Meeting Big Heroes at 6: A Night at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

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When President Cheryl Boone Isaacs of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences addressed the cinema-loving crowd at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Thursday, April 23rd, she praised the creators of Disney’s Big Hero 6 for their “technical and creative wizardry” and success in applying “timeless principles of artistry & emotion.”

“Wizardry?” I inwardly asked myself. I remember falling in love with Baymax’s movements and being floored by the sheer detail in the film – each book, poster, lamp and pile of dirty clothes seemed to be carefully constructed and placed. “I loved the movie, but isn’t ‘wizardry’ a little extreme?” However, I quickly came to understand exactly what Mrs. Isaacs meant.

In the next few hours, I witnessed stunning multi-media presentations from the Director of Cinematography, Visual Effects Supervisor and Head of Animation, preceded by a humorous, intriguing panel discussion between Academy Governor Bill Kroyer and the film’s directors and producer. Kroyer, a pioneer in hand-drawn computer animation, briefly discussed his own experience with the film: “I don’t find myself taking it apart or deconstructing it, I just find myself enjoying it.”

From left: Producer Roy Conli, Director Chris Williams, Director Don Hall at the 2015 Academy Awards

Each having worked at Disney for over 20 years, Conli, Williams and Hall were all involved in the studio’s most transfoWHATIFONCEUPONrmative years. During the panel, Conli joked: “We saw it through the Lion King days and the not-so-LionKing days.” The three agreed that John Lasseter’s arrival to their camp incurred a major philosophical, cultural and spatial change. The Roy E. Disney building at the Walt Disney studios in Burbank serves as a prime example: Prior to the 90’s, there had been no common space for communication until Lasseter and his team knocked down cubicle walls to draw over 800 employees to the newly-created Caffeine Patch, a thriving, coffee and candy-fueled common area inside Disney. Conli believes this change was integral to their success: “Communication is the key and it’s at the core of what we do. It’s a team-driven industry.”

Hall, on the other hand, was in the midst of wrapping Winnie the Pooh when his long-time desire to do a Marvel movie kicked in: “As a kid, I loved Marvel comics and animation.” So, with permission to dig through the Marvel vault for renewed inspiration, Hall sought a way to combine the two. Big Hero 6, a pop-culture infused, Japanese superhero comic, provided the solution. Out of the six movie ideas he pitched to Lasseter and the team, BH6 easily took first place. “At its core, it’s a story of loss and grief. But it’s also a superhero origin story,” he explained.

At Disney, directors own and passionately pitch their own stories. Director Chris Williams openly recounted the “emotionally ambitious” storyboarding process for the audience: “Collaboration can sometimes fight human nature. You have to fight the human desire for affirmation. We want honest, open debate. You make yourself very vulnerable… presenting a story idea is like saying ‘This is who I am.’ You need to have thick skin.”

Conli nodded, adding: “Don’t cling to the safety of what is known. You have to let go.”

With Producer Roy Conli on April 23rd

With the film green-lit and a suggestion to stray from Marvel’s traditional New-York-Going-to-Sh!t setting, Hall and team went for the iconic cities of San Francisco and Tokyo to create the idealized San Fransokyo. Three days of walking tour research in Tokyo produced thousands of photos and videos and also proved essential to authenticating the animated scenes, right down to the milk crates: Hall credited two employees, Scott and Paul, with the inclusion of minute details such as empty Japanese takeout boxes and fluorescent storefront signs.

On the other side of the globe, SF native John Lasseter insisted that the three pay close attention the unique lighting and fog of San Francisco. To accomplish this, the men set up a GoPro camera atop the highest building in the city and captured 24 hours of rolling fog, sunrise and sunset to mimic in the film. On the east coast, a visit to roboticists at Carnegie Mellon University spurred their interest in soft robotics. Unlike traditional robots, these are filled with air and are designed to provide smart healthcare.

They decided to house their own soft robot and his buddy, Hiro, inside an old Victorian home, inspired by the Painted Ladies of the Haight-Ashbury district. The neighborhood composition itself was a logic-defying, technological feat: Visual Effects Supervisor Kyle Odermatt and crew created Hyperion, a program that replicated over 80,000 buildings with a render of almost unlimited geometric complexity and explicit replication rule sets, encompassing every window, rooftop and street in San Francisco. “We don’t do anything randomly,” he insisted.

Zach Parrish, Head Animator, brought these landscapes to life with the help of Maya’s broad and fine pose-centric controls as well as an original software called Denizen that generated over 700 unique characters, some personalized avatars of Disney employees and animators, themselves. Parrish began animating his large cast of main characters by asking each character animator to draw their subject as a bouncing ball which later informed their walk cycles and separate mannerisms. Knowing that a truly human-esque robot would have an undesired creepy effect, they gave Baymax a simple physique, the walk of a baby penguin and two circles and a line for a face, allowing the audience to project whatever feelings they wanted onto the huggable character (Parrish called this process ‘unimation’).

As the night went on, Director of Cinematography Adolph Lusinsky explicated the painstaking lighting process – each object in each frame is lit with consideration of (but not an obligation to) reality. For example, they had to light Baymax over 10 times per frame to achieve his luminescent, internal glow, which effects coordinators previously tested out by lighting a beach ball from the inside.

Lasseter pushed the lighting team to its limits, asking them to create colors and iluminate matter that, quite frankly, didn’t exist. This added to the other-worldly feel of the dramatic portal scene in which Baymax and Hero rocket through trippy, chromatic fractals. Lusinsky’s coworkers designed an original software (I’m sensing a pattern here, Disney) that generated each fractal’s complex pattern, range of motion and impossibly bright color. You can get a glimpse here:

I am awed at how incredibly and beautifully made Big Hero 6 is and I now have a much greater appreciation for Disney’s computer animation process, which is much more technologically advanced and imagineered than I had even thought possible. If you haven’t seen Big Hero 6, I highly recommend this emotional, hilarious viewing experience to you and yours!


IMG_0795 A special thanks to Cari Neubrand, my BFF at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, for letting me be her + 1 at this incredibly enlightening event!

Satisfied with the Academy’s Care,

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