Subverting Expectations in Big Hero 6: A Family Film with Emotional Depth
Writer/Director team Don Hall and Chris Williams talk about the new Marvel superhero film, Big Hero 6.
By David Konow.
If you’ve seen the ads for Big Hero Six, it’s a bit hard to tell exactly what it is at first glance. There’s this big, white, inflatable robot that looks a little like the Michelin Man, or a bit like the Stay Puft Marshmellow man for that matter. How does he fit in with a movie titled Big Hero Six?
Not knowing much about Big Hero Six before I saw it, I was pleasantly surprised to find out it’s a story of a group of tech geeks who become superheroes. The big, puffy white thing? A robot named Baymax, who becomes a surrogate brother to the lead character, Hiro. Did we mention it’s a Marvel adaptation as well?
There’s a lot of surprises to be found in Big Hero Six, although the quality of the animation and the technology is certainly not surprising. (Not to mention we found it a very clever idea to make a group of young tech geniuses a group of superheroes in training.) In fact, Big Hero 6 is a family film that subverts a lot of your initial expectations, including an unexpected serious and emotional spine to all the bright and colorful animated fun.
We spoke to the writing / directing team of Don Hall and Chris Williams about bringing Big Hero 6 together, and why it’s not a typical animated family film, or the usual superhero origin story.
How did you pick an obscure Marvel title to be adapted into an animated movie?
Don Hall: As I was finishing up Winnie the Pooh, which was three and a half years ago, I was talking to (Pixar CEO) John Lasseter about my next project. He always encourages us to look into our passions, and I loved Disney animation as a kid. I also loved Marvel comics. Disney had just purchased Marvel, so I pitched John the idea of looking through the Marvel archives, and bringing something over into animation that we could adapt into our own. John got very excited, I made lists and got in touch with the Marvel guys, and we picked Big Hero 6 out of quite a few projects. It seemed like a perfect choice, because there was an emotional core to it. It was an emotional story about a fourteen-year-old kid, a genius, who lives with his older brother and the older brother’s robot, and the robot becomes his surrogate older brother and healer. We loved the idea of the Japanese esthetic because the source material was a Japanese superhero team, like a Japanese Avengers, so we took the idea of the Japanese aesthetic, but we made it our own new world called San Frantoyko that’s not connected to the Marvel universe. We were encouraged by Marvel to make it our own. That was the genesis of it.
Chris Williams: When Don pitched his very first outline of the film three and a half years ago, everybody at the studio got excited about the emotional potential of the film, and in the last three and a half years, it’s been about realizing that potential.
Big Hero 6 isn’t that well known in the Marvel universe.
Don: That was only to our advantage, and I knew that going in. I think this was before Captain America came out, and it was certainly before The Avengers. I kinda had a geek’s knowledge of what they were planning, just based on scuttlebutt, websites, and my own hopes and dreams I guess, so I kinda knew what to stay away from. I was always looking for stuff that was more fringe, and more obscure, because it would give us more freedom to make it our own. And Big Hero 6 was probably the most obscure thing that I had found. It only exists as thirteen issues in the Marvel universe.
Chris: I think one of the advantages is people weren’t bringing their preconceived notions of the property or the characters to the films. The way we work here is we make version after version of the movies with internal screenings, which gives us the opportunity to see what’s working, what’s not working, we can make adjustments…it’s a very fluid story environment. And we always know that whatever we start with, we’re going to end up with something else years later. So it was nice to have that freedom and not be encumbered by anybody’s expectations.
How were you able to put an animated film like this together so quickly?
Don: (Laughs) A lot of late nights, and every single person in this studio sacrificing and contributing. It was always going to be an ambitious undertaking from the get-go. There were technical challenges, but the story challenges always outweigh any technical challenge. The challenge was taking this emotional story about a boy who loses his brother, and a robot that becomes his healer, which is a story about loss. Honoring it, letting it be the spine of the film, but also having it be a superhero origin story. How do you get those two things to work? It was actually late in the process that we discovered that Baymax was the glue that stuck those stories together. The idea is that he calls Hiro’s friends as a support group, trying to treat him emotionally, and that becomes the basis for this superhero team. That was a tough thing. We tried a lot of versions of the story, trying to get the comedy, which we had to have for a broad, entertaining film, along with some pretty deep, dark subject matter.
It was surprising that there were deaths in this story. How much can you deal with dying in a film that children will be seeing?
Chris: We knew it was integral for the story from day one. It’s part of the premise. This kid is going to lose his older brother, and be left with his older brother’s creation Baymax. We were never shy about it, and we gained confidence from looking back at Disney films like Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo…these were movies that really took on challenging subject matters. Something that I think about a lot is watching Bambi is my first childhood memory, it’s the first thing I can recall. It’s the movie that told me that my parents were going to die. There’s not a more profound thing to tell a kid, but it did it so beautifully. So we’re not afraid to take on challenging or emotional things, as long as we feel we have something to say about it, and we can do it in a sophisticated way.
When putting the action segments together, how detailed are they in the script?
Don: We have the benefit of this kind of chaotic process where we write scripts, then we storyboard the movie, film all the storyboards and story reels, and watch them with our peers. Then we go up into a room, and talk about what worked and what didn’t work. We don’t pull punches, and that’s the job of the story trust. This happens about seven or eight times over the course of a movie’s life. Parts of the movie start to work, and you put those in production while you’re still figuring out the story. The action sequences can be kind of blocked in, and sometimes it can be as simple as: ACTION SEQUENCE HAPPENS HERE. Or a slight outline. How the writers work is that we’re all in the room together. It’s a team effort. So when we’re beating out an action sequence, we’re all in the room batting around ideas. It’s really a symbiotic relationship between the writers and the storyboard artists.
Chris: And I can’t emphasize enough that we work in a very collaborative environment. There’s lots of opportunities for back and forth. Throughout you have a group of eight or ten people that are involved in building the story. There’s this really organic thing where it kind of grows. When you step back, it’s hard to exactly credit who did what, everything is credited to the team, and I love working in that kind of environment. It’s why we’ve had success here. John Lasseter really fostered this creative environment, and I think a lot of people aspire to work in a collaborative environment, but to actually create one, and foster one, and work in one, can be challenging. It can sometimes fight human nature where you want to want to be told everything you do is amazing, your movie’s great, don’t change a thing, but if ultimately that’s all you ever hear, and people are afraid to tell you they disagree with something, then your movie can never face those challenges, and never get better. So we credit a lot of those successes of those films to the environment that we work in.
Baymax is not a typical looking robot.
Chris: I knew that was going to be one of the big challenges. For us, it was important that we do something that you’d never seen before, and I knew that was going to be a challenge. When you factor in the robots that are in western pop culture, that’s challenging alone, but when you start to factor in all the Japanese robots from all the anime, it becomes really daunting. So the only way to do a unique robot is to do a research trip. He had to be appealing, and the term “huggable” kept coming up. “Gotta find a huggable robot.” So I did a research trip to Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Harvard, and at Carnegie Mellon I met a researcher who was working in soft robotics. He had a very crude arm that was vinyl, and it was inflatable. It didn’t do much, just basic movements, but the practical application for it was in the healthcare industry. It’s soft, pliable, and won’t hurt or bruise any patients. The researcher was frustrated with how robots were portrayed in movies, because it was always a cautionary tale of technology run amok. They’re gonna be our overlords, and robots were getting a bad rep. When was somebody going to put a robot onscreen that’s the hero of the story? This inflatable technology was so new, I had never seen anything like it, and I felt like we’d found our huggable robot. Baymax’s persona, his personality, his design, it all came from that research trip.
Don: And I think that Baymax is the antithesis of the typical superhero really worked in our favor. To take this balloon that only wants to help people, it’s not aggressive in any way, it could be easily popped, it’s hard to imagine how he’d ever become the hero that our main character wants him to be. When he’s armored up, it’s a big part of the comedy and the fun of the movie, but his personality doesn’t change. He remains this loving, attentive caregiver, and that remains his greatest strength.
So are you working on the sequels already?
Don: (Laughs) We’ll see. We just finished this one, and the truth is, we’re exhausted from the ordeal of making it. It was really fun, but it was long hours, and it was pretty intense. It’s a pretty emotional time for us. These are characters that we’ve grown to know very well, now it’s time to let go of them, and they’re going into the world without us. We’re in the middle of that phase. So we haven’t talked about or thought about any sequels or anything like that. Having said that, of course, we love these characters, and the thought of working with them again some day definitely has its appeal.
With superhero movies these days, usually the sequels are part of the deal from the get-go.
Chris: Certainly the way the movie ends it’s left open for further adventures, but we literally have not talked about anything. We want to get through the launch of the film, take some time off, and once we’re a little more rested, we’ll have more time to think about that sort of thing.
Don: John Lassater’s very supportive of the directors, and he won’t force them to put out a sequel unless they have a story that really excited about. It has to feel like a story that really has to be told, or deserves to be told. It can’t just be cashing in on the success of a previous film.
The superhero genre, and Marvel films in particular, are still really hot right now, but do you feel they could be reaching the point of critical mass or burnout?
Don: You know what’s funny about that, you can probably dig up articles from four, five years ago that were saying the same thing. “Too many superhero movies, people are getting sick of it.” I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but as long as the films are good…I don’t know if we ever thought much about this being a superhero movie. We really put a lot of thought into the emotional story, and the superhero thing was part of its history, and part of its lineage. But the emotional part of the story is about loss. So I think as long as you honor that, and honor the emotional story that you’re telling, then it will stand on its own as a movie, as opposed to representing a genre.
Chris: There will definitely an onus on people moving forward to come up with ways to reinvigorate and surprise people with superhero stories. Superhero stories are a genre, but you can do so many things within it. There are very talented people working on superhero movies these days, and I think they will come up with a lot of ways to keep audiences surprised.
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