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Deconstructing 'Big Hero 6': A Collaborative Effort



The Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles played host on April 23 to Deconstructing Big Hero 6, a comprehensive look at the collaborative effort behind the 2014 Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature. This was the third presentation in the Academy's annual Deconstructing series which started with Life of Pi (2012) and delved into Gravity (2013) last year.  Hosted by Bill Kroyer, the Academy Governor representing the Short Films and Animation Branch, the presentation explored how the story of Big Hero 6 (2014) came to fruition, the large amount of research the film necessitated, and multiple technological achievements and advances that resulted from the process among other topics. In a nearly full theater, crew members from different areas of the film provided in-depth presentations that only increased one's level of appreciation for Disney's 54th animated film.




Building A Collaborative Environment

The presentation kicked off with Roy Conli, producer, who has been with Disney for 22 years. He described the changes that have been occurring at Disney and noted that prior to John Lasseter coming to Disney about 9 years ago, Disney Animation building's environment was largely divisive. With lots of office space and team partitions, there wasn't much room for collaborative communication between the approximately 800 creatives that worked at Disney. Upon Lasseter's arrival, there were "seismic shifts" that consisted of philosophical, cultural, and spatial changes. The culture shifted to one where the director owns their story, pitches it, and is the driving passion behind their story. The environment became more open with the establishment of the caffeine patch which was built as a hub for all 800 people to be able to come be together. Now we understand why Carlos Benavides has been consistently credited for caffeination! The renovations for more open and collaborative space still continue and according to Conli, communication and collaboration are key to building a successful film.

Discovering the Idea

Don Hall, director, was passionate about two things while growing up and they were Marvel and Disney. So when Disney bought Marvel about four years ago while Hall was finishing up on Winnie the Pooh (2011), he developed a desire to create a Marvel Disney film recalling Lasseter's advice to start with "What are you passionate about?". After a five minute conversation with Lasseter about wanting to create a Marvel Disney film, Lasseter told him to go for it. Hall dived deep into Marvel comic history searching for ideas and came across Big Hero 6. Initially attracted by the title, Hall read the comics and fell in love with the characters as well as the references to Miyazaki. Most importantly of all though, he saw an emotional story between fourteen-year-old Hiro and his nursebot, Baymax.

Hiro and Baymax as they appear in the Marvel comic series.

The idea for Big Hero 6 was pitched with no artwork by Hall along with 5-6 other Marvel ideas that were more developed. Ultimately it was Big Hero 6 that was green lit by Lasseter who lit up at the emotional story it contained. A meeting with Marvel followed which included Joe Quesada, the Chief Creative Officer of Marvel,  where they were encouraged to make it their own as it didn't need to weave into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the full backing of Disney and Marvel, Hall moved ahead to researching and developing the world of Big Hero 6.

Research, Research, Research!

In creating the world for the film, the decision was made to combine the Japanese aesthetic with San Francisco as the city was iconic and recognizable. Initially, the crew dubbed the city San Fransokyo jokingly, but as we all know the name stuck and became a part of the final film. Hall and several crew members then visited Tokyo for 13 days where they took many pictures all around the city. The crew met with roboticists in Tokyo in order to research ideas for the character of Baymax. Several trips were also taken to San Francisco and it was at the intersection of Masonic Avenue and Haight Street that the crew saw the building that later inspired Aunt Cass's cafe and the Hamada home. It was also important to Hall to capture the lighting in San Francisco as the city was Lasseter's home.

The research for building the world of Big Hero 6 paid off as many Japanese journalists were impressed by the film's authenticity and attention to detail. Most notably they specifically called attention to the milk crates in the alleyways. This illustrated the idea of "There are no cigarette butts in animation." Since everything has to be made, there are no accidental items that appear in animated films like they do occasionally in live action films. Therefore, the film crew remained so authentic to what they saw on their trip to Tokyo that someone even thought to build milk crates for the alley ways just like they show up in Tokyo alley ways.

Japanese journalists were so impressed with the authenticity and detail of Big Hero 6, 
right down to the milk crates in the alleyways. 

It was of the utmost importance to get the character of Baymax right as he was the emotional spine of the film. According to Hall, Baymax was the embodiment of the importance of research. The crew visited the robotics research departments of MIT, Harvard, and Carnegie Mellon in search of inspiration for their "huggable robot". It was at Carnegie Mellon where Hall met Chris Atkinson, a student doing research on soft robotics. Atkinson showed Hall a robotic arm he was working on that was made of vinyl and pumped air. This arm and its structure became the inspiration for Baymax's appearance.

The robotic arm from Chris Atkinson's research at Carnegie Mellon 
that inspired the appearance of Baymax

The next challenge was Baymax's face as the crew wanted to keep it as simple as possible and avoid the uncanny valley, where a robot gets too human-looking and becomes creepy. Hall stated that while he was at a temple in Tokyo, he saw bells looking down on him and felt awash with calmness. These bells became the inspiration for Baymax's simple facial appearance of two circles and a line.

Creating the Story

Chris Williams, director, described the story of Big Hero 6 as emotionally ambitious with disparate elements and a lot of characters. In creating the story, Williams emphasized the importance of communication and iteration methods in a collaborative environment. Writers and story artists make themselves vulnerable when talking story and it is important to be receptive to feedback. "You need to really fight the human need for affirmation," Williams stated during his presentation. He noted that conflict and disagreement when discussing story ideas is good as it can lead to even better ideas, however it is important to be respectful during discussions. "When you offer an idea, it is saying 'this is who I am'", Williams said which illustrates the need for mutual respect. In insulting a writer's idea, you are essentially insulting who they are as a person.

The story room at Disney Animation is the hub for where story discussions take place. Around the top of this room, visual development art for the film is pinned up for inspiration. This incorporation of visual development art in the story room started back during the production of Bolt (2008). The outline of the film written on cards is pinned up on boards in the room and the story is formulated through multiple cycles of writing and rewriting. Thick skin is imperative for anyone working on story to have as they each will become attached to a scene that they work on for one to two weeks. They then return to the story room and pitch with passion where they are listened to by people whose job it is to judge them and their work. The story is continually morphing and according to Williams, "Story is change." It is changing for a reason and changing for the better.

Storyboard sequence of "drunk Baymax" scene.

There were several areas of the story that were more difficult than others to get just right. The first of these areas was the character of Hiro as it was a challenge for the crew to find the right balance between his teenaged arrogance and his vulnerability and sweetness. Hiro's story is that of his loss and working through the grief process and ultimately it was Baymax who cracked the code. Another area of the story that was altered was when Hiro first met Baymax. Initially, Hiro was to meet Baymax at the SFIT showcase when Tadashi did a presentation with Baymax using Fred as a participant. However, they felt that Hiro and Baymax needed to interact sooner in the film and the fully animated scene was ultimately scrapped showing that even late in the game changes can be made.

Originally the entire Big Hero 6 team converged on the wind turbine.

Another late in the game change occurred with the wind turbine scene after Hiro and Baymax's first flight together. Initially the entire team was going to be on the turbine together, but to the crew it felt like something was missing from Baymax and Hiro's relationship. They realized that they needed a time of quiet intimacy together and the wind turbine scene was reworked to just take place between the boy and his nursebot. Williams did note that sometimes there are scenes that are great pitch ideas and sail through production with little to no alterations. For Big Hero 6, that scene was the aptly titled drunk Baymax scene.


Finding Character Through Movement

For Zach Parrish, the head of animation, Big Hero 6 was his first experience as an animation supervisor. Working with 90 animators and using character rigs in Maya, it was the responsibility of Parrish and his team to animate the largest cast of main characters in a Disney animated film thus far which totalled out to 15 overall. They also had 701 unique background characters built by Denizen, a program created during this film, as well as 1,324 animation cycles built with roughly 600+ cycles for each gender and 632,124 animation cycles retargeted for various character variants. That's a lot of animation for one film!

An important aspect of every character was their motion and each character had a unique movement to them. For instance Baymax's movement was inspired by the waddle of baby penguins. In order to explore the movement of their characters, the animators were first tasked by Parrish to draw a line and describe the motion of the line with words. The animators then had to make their character into an animated bouncy ball that described the character's motion in a walk cycle. Finally, the animators were asked to create a scene where their character walked into a cafe and sat down which resulted in vastly different performances for each character where their personality was visually clear. This final task also happened to be the birthplace of Go-Go's ever present bubble gum.


Another major aspect in the animation process was the use of draw-overs to provide feedback to the animators. This process started during production on Tangled (2010) with Glen Keane and has continued to be utilized at the studio in order to push the 2D aesthetic into CG animation. Parrish also noted that for the film they went for two major styles. The first he dubbed "street version" which he described as caricatured reality. The second style, "super hero", is what the film transitioned towards as the Big Hero 6 team became super heroes and this is where poses and style were really pushed to the limit. Overall according to Parrish, story remains king and collaboration and communication between crew members is key to success of the film.

Moving Technology Forward

Kyle Odermatt, visual effects supervisor, lead the visual effects team on gargantuan tasks such as constructing the city of San Fransokyo, creating Denizen and Coda, and making the visually stunning wormhole sequence a reality. In their research, the team was able to gather data on all the lots of San Francisco from the city assessor's office which cost them a whopping $5. Utilizing this data, the visual effects team analyzed buildings, broke them down into modules, and then rebuilt them into multiple variants. With this they were able to create the city of San Fransokyo consisting of 83,000 buildings, 260,000 trees, and 215,000 light poles of 6 types among other multiple components.

With the creation of the program Denizen, the team used art directed target shapes, color palettes, outfits, and hairstyles in a mix-and-match system to create hundreds of variant background characters. Odermatt noted that occasionally this system would spit out a character that was too interesting in the background and would end up being pulled so as not to detract from the focus of the scene. Denizen was also known as Best Friend Factory as according to Odermatt, "It's not valid until we give it a funny name." This creative program was unleashed to the entire film crew where many used it to create avatars of themselves that would show up in the film. Odermatt stated that because of this, screenings became a Where's Waldo scenario for crew as crew members would look for where their avatar would show up.

Have to wonder how many crew members' avatars are present in this scene.

In order to render the film, a queuing system called Coda was created in order to fill render gaps with the right project at the right time. The render farm used 1.25 MW of power and because of this high power requirement, it was spread over 3 locations in Southern California and 1 location in Northern California. There were 1.1 million render hours per day and it ranked #75 on the world's top super computers at the time. Overall the film required 199,000,000 render hours total which was a significant increase over Disney's previous computer animated films. 

Arguably the most difficult task that Odermatt and his visual effects team were responsible for was the creation of the wormhole that Hiro and Baymax travel through in the film's climax. The team decided to create the wormhole with mandelbulbs, which were described as 3D fractals. "They're almost impossible to logically grasp," Odermatt said when describing the mandelbulbs. Upon seeing mandelbulbs it's easy to see what he means. 

Mandelbulbs were used to create the wormhole in Big Hero 6.

One of the challenges that they encountered with the mandelbulbs was coloring and lighting them. They found that the color would fade and not really stick out like they wanted to. The team ended up really increasing the light in order to deeply saturate the color. The colors used for the sequence were inspired by the color keys for the Cave of Wonders from Aladdin (1992). Ultimately, all of their hard work paid off into one of the most astounding animated scenes that is definitely unlike anything anyone has seen before. 

The use of mandelbulbs with saturated color 
resulted in the surreal effect of the wormhole.

Light It Up, Up, Up

Adolph Lusinsky, director of cinematography and lighting, showcased another technical achievement that resulted from Big Hero 6. This was Disney's Hyperion Renderer which combines "believable visual worlds and appealing characters with physics of light". The most impressive function of Hyperion that was used throughout the film was multiple light bounces. Usually animated films have direct light with only one light bounce, however when this was used for scenes with Baymax it made him darker and dirty in appearance. This was fixed by bouncing the light not twice, not thrice, but ten times! An impressive feat in lighting technology and made all the more impressive when Lusinsky stated that every other scene in the film that did not include Baymax had five to six light bounces.

In researching the lighting of San Francisco and Tokyo, Lusinsky noted that Tokyo was a city of bright LED lighting with areas of green light, referred to also as mercury vapor. On the other hand, San Francisco has a much warmer kind of light called sodium vapor light. In lighting San Fransokyo, the bright LED lighting was focused in the center of the city while the warm lighting was in the surrounding city. The green light came into play when Hiro first makes eye contact with Yokai during the van chase. In this scene, the lighting transitions from warm to green in order to emphasize their interaction.

Transitioning from warm lighting to the unsettling green lighting 
was used to emphasize Yokai and Hiro's interaction during the chase. 

A particular challenge that the lighting team faced was how to properly light Baymax's projections. What the team ended up doing was cutting a hole in a beach ball and taping a piece of epoxy glass over the hole. They then projected Wreck It Ralph (2012) through the glass and were impressed with the results. This beach ball was the guiding force behind visualizing how Baymax's projections would look like.

Lusinsky wrapped his presentation by explaining how he wanted the first flight sequence of Baymax and Hiro to take place with idyllic sunset lighting. The team was able to set up lighting rigs early on in the scene production and a progression of the lighting in the sequence was shown to the audience. Take a look at the sequence and pay particular attention to the lighting differences based on where Baymax and Hiro are in San Fransokyo.


Final Panelist Thoughts

Kroyer asked each crew member on the panel what their biggest takeaway was from their experience on Big Hero 6. For Parrish it was the artistic satisfaction in hearing laughter or seeing people cry over something that he made. He also felt that this film developed his own maturation and leadership skills in helping people grow. Odermatt stated that it was the power of collaboration as he noted, "It took the input of 100's of people." Collaboration was also a big takeaway for Lusinsky as well as learning from others and having the opportunity to do a range of lighting. Williams remarked that he realized that he didn't understand everything that went into the making of an animated film and said, "No one person can explain the process to make an animated movie from beginning to end. That person does not exist." Because of this, he saw that he had to rely on others and thus found the film to be deeply collaborative. According to Hall, "Everyone in the credits did something to save the day at one point or another." In closing Conli remarked that he had felt he had done his due by producing Tangled, however in producing Big Hero 6 he "learned to just keep telling stories."

This in depth presentation garnered a much deeper appreciation for all of the hard work that went into the making of this Academy Award winning film. Furthermore, it emphasized the importance of collaboration and communication with mutual respect for artistic ideas. Big Hero 6 is a technological and artistic achievement that is sure to be remembered for many years to come. Many thanks to all of the panelists from this presentation for revealing just how much work goes into one animated film.


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