'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' mesmerized audiences in 1937. It was the first feature length animated film, realized with illustrative imagination and popping Technicolor. As the New York Times review describes, there was nothing quite like it. “Delightful, gay, and altogether captivating,” Frank S. Nugent wrote after the film's premiere at New York City's Radio City Music Hall. He was seduced, smitten. “Thank you very much, Mr. Disney, and come again soon.”
77 years later, Walt Disney Animation Studios is still in the toon business, with competition on every front. There are the competing animation studios — Dreamworks, Blue Sky, Illumination Entertainment — and studios' live-action slates too, CG spectacles that veer more and more towards straight animation with each passing year. Disney Animation isn't flinching, nor are they living in a bubble. For its 54th feature, Chief Creative Officer and Pixar founder John Lasseter will court competition from today's most ferocious trend: the comic book movie. 'Big Hero 6,' based on a Marvel book by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau, follows Hiro (Ryan Potter), a 14-year-old boy genius who bounces back after the death of his brother by befriending inflatable health care robot Baymax ('30 Rock''s Scott Adsit) and turning him into an armored crime fighter. Not exactly, 'Frozen.'
There was a post-”princess movie” moment where Disney chased the “boy demographic.” It didnt' work out so well; Films like 'Atlantis' and 'Treasure Planet' came and went. Under the current Disney brand, 'Big Hero 6' isn't as aggressively alternative — not with Marvel as an in-house entity — but but the competition raises questions of what the Mouse House can bring to the table. 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' was basically a cartoon. The five-character team of 'Guardians of the Galaxy' had two fully CG characters. The Transformers moves are basically the pixel equivalent of a Stan Brakhage film. And now there's 'Big Hero 6,' a fully animated feature competing with live-action bombast. How will it stand out from the crowd?
The Walt Disney legacy, and the idiosyncratic creative process that comes with it.
The legacy part shouldn't be a problem. There's a rush of spirit upon entering the Walt Disney Animation offices. The studio is a utopia. Not just on the surface, which looks like a cross between 'Logan's Run,' Willy Wonka's factory, and the Google offices in 'The Internship,' but in its mechanics, too. Everyone's courteous, everyone's passionate, everyone's a workhorse, everyone loves everyone. It's like walking into a giant hug.
Disney's “Nine Old Men” were the key animators who came on board in the '30s to nurture Walt's style and define what made a Disney movie a Disney movie. They animated, they directed, they talked story, they were co-workers transformed into family. Since, Walt Disney Animation's expanded to hundreds of employees, though the “Nine Old Men” mentality remains integral to the process of building a movie like 'Big Hero 6.' Under the guidance of Lasseter, directors Don Hall ('Winnie the Pooh') and Chris Williams ('Bolt'), and producer Roy Conli ('Tangled'), Team Disney is the creative equivalent of Voltron. At times they're individuals completing assigned tasks or focusing on passion projects. At others, a series of teams hustling to perfect scenes from the latest tentpole, a artisan Model T assembly line. Or they're one massive unit, a hive mind capable of rattling off post-screening notes, artistic secrets, or spiritual guidance.
Other studios foster writers programs and story-smashing collectives, but there's nothing quite as invigoratingly strange as the workflow at Disney. On one hand, as Hall, Williams, and Conli insist, it's a director's studio. 'Big Hero 6' came about after Hall went searching for potential Marvel comic book material to adapt. He settled on the obscure title because he liked the name. What he could stretch into a Disney-ified story didn't hurt either: A story of friendship for a tech-driven age, colorful designs and costumed characters, inherent action filmmaking – a full package.
When work began on developing, scripting, storyboarding, and chiseling 'Big Hero 6' out of a piece of granite, it took a town. Hall admits he's not the Hayao Miyazaki type, laboring in a dark room, painting frames until his vision is 100 percent clear and ready to execute. Conception starts with the “Story Trust,” directors, heads of story, and other Disney Animation main players who collectively solidify the amorphous pitch. Robert Baird is the credited screenwriter of 'Big Hero 6,' but his job is both that of a creator and translator. The Story Trust will lay down the tracks and he'll take a pass. Concept artists and character designers will reflect those ideas, then Baird will revise. Animators step in, stand-in dialogue is recorded — Baird takes a pass. Rough assembly cuts of the film are screened for studio employees, years prior to the film's eventual release, to see what works and what doesn't. Knives are out. Baird takes a pass.
Paul Briggs is the 'Big Hero 6' Head of Story. He works with Baird and the other departments to keep the ever-changing script in check and ensuring that the written elements translate into the right visuals. He insists the Story Trust method, brought over by Lasseter from Pixar, allows for more discovery than the simpler sit-down-write-a-script-and-shoot-it tradition. “I think it allows you to constantly be challenging yourself to do better. When someone else is looking at it and asking, 'Is that the way it should be?' We're not all holding arms and skipping through the fields. There's a lot of passion and a lot of arguing. I visualize it as constantly ripping at the thing.”
Williams swears Story Trust meetings can roll storm clouds across the peachy Disney offices, but at the end of the day, Disney team members are conditioned to kill their darlings and embrace change. The core idea of 'Big Hero 6,' a boy and his robot, acted as a keystone to the script. Around it, major changes toyed with in test screenings contextualized the adventure in new ways. At different points during production, Hiro was involved with a backstreet bot fighting ring; The re-characterization of Wasabi, Hiro's crime fighting ally, from zen master to someone who acknowledges the dangers of superheroism, altered the motives of his colleagues; And it was only after the first few passes at the script and conversations with Carnegie Mellon robotics gurus that Baymax transformed into an inflatable “health care” robot.
The balloonish Baymax design looks nothing like the original Marvel comic book illustrations. Hall and Williams don't mind. 'Big Hero 6' is not a Marvel movie beholden to mythology — an advantage, it seems, when a team of animators scavenge the spectrum of human movement for something to help characters stand out. For Zach Parrish, Head of Animation, and his cartooning cohorts, Baymax is like a pony on Christmas. He's tangible without adhering to the rigid physics of people. Though current 3D CG animation may reach for photorealism, Parrish says Disney Animation's goal is believability. Hiro and the other human characters are more caricature than mirror images. Baymax is on a whole other level, Buster Keaton in a sumo wrestling suit. To understand Baymax is to understand the world of 'Big Hero 6' (an futuristic hybrid city called “San Fransokyo”), modern technology, and Asimovian speculation.
“You have to unlearn everything,” Parrish says. “You still have to worry about his weight. He can't stand on one foot without counterbalancing his weight. You have to ground him in the physical world, but you don't have to anticipate. Anticipation is one of the animation principles. That's where, if you're going to jump, you have to squash and stretch. He doesn't have to do that. He can start walking. He doesn't have to rock his weight back and get that momentum because he's all driven by the mechanics within. A lot of the times, it was 'Take that out.' He can stop. That's something we don't do with a human character. No one ever completely stops. There's always something to keep them alive. With Baymax, if he doesn't need to move, don't do it.”
2D animation is quickly becoming a craft of the past. The last traditionally animated American feature film was one of Hall's: 2011's 'Winnie the Pooh.' Though CEO Bob Iger revealed that Disney doesn't have plans to resuscitate 2D in feature form anytime soon, tits veterans won't fade along with it. Underneath every dimensionalized character in 'Big Hero 6' is a 2D animated skeleton, that Walt Disney legacy alive and well. Mark Henn, who animated Ariel in 'The Little Mermaid,' Belle in 'Beauty and the Beast,' and Jasmine in 'Aladdin,' works closely with Parrish's team, pushing the young animators to rely on frame-by-frame decision-making over a computer filling in the blanks. In front of a crowd of journalists, Henn took a scene from 'Big Hero' and performed a digitized draw over, sketching out nuanced movement. An inverted elbow here, a lower brow there, and Hiro's mild-mannered entrance turns into a character beat.
But the action in 'Big Hero 6' demands CG techniques, says Conli. “I think peril in 3D is more easily achievable than in 2D. It's psychological. Comedy, really easy. Tragedy or emotional, very easy. Peril — this is a personal feeling — I feel CG, because of its dimensionality, seduces an audience member into something deeper.” Is there any chance of a 2D animated feature down the road? Conli says absolutely, if a director comes along with a great pitch. “The fact that Don was interested in this. It'll be interesting to see where Don comes on to the next project. Don may want to do something in Southeast Asia,” Conli suggests, an idea that seems too specific to be random.
There's obvious sea change at the studio: Over the years, the visual effects squad has grown to accommodate the more complicate cinematic scenarios that can't be accomplished by animation. Water, fire, magic-like superpowers, and 'Big Hero 6''s major effect, villain Yokai's army of swirling microbots. The division's rooted in algorithms and simulations, but even they tip their hat to Mr. Disney in the way they conduct business. For Parrish and the VFX tech geeks alike, observation is key. For the microbots, which defy gravity and assimilate into any arrangement the Yokai can whip up, the team studied the cooperative behavior of ants.
The observation extends to their own history: For shots of water, the team still admires the handcrafted work in 'Pinocchio'. Ensuring that every Disney animator can soak up the company's sprawling filmography, each studio workstation is outfitted with DPIX, a custom streaming service that can pull up any Disney movie, any scene, with a few clicks of a mouse. The future is now, and it's all about the past.
The utopian face of Disney offers little opening for true understanding of what happens behind closed doors. The general vibe shared by everyone involved with 'Big Hero 6' is the same as that 1937 New York Times review: “Delightful, gay, and altogether captivating!” Footage from the finished film suggests maybe they're not just drinking Kool-Aid. In a pivotal moment, Hiro and Baymax, now decked out with jet pack armor, take to the skies of San Fransokyo in a scene Baird dubs “First Flight.” It's majestic, the duo soaring through the sky like 'How to Train Your Dragon''s Toothless or Donner's Superman, backdropped by a sunset and the alternate universe’s version of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's just an adrenaline rush. A few scenes before, Hiro's brother was killed. Driven to cure any ailments, mend any wounds, Baymax realizes that taking Hiro for a ride will “save” him. It does.
I ask the directors why, in this day and age, 'Big Hero 6' wasn't just a live-action movie supplemented by special effects. It goes back to ol' Walt and a skill set honed over 90 years. “We're good at caricaturing and paring things down to their essence. Strip things away and find things that are subtly observed. A tiny acting choice can mean a lot in animation in a way that live-action can't.”