A PEAK BEHIND THE CURTAIN OF…
DISNEY’S NEW MOVIE
BIG HERO 6!
Joshua and Athan Eklund attended the Walt Disney Animation Studios Big Hero 6 Tech Day on behalf of SoCal Field Trips.
After a blurry eyed wake-up call and two hours of stop-and-go traffic, our destination was finally in sight: the giant Sorcerer Mickey hat of the Disney Animation Studio.
Ostensibly, Athan and I were here for a press event focused on the technology behind Disney’s newest animated feature, Big Hero 6, and indeed, we did see and hear about some impressive tech, but as Mickey’s giant hat faded from our rear view mirror at the end of the day, it wasn’t Disney’s technology that impressed me as much as their creativity.
I know, I know, finding creativity in the Disney Animation Studio is like finding high fructose corn syrup in the Coke I had with lunch, exactly what you would expect.
No, what really impressed me was the way that everything seemed design to help feed the creative process that went into making the film.
We entered the building and walked down a hallway adorned with a large graphic of the Big Hero 6 team followed by a group of display cases filled with well deserved Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes and animation award statues. I can’t imagine that anyone coming to work down that hall day-in and day-out isn’t inspired to make sure their projects bring home some gold in the future as well.
We were greeted and checked-in by some incredibly nice staffers and invited to help ourselves to some breakfast. Several of the writers attending the event seemed slightly surprised that there was a kid attending with them, but the Disney staff didn’t bat an eye. I couldn’t help but get the feeling it was because so many of them are still kids at heart.
Athan and I grabbed a bite from the breakfast spread, and then perused the Big Hero 6 pre-production art hanging outside the screening room while we waited for the days’ events to begin.
As fantastic as the artwork was, it wasn’t what got me thinking about that creativity I mentioned above. Honestly, I’m used to pre-production artwork from the likes of Pixar and Disney being fantastic. Even the most hurried of sketches are enough to inspire envy in most people. No, it was something far simpler and far more powerful.
A blank pad of paper.
A small stack of them was sitting on a counter next to a pile of black Sharpies as we entered the screening room. I had Athan pick up one of each, thinking they might come in handy, and perhaps Athan would be inspired to do a little drawing. (Out of nowhere a few nights before, he had grabbed a pad of paper and cranked out three or four-dozen character designs and I thought maybe the surroundings might inspire another bout of sketching.)
“My dad had me get a pad and pen, but I was WAY too tired to draw anything. We had to wake up at 6:00 AM!” – Athan
Our first session began with Big Hero 6 producer Roy Conli who spoke briefly about the film and then introduced the directors Chris Williams and Don Hall.
Apparently, after Disney’s acquisition of Marvel comics, Hall was encouraged to explore the Marvel vaults where he came across an obscure comic called Big Hero 6. Hall liked the title and the Japanese setting and was encouraged to “take the idea and run with it”.
At hearing this, I was again struck by the creativity of this encouragement. Make no mistake, taking an obscure (some might say failed) comic book and using it as the basis for an expensive animated feature is NOT the kind of play-it-safe mentality you frequently encounter in Hollywood. Although the finished film is based very, very loosely on the comic (mainly the title, character names and a Japanese flavor) it’s still a big gamble, and it shows how much faith Disney has in its ability, as it finds itself in the midst of yet another animation golden-era.
“Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen were all great movies, but Wreck-it Ralph and Winnie the Pooh are my favorites from this group. Although I think that is going to change when Big Hero 6 comes out.” – Athan
What I found so inspiring about the decision to develop this obscure property is that you never know where great ideas will come from, which is a good reason to keep pads of paper lying around. (Even if you are too tired to use them – Athan) In fact, it was during research for the film, in particular researching health care robots, that the concept of “soft robotics” came to the filmmakers’ attention. Obviously, I wasn’t there when it happened, but even years later you can’t help but get the impression that this was an “Ah-HA!” moment of rather large proportions. An inflatable, vinyl robot, not only has the great fortune of being something new and interesting that we haven’t seen onscreen before, but in the visual world of animation is an absolute GOLDMINE. And from what we saw, I have very little doubt that the character of Baymax will be the runaway hit of the film.
“Baymax is a big, cute, soft, huggable, balloon-robot. And before you know it he turns into a karate kicking, missile launching, flying super robot. I think he’s going to be one of my favorite characters.” – Athan
Speaking of what we saw, we saw quite a bit. While Conli, Williams and Hall spoke about the origins of the film, it’s settings, and the characters, they screened about 20 minutes of the finished film for us.
They of course spoke about the story and the “heart” that we expect from the best Disney animation but highlighted a few other aspects that caught my attention. The first was the do-it-yourself inventor aspect of main protagonist Hiro. The filmmakers spoke about the popularity of the “maker-movement” that has grown exponentially in the last few years and I love that they have incorporated some of that into Big Hero 6. Hopefully it will encourage even more people, kids especially, to get their feet wet when it comes to the DIY maker movement.
The second aspect that was impossible to ignore was the films setting, the fictional San Fransokyo. It’s unlike anything you have seen before and again, it was a perfect illustration of letting the creativity craft the product. Where so many others would take an easy short cut, Williams and Hall quite refreshingly stay far away from the “Dystopian Future” so often seen in science fiction these days.
“San Fransokyo is a highly advanced city, a mix between San Francisco and Tokyo. It is definitely a place I would love to visit.” – Athan
San Fransokyo, was also a major feature in the second session of the day, the Walt Disney Animation Studio Technology Presentation, led by WDAS CTO Andy Hendrickson and team.
Since this event was aimed at the tech press, this session definitely ratcheted up the “gear-head” quotient a bit. The technology was very impressive, including an incredible new rendering engine dubbed “Hyperion” and a back-end render farm that constitutes the 75th largest super computer in the world.
Hyperion is indeed impressive, but it’s what it allowed the filmmakers to do creatively that is the real story. When you make models or sets for films, whether they are traditional real-world ones or virtual 3D ones, the old adage has always been that you “only build what the audience is going to see”.
But for Big Hero 6 the filmmakers built the ENTIRE CITY of San Fransokyo. Starting with actual building data for San Francisco they build every last building in their city.
“I can see my house from here” is a long-standing joke in animation, but for audience members from the Bay Area it will be quite accurate.
Why go to all that trouble?
While I’m sure there was a fair amount of “Because it’s there!” mountain climbing mentality and a desire to see just what their new rendering baby could do, the real inspiration was to free the directors to do whatever they wanted. Imagine the freedom to go “virtual location-scouting” rather than being locked into the same two-dozen sets? It makes the film far more expansive and come November 7th we will all be the lucky recipients of the technology team’s hard work.
“Unless they have a sneak preview the night before, then I will be lucky on November 7th because I will DEFINITLY be in line for that.” – Athan
After the technology session we were taken to the second floor for lunch. The second floor is where production is housed at WDAS with pre-production/development taking place on the 3rd floor. We weren’t allowed on the 3rd floor because those projects are all still un-announced and are very hush-hush at the moment, but the 2nd floor did not disappoint in the slightest.
The floor is divided into two separate halves, one half for each of two movies currently in production. On this day, half was taken up by Big Hero 6 as it was winding down production, and the other half was occupied by the upcoming Zootopia. Disney refers to these two sections as “pods” and here is where the “creative inspiration” theme of this post really took seed.
Having worked in animation before, I was not at all surprised to see employees offices and cubicles stuffed to the brim with movie posters, comic books, and toys of all shape and description, this is pretty much standard operating procedure in the world of animation. But what I found fascinating was that Disney goes to considerable length (and cost, no doubt) to theme the entire half-floor pod to match the movie, bringing the creative personnel from these films into the process of designing and building out an immersive world for the films’ staff.
Designing, building, and then removing this for every film is the type of thing that could easily be excised in the ever cost-conscience world of Hollywood, but Disney seems to understand the value of this creative immersion.
Adding to the feeling that you are “in” the movie is the central cafe area situated between the two pods known as “The Caffeine Patch”. This area was currently themed to go along with Big Hero 6 as the film ramps up for release, and it was here that Disney treated us to a delicious Asian-inspired lunch. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say, that Athan, whose diet usually consists of only three items, even joined in – high praise indeed!
“The place where we ate lunch was completely decorated like San Fransokyo, with decorated billboards, a section of the Golden Gate bridge, even vending machines. Speaking of billboards, keep an eye out for a Zootopia Easter egg on a billboard in the movie.” – Athan
For any of you Disney Infinity fans, the buffet table was watched over by a life size sculpture of the Infinity 2.0 Baymax figure (a highlight of the day for Athan, rabid Infinity lover that he is.)
“Disney Infinity 2.0 is a game where you can build stuff, battle enemies and go on specific missions with different characters. You get the characters by placing figures on a control portal. You should DEFINITELY go buy this if you don’t have it yet!” – Athan
After lunch, we were treated to a tour all around the production floor, which featured several highlights, among them Roy E. Disney’s former office situated in the Sorcerer Mickeys’ Hat portion of the building, some amazing looking artwork for the up coming Zootopia, and the WDAS office of Athan’s hero, the one and only John Lasseter.
Supposedly Lasseter is here 2 days a week, but unfortunately we did not see him on this day. If we had, I don’t think that even the notoriously shy Athan would have been able to keep himself from approaching him and talking his ear off. And it’s that fact that really formed my discussion here about creative inspiration.
“John Lasseter is the great Producer and Director from Pixar. He makes the best movies of all time, and my dad was right, if he was there I would have overcome my shyness and talked to him. Maybe!” Athan
Between the films, TV channels and programs, theme parks, toys, video games et all, few things in this world have the power to inspire kids the way that Disney can. For those cynics who believe that it’s all just show to get you to empty your wallet, I would say that WDAS (something the average Joe-on-the-street never sees) stands in stark contrast to that notion.
Disney puts the same care into the behind-the-scenes goings on as it does for everything we get to see “on stage” and the enthusiasm exhibited by everyone we met with was undeniably infectious.
Our day finished up with two informative sessions by the special effects team and the animation team, both filled with technical and artistic triumphs that just continued to fuel the desire for November 6th to get here as fast as possible.
“Preview. November 6th. If we keep saying it maybe it will happen.” – Athan
As great as the day was, I must confess that halfway through I was feeling a bit depressed. Athan and I were having a great time, so why was I feeling that way? Quite simply, I was jealous. I was jealous that I didn’t work there. Why do so many jobs try to stifle creativity and make everyone do things the same way? Why are so many companies afraid to try something unique? There are certainly successful companies like Disney and Apple that “Think Different”, so why are so many petrified of the thought? And worst of all, was Athan going to grow up and find himself stuck working at one of those places?
After a few minutes I decided I needed to shake it off and focus on being inspired instead of envious, and my mood improved rather quickly. But my brief melancholy made me want to try to spread the word in any way I could, that you should never lose the inspiration for creative projects. Doodling pictures on the edges of your papers isn’t a waste of time, science and technology aren’t just for nerds or something you suffer through on a standards test. They inspire people to create great things, and maybe, hopefully, something that you can do for the rest of your life, something you can actually look forward to every day.
I applaud anything like this that Disney does to reinforce the importance of creativity and can’t help but daydream about how wonderful it would be to have a dedicated program to foster creativity in kids. Imagine a summer program were kids spent a month at WDAS making a short animated film and getting advice from Disney filmmakers?
“A short! I almost forgot! We also saw a short called “Feast” about a guy who adopts a dog and keeps feeding him and feeding him. I loved it, it was hilarious! It will be on the beginning of Big Hero 6.” – Athan
And that is what stuck with me after our wonderful trip to Walt Disney Animation Studio to learn about the new movie Big Hero 6. The wonderful example Disney and their creative people set by taking time out of their day and sharing their creativity and their inspiration.
I can’t say whether it had an affect on the tech writers who were there, but I hope it made one on the kid in their midst.
Happy Field Tripping,
Disclaimer: SoCal Field Trips was invited by Walt Disney Animation Studios to attend their Big Hero 6 Tech Day. This post is for informational purposes only. All opinions are our own. Images taken by Josh Eklund on behalf of SoCal Field Trips.
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