At the 2014 Deadline Contenders event we spoke with the key creative minds behind Disney’s highly-acclaimed hit, Big Hero 6, which was released in November. Directors Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) and Chris Williams discuss the Tokyo Film Festival premiere, the genesis of their own unique story universe, “huggability,” and more. Big Hero 6 is nominated for a Golden Globe for best animated feature film and is expected to be a strong contender at the 2015 Oscars.
You guys just got back from Tokyo, didn’t you?
Don Hall: We did. The world premiere at the Tokyo Film Festival was an awesome experience. We put a lot of effort into researching and spent a lot of time in Tokyo and it was very gratifying that all of it really paid off. A lot of the press said it felt like it was one of the most authentic Japanese movies they’d ever seen even though it’s a fictional world.
How did you come to be involved with the adaptation of an existing Marvel property?
Hall: It’s been quite a journey from Winnie the Pooh to Big Hero 6. I loved Marvel comics and Disney animation as a kid. So the thought of matching those two things up was very appealing. I came across Big Hero 6 because I liked the title. I researched it; I read the comics. I just loved the characters. I thought they were very fresh and fun.
There were two series if I remember correctly—one in the 1990s and they brought it back in 2004. But these renditions had a very different feel to them.
Hall: The tone of the books, what I liked about them—it felt like a love letter to Japanese pop culture. And you could see that these characters would translate really well to animation, but also we saw that there could be a really emotional story here, too, between this 14 year old super genius who loses his older brother and this robot, Baymax, who becomes his sort of healer.
Chris, one of the things that’s quite remarkable about the film is that it takes place in a fictional city, but one that’s inspired by two very real cities.
Chris Williams: That’s one of the things we love to do at Disney Animation, is build worlds. In this case, San Fransokyo is a mash up of San Francisco and Tokyo.
A remarkable aspect of animation is that, in a world where we talk about globalization, animated films can truly be global in scope.
Williams: It was nice to be able to set it in a world that was clearly not our world and not even Marvel’s version of our world. So there was no question of whether Captain America might be showing up or something like that.
Hall: That was really on with Marvel. They said, “Don’t worry about setting it our world. Do your own thing.” So we took advantage of it.
You began with strong source material, which is so often the basis of great films. Could you talk a bit about developing the character of the robot, Baymax?
Hall: It was very important that we do something unique. We looked at every robot that has ever been done in Japanese and American pop culture, and said, “OK, we can’t do any of those. We have to come up with our own thing.” Not only that, but he had to be appealing and the term “huggable” kept getting thrown about.
Is that a real term around your office—huggable?
Hall: One of our vis dev artists said he’s got to be a huggable robot. So that was in the back of my head. I did a research trip very early on to MIT, Harvard and Carnegie Melon and it was at Carnegie Melon that I came across soft robotics, which is this brand new field of robotics where they’re making soft, inflatable robots that will eventually be used in the health care industry. And once I saw that I was like, “OK, that’s our huggable robot.” I had never seen anything like it. Baymax’s entire character, his nurse persona, his whole personality, his design came from that trip.
Animation has evolved so much, but I sense that it’s important to you guys to take part in tradition—in the Disney legacy.
Hall: The legacy is something that we try not to think about too much because it can be overwhelming. But my first childhood memory that I can recall is watching Bambi. And I think those early Disney movies are a big part of the reason why we got into animation in the first place. We are always looking back at our lineage and asking ourselves, “What does it mean to be a Disney film?” A couple of things we’ve identified is, it needs to have a universal, emotional story and it has to have a timeless quality so that these movies can exist long after we’re gone.
How do you do that with something like Big Hero 6, which feels so forward-looking?
Hall: It has to have a strong emotional core. And I think if it does, then hopefully it can sit on a shelf next to Bambi and Dumbo and those great films.
Williams: That’s the key, really, is just the emotion and making sure that we honored that before all other things.
What are,your favorite Disney movies, beside those you’ve made?
Hall: Dumbo. It’s so simple and beautiful and kind of perfect.
Williams: Bambi. It was the movie that told me that my parents were going to die. And is there anything more powerful to tell a kid? But they did it so beautifully and so artfully and they had something to say about it. And so we look at these films and we say we shouldn’t be afraid of challenging or emotional material, as long as you do it artfully.
Chris Williams, left, and Don Hall photographed by J.R. Mankoff