s when the story really kinda started

DON : I would say also the specific thing is the scene on the wind turbine after that first flight scene. That really kinetic scene where they’re flying through the city. The scene where it’s just the two of them sitting on the wind turbine above the clouds — that really sort of sweet scene — was a very late addition, and, uh, but that’s the way we worked.

We keep sort of questioning our assumptions and keep challenging the story. And we realized there was something missing. And we added that scene, and it really solidified the relationship, and we understood then how much they were invested. How much they loved each other. We became invested in their relationship, and that was a fairly late addition. And I think a credit to the way that we make movies here, where we allow ourselves to constantly, um, reassess, and so I was really proud of that scene.

Q : Did you study any specific Marvel action scenes from the movies to inspire any of the scenes from this movie?

CHRIS: I can’t say we did.  Well.  I wouldn’t say we studied, um, but we’d seen the movies so many times that we’re all just big geeks, so, you know, we probably knew them more than we should.  Um, we definitely wanted to do right by the action part of it, you know.  But the emotional story is the most emotional thing, you know?  But we also felt that there was going to be an expectation that the action scenes had to be pretty awesome.  And, not only that, but they had to have a different personality.  And I guess that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of.  That they all moved different.  You know.  Because they’ll just bludgeon you if they’re all the same tone, you know, and so I loved the fact that they’re all very different.  The car chase is kind of just fun and thrilling.  Uh, the — the scene, um, um, we call it monster, but it’s the — the face-off where we reveal who Yokai is, that one is tragic.  You know?  And then the battle at the end it’s just, all hands on deck.  So, they all — they all have a very different personality, and even — the one in the warehouse, that was creepy but comedic.

You know.  Baymax makes that one kind of fun, you know, and how he can’t move fast.  Yeah.  So, I love that they all have different personalities, that was very important, that they couldn’t just be one note.  Yeah.

Q : With Fred, for our next Big Hero adventure — my fingers are crossed for another adventure! — the ending there with Fred at the end with Stanley, are we gonna see something with him, with Fred?

CHRIS: Well, we are in a place now where we just finished the movie 17 days ago.  And we’re pretty exhausted.  Like, 17 years ago. And — and we really did give everything we had to this thing, and we weren’t thinking of it as the beginning of a franchise or anything like that, so we have no specific plans. We — it felt like a really great button. We weren’t thinking of it as a springboard to — to the next thing. Y’know, having said that, we do — we live with these characters for years. They start to become very real to us. And the idea of working with them again someday is not unappealing, but it’s not what is on our minds.

DON : Big Hero 7.

CHRIS: It doesn’t go — it’s a fun idea, though.

Q : Not even Big Hero 7. Just the Big Hero 6: The Next Adventure, or The Next Battle.

DON : Yeah. That’s just something we’ve got ask everybody. We’re trying to not say anything specific about what they might find there so you guys have a lot of reach, so please don’t —

Q : Oh, yeah, no.

DON : I have the same conversation with my kids. My boys were at the premiere last night. And so many of their classmates want to see the movie, and they want to talk about it. And I’m like, “All right, you can’t tell them everything.” You know. Because they all have theories about who Yokai is and all of this kind of stuff, and it’s like, I’m like, “You can’t tell them. You’ve gotta let them experience the movie.”

Q : I just want to ask who your favorite character is in the movie, and why, the both of you?
CHRIS: We should probably disqualify Baymax. Yeah.

That’s too easy — I guess for me, I identify a lot with Fred. He’s really a dork and a geek and all just, you know, into monster movies and sci-fi. I mean, I don’t have the collection that Fred does, but, uh, uh, I don’t have the resources, no, I don’t have the resources at all. But, uh, but, uh, definitely, I can identify with Fred, and there’s moments, I guess, for Fred, during the superhero shenanigans part of it, I — I keep remembering the feeling that I had when I was a kid and we played superhero, and I had the trash can lid for a Captain America shield.  And we would throw that, you know, and there was a feeling, and that’s how I feel like Fred approaches this whole thing. Like, he’s not — the — the direness and the stakes of it don’t really kind of sink in. For him, it’s just, “I get to play superhero as an adult.” You know. So I guess. Kind of. Kind of, yeah. Yeah.

CHRIS: You’re in a building full of Freds here.

DON : Yeah.

CHRIS: And, yeah, I definitely sort of connect with Fred. I guess I would aspire to be as cool and capable as Go Go, and I like the way that she carries the team for a good stretch. She is really the only one who seems to be qualified, initially, with her.

Um. And I think that maybe some of the silliness or goofiness of Honey Lemon is something that I connect with as well. So maybe any of those guys. Yeah. That would be my kids’ favorite character.

DON : And — and Damon, he really informed that character. That character probably changed the most after we cast Damon. Yeah. We kind of had an idea of what that character was going to be, but Damon comes in, and he has this really great comedic skill set that really guided us.

And he’s so great at playing characters that try to put up this façade that crumbles really quickly, and — and he became this, I think, a really important character for the team. Because he was the one who was the realist. And he was the one who was able to point out that becoming a superhero was a sort of a crazy idea, and seems a little dangerous. And, so, for a while, he’s actually the voice of the audience, and — and, you know, very funny to boot.

Q : I think the scenery is really exciting, mesmerizing, and there is so much to see in it. So, how did you go about researching what the actual backgrounds would be and how much attention you wanted to draw to it?

CHRIS: Well, we put a stake in the ground very early on, saying we’re going to push the lighting. We’re gonna push — we want this to look like — my mom — my mom’s review last night was like, “Wow. It didn’t look like a cartoon. It looked like an animated film.”  Think about that. I think what she meant was, yeah, it’s like, when the characters went on screen, it looked like a movie. I’m like, “Okay, stop talking.” And I think what she meant was that it was a very — Had a very cinematic look.

And that was by design. You know. We really wanted to push that with this movie. So we had some rules that governed our art direction, which were, simple characters on a complex background. And so we knew that, man, we’re gonna just pack everything with — there is more detail in this movie than, I think, in the last three movies. So, um, and again, that’s a credit to our production designer, Paul Felix. And our art director of environment, Scott Watanabe, who really shared the burden of how is this — how are we gonna integrate all of this, the Japanese stuff, into San Francisco?

And not only that, how are we going to make it seem like a lived-in, real place, not a soundstage or, like, a kind of a CG-ish kind of environment. I mean, they really shouldered the burden of that, and getting them all correct. Even in Japan — we were there a week ago, for the world premiere, and we got just compliments from the Japanese. They loved the emotion of the movie, and so much, they really embraced the movie. They kept saying this was one of the most authentic American portrayals of Japan, ever. And it’s not Japan. You know what I mean?

And they fully acknowledge that. They’re like, “We get it, we get it, this is a fantasy world, but it’s more real and more indicative of Tokyo and Japan than any other movie they’d seen recently,” so that was pretty cool.

DON : Yeah. We’d love to take all of the credit for everything, but we have an incredible production designer, our art director. And they really go to these places, they immerse themselves, they sketch —

CHRIS: Yeah.

DON : They take pictures, they really study. And that’s how you get all of the details that add up so that it feels realized, so that it feels really complete. And these guys go really deep.

Like, even the placement of the sun in the sky, the sun will always be in the right place in the sky, depending on the time of day in the scene. Depending on the geography of San Francisco. And just the moisture in the air. And things that I wouldn’t have thought about that most of these guys are consumed by. And all — getting all of these things right makes you feel like you’re in a complete, comprehensive, uh —

Q : There were so many things we could recognize. But how did you, instead of making something completely fantasy or completely real, how did you come up with the combination of these real places like that?

CHRIS: Well, it happened very early, ’cause that’s the first thing we generally tackle. Before we ever go into story, it’s always the world, you know? And, um, so, after we, um, had a meeting with Marvel, where — it was our second meeting — where I said “John picked Big Hero 6.” And they were like, “Really?” And, uh, cool. Um, so, we talked about it. And they said, “You know what, you don’t have to worry about setting this in the Marvel Universe. Don’t worry about trying to integrate Captain America and Iron Man and all of that kind of stuff.

Just take this and go. Make your own world.” So that was very freeing and cool, but then it left a lot of questions. Like, okay, what is the world, then? And the Marvel Universe really takes place in sort of the real world, like it’s New York, essentially, and, you know, elsewhere, kind of. But, um, for — so, I wanted to stay away from New York, and I really wanted to stay away from LA. Um, and, because we knew we were going to — it was — no matter what we picked, it was going to have this Japanese — we were going to integrate a Japanese stamp on it. So, San Francisco just felt cool because it’s very recognizable.

It’s a contained city. It’s a beautiful city. And there’s so many things that people recognize around the world, like the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars and the topography and the Tower and on and on and on. So it just felt like we could make a really grounded, relatable world but make it — but still have the fantasy that we do in animation in the caricature, that we do in animation. So, it was a pretty easy pitch, by the way. “Hey, John, we want San Francisco and Tokyo — ” It’s like, his two favorite places in the world, right? So, yeah, it was pretty — pretty — that was a good pitch.

DON : Something that John emphasizes a lot, is that, over the course of the years of production, the story is going to change a lot, but you’re kind of going to live with the world that you create. And, so, before we created the story, we did a lot of research just to build the world. And let the world inform the story.

CHRIS: And also, I just want to bring up one little minor detail, that we knew that there was going to be no superpowers in the movie. That was another stake in the ground. Like, okay, nobody is magic. Nobody is irradiated by anything, any kind of ray, cosmic ray or gamma ray or spiders, or anything. So it’s going to be real people, and their superpower is gonna be super technology.

And, so, both of those cities, Tokyo and San Francisco are kind of hubs of technology. So that kind of felt like another kind of easy integration.

Q : You wanted certain people to voice the characters, but did that happen with all of the characters, or just Baymax?

CHRIS: To some degree. To some degree. You know. We had an idea. And, you know, we had had written versions of these characters, imported versions of these characters. But, inevitably, especially when you get such a good, like, amazing actors like Damon and TJ and Genesis, uh, and Jamie, they start to shift a little bit. And they bring so much of themselves to it that then that informs the — it’s kind of a circular thing. Where you start with this, and they come in, and “oh, look what they’re doing,” and then we integrate that into the whole mix.

So, yeah. We looked at it just like we always do, and we have a great casting department, and they bring us choices and auditions and all of that kind of stuff. And we just kept holding out until we found the right people.

DON : Yeah. We wanted to be — we wanted to get to know these characters really intimately, so that we would know how they would behave. Not just in the scenarios of the movie, but in any situation. And, until we’d cast, we could create a sketch, and get pretty close, but once you cast, then you can really crystallize and really get to know the character. Um, so, that’s — that’s crucial stuff. We get — we get usually about two or three screenings in before we have sense of — a pretty good sense of where the story is going, uh, generally, before we cast.

Q : I have a question about the technology. The technology in the film is not only futuristic, but it’s kind of ultra-modern. Is that based on anything? Did you guys work with a science team?

CHRIS: Yes, and yes. We, um — I mean, if you watch the credits, you’ll see, you know, “Thank you, science.” You know. Um, so many people that we brought in, because you know we do all extensive research. So, um, yeah. The roboticists that I talked to, you know, there were scores of roboticists that — that consulted on the movie, and that research trip, that gave us Baymax, but then there was a guy I met, um, on that research trip, Dr. Tom Wagner, who was from I, Robot. And he became a kind of a consultant on the film early on.

And we kind of ran not just the robot stuff, but like, technology through him, too, like, okay, plasma blades. We want Wasabi to have plasma blades. Can that happen? You know. And he’s like, “Well, yes, if you do this, and you did that,” and some of it, we’d use, and some of it, just, you know, we pulled back just for design reasons. But everything in the movie is researched and grounded, because we knew, you know, we tried to keep it as real as possible. And even like, telekinesis, which we thought we were really bending the rules there, you know, um, come to find out that, well, people are actually working on that.

DON : Yeah. You know. It’s a hard thing to do, to make a movie where you’re trying to deal with the latest cutting-edge technology. One of the challenges is, the actual stuff is moving so quickly, we have to make sure we get our movie out ahead of it. I think we managed it.

CHRIS: Like Siri. Like, three and a half years ago, y’know, I went out on a robotics tour and that’s where I met Chris Atkinson, who was doing soft robotics, and that led to Baymax. But one of the things that they kept stressing is, human-robot interaction, or, human-A.I. interaction is, um, is difficult, because human speech patterns and the slang we use and all of that kind of stuff is a very difficult thing.
Well, and then, like, three months later, Apple came out with a version of the iPhone app, Siri, that, I mean, you, for all intents and purposes, works really well. I can talk to Siri, and she can understand me. So, it just goes to show you how quickly these things are advancing. So, micro-bots are right around the corner. [LAUGHTER]

Q : Is there a message that you are trying to send about the emotional relationship between a boy and his robot, compared to, nowadays, it’s people and technology, and their SmartPhone?

DON : We were thinking of Baymax more of a character than as a robot, ultimately, and his role in the emotional story. And primarily, we were thinking of this as a story about loss, and — and the idea that would be that Baymax would be a surrogate big brother, helping Hiro with his loss of his brother.

CHRIS: Mm-hmm.

DON : And — and the idea we kept going back to is that Hiro would have a cathartic moment in the movie once he’d accepted the idea, or come to realize that, in a sense, his brother is the [SOUNDS LIKE: moving on]. His brother — when you lose somebody, they can live on through the choices that you make.

And that really is the — the thing that we kept going backto: what is this movie ultimately saying? What is the main thematic idea? It is that. It’s the way they can live on through you. And, so, that was primarily what we were circling around as we were generating the emotional story.

CHRIS: But, I will say, just, early, early on, as I was doing my research, you know, it became very apparent that Western and Eastern cultures view technology differently, and, uh, you know, and this came to a head with Chris Atkinson, who was the soft roboticist that kind of showed me this.

Because he, um, just went on and on about how he frustrated he is as a roboticist that Western movies always portray the robots as villains. It’s technology run amok, right? Um, and, you know, “When is somebody is gonna put a robot up on screen that I’ve never seen before, and when is that robot gonna be the hero of the movie?” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you had me at inflatable. But — and so — the Japanese robots, too — and, you know, there — all their — what got them to be roboticists were anime.

It was always anime. And you could tell the ages of the roboticists by which robot he was into, you know? Going all of the way back to Astro Boy or Gundam or Evangelion. Or whatever. But, so, um, it was very, uh, in the ether, very early on, with how we view technology in pop culture. You know. There’s an Eastern philosophy where it will — technology will give us a brighter tomorrow, you know. A lot of times in the West, it’s going to be our downfall. You know? So, uh, and ultimately, has nothing to do with the technology.

It’s about who wields that technology. But that was sort of in the ether. But the — the theme of loss is really our main theme, but there was a lot of stuff that kinda went into the soup, I guess.

Q : If you could give Baymax any upgrade, what would it be?

DON : Hmm. An upgrade. Boy. I mean, it’s funny, we’ve been getting — a lot of people have recently who would love their own Baymax. And, uh — and we’ve, uh, we’ve heard people say he’s such a great companion, because he has no needs. And he is always attentive to other people’s needs. I don’t know. Is there anything we —

CHRIS: I’m thinking. Um. He flies. Uh. Oh, yeah. I was thinking — yeah, he flies, he’s got a rocket, he’s a caring nurturer. Yeah. What about you? What would you do to him?

Q : I think he should sing.

Q : It’s calming and soothing and — music abilities, like, you press a button, and it’s like, elevator music coming out.

CHRIS: We needed you like, a year ago.

DON : Yeah, where were you?

CHRIS: Now we have to. Now we have to do a sequel.

Follow Big Hero 6 on Twitter and Facebook. Big Hero 6 hits theaters November 7th.

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