Behind the Scenes of BIG HERO 6:
Bringing the Charming Comic to the Big Screen
By Ben Kayser and Rachal Marquez
BIG HERO 6 is an excellent Disney animated movie about a 14-year-old boy who turns a huggable healthcare robot into a fighting machine and enlists the help of four friends to catch a villain in the city of San Fransokyo.
Movieguide® recently had the chance to speak with and hear from the directors, producer and actors in this new Disney animated adventure.
Movieguide®: What was the challenge in balancing some of the high conflict in the story while also keeping it accessible for young kids?
Don Hall (Co-Director): It was the challenge in the movie. The biggest challenge of making these movies is always going to be story. Always. It’s never a technical challenge. There are going to be technical challenges, but they’re never the main challenge. For this particular story, we were taking on a lot. We had the robot story, which is this emotional story of a kid who loses his brother and a robot who attempts to heal him. This was the emotional stake in the ground we made. Because it’s called Big Hero 6, we had a team, and a superhero origin story we had to weave into that. It took several iterations of the story reels and the storyboard process to get all those to work together.
Chris Williams (Co-Director): We knew that we were going to take on the idea of loss in a very direct way, and that our main character was going to suffer a loss, and that we weren’t going to cut time. We were going to deal with the immediate aftermath of the loss. So we knew, we were going to be taking on some pretty deep emotions, and we wanted to be true to that. At the same time, we wanted it to be a fun, entertaining movie, and so balancing the comedy with the pathos for Hiro was a big part of the challenge. But, that’s always been part of Disney history, going back to Dumbo, going back to Bambi. These are movies that had very powerful messages and very powerful emotion, so we’re not shy about taking on difficult subject matter.
Roy Conli (Producer): We screened it when it was halfway done; it was 50 percent in storyboards and 50 percent animation – rough animation, for that matter – to a family group, just out of curiosity. We were all a little terrified, thinking, “Okay, there’s some spooky stuff in here.” The great thing happened when the first kind of spooky scene, the swarm scene when Baymax and Hiro are attacked by the microbots, the great equalizer in that thing is Baymax. Because with Baymax in there, that scene actually becomes a comedic scene.
Chris Williams: Comedy juxtaposed with terror.
Roy Conli: So you’ve got this amazing score that Henry Jackman has done, which is almost like Bernard Herrmann in the background, and then you have a waddling Baymax. It just diffused. You still get the tension, but it somehow doesn’t become terrifying for kids. It’s a great mix.
Chris Williams: Before scenes come together we view shots in isolation, and so we spent a long time looking at that first reveal of the masked villain, with that skeletal-looking mask and the strong top light. I was a little like, “What are we going for here?” That shot in isolation is really scary-looking. I thought maybe we’d gone too far. But, when you put it in context with Baymax, suddenly it’s very different tonally. He becomes cool, and scary enough, because kids like to be scared a little bit, but it’s not too much.
Question: We’re used to seeing these big Hollywood names in animation, and wondered what the thinking was behind your voice cast.
Don Hall: Best actor for the job. It always starts there, and never under any pressure to cast what you would call big stars or anything like that. I mean with John Lassiter, it really is, “Who is the best actor for the job?” This voice cast is amazing.
Chris Williams: Once they were in the booth, it was really hard to imagine anyone else playing these parts, they were so perfect for the role. They embraced the role. They really seemed invested in their character. The way it worked, we spend years doing iteration after iteration of the story, working out things, challenging our assumptions, making the story better and better and better. So these actors are oftentimes asked to redo scenes, redo lines, as they get better and better, and they’re always very patient and just great collaborators. No egos. . . they’re all very nice!
Question: Scott has such a sweet, gentle voice, and it’s not the voice that we associate with him usually, so how did you know he could have the perfect Baymax voice?
Don Hall: It came out of the character. We were looking for a very compassionate voice, and Scott was brilliant. He had a certain way he talked and spoke. But within the confines of that, within the confines of the script and the lines, Scott was able to add nuance to what is essentially a robotic character and comic timing. So, he did bring his genius to it in a very difficult voice role, to make it warm and appealing, but still robotic.
Roy Conli: Scott says when he came in, he recognized he was going to be doing a character whose vocal pattern would be a shifting set of digital information that would get the idea out. So when you listen to him, he will find the word that needs to be there. There’s just ever so slightly…
Don Hall: As if the computer is trying to find the phrase, he’ll add that little pause.
Roy Conli: Yeah. He’s just really brilliant. This is the first cast I’ve ever worked with that we could actually cast the film in a live action version, because they’re as beautiful as the characters on the screen. They’re really wonderful; they’re great.
Question: You mentioned Henry Jackman just now. Could you talk about what it is about Henry Jackman? What it’s like working with him in general, and what sound he gave to this film?
Don Hall: I was fortunate enough to work with Henry on Winnie the Pooh and I thought he did an amazing score on that. What I loved about Henry is he could break things down into easily digestible ideas. I don’t know music. I like what I hear, but I don’t speak that language. He speaks it on a music nerd level like you would not believe. As nerdy as we are with animation and comic books, he is that way with music. What his great gift is, in addition to just being a talented and amazing musician and composer, is he can digest a note. We’ll go down and listen to temp tracks. Because we’re not verbal in terms of music, we can talk in generalities, and he understands how to take that note and then read it back to us and address it. He’s just a great communicator when it comes to music. In addition to just being so versatile. This score is really versatile. He goes from superhero themes to, like the Bernard Herrmann cue, from swarm to really gentle, emotional scenes. I think he loved the challenge. He kept telling us that he loves the movie, and that it gave him this opportunity to kind of try out and flex his muscles with the car chase. That was kind of electronica, and he was able to dabble in that.
Roy Conli: First, he’s a great collaborator. Out process was that we would sit down with him once a week for maybe 12 weeks or so, and go through chunks of the film. He told me early on that one of the most influential courses he ever took when he was a script analysis course. And that’s the thing, he walks in with a great analysis. He understands the literary conceit that we’re doing. We may not understand the nuance or the parlance of the musical terms, but he totally understands the literary conceits, and he’s able to bring that to the film.
Question: Did you consider other Marvel comic books to create a story about, and why did you choose Big Hero 6?
Don Hall: Yes. We’re never tasked with coming up with only one idea. John [Lasseter] always asks us to do at least three, the idea being that you don’t put all your emotional eggs in one basket; you spread it out. So you pick three ideas that you’re passionate about. So for this one, I think I had boiled it down to maybe five, and Big Hero 6 was among them. I can’t go into the other ones, obviously, but this one, what it did have, was a uniqueness. It just had sort of a flavor to it that was kind of fun and playful. It celebrated Japanese pop culture, and I thought the characters were very fun and appealing. I think what John gravitated towards, as well as the other directors, was that there could be an emotional story here between this kid who suffers a loss and this robot. It was the least developed out of everything that I pitched, and probably the most obscure.
Chris Williams: But, it had the most potential emotionally.
Don Hall: It did have the most potential, and John went right to it.
Chris Williams: We all did. Everyone that Don pitched to really reacted strongly to the emotional potential of the idea of a kid who loses his older brother and is left with his older brother’s robot as a surrogate older brother. Everybody was blown away by the potential in that. Then, you spend years working on version after version of the story, trying to reach that potential.
Question: Ryan Potter could almost play a live version. Was that something you were looking for when you were casting?
Chris Williams: You can’t fake that energy. You can’t fake youth. You couldn’t have someone our age – a middle-aged person – play a 14-year-old. When he started, he was 16.
Don Hall: He was 16 when he first started, and he had that youthful spirit. But, you know what actually Ryan brought to it? It can be very easy for a 14-year-old protagonist to go snarky. So Ryan, what he brought to it, was a warmth and sincerity. Because Ryan was not that [snarky]. Even when he was 16, he didn’t have a lot of those teenager affectations. He was a really well brought up, solid, respectful, smart, confident kid. He brought a lot of that. As far as looks-wise, we never base anything like that on looks, but Ryan’s spirit definitely influenced the character.
Chris Williams: But he had the energy that we needed. He has a lot of dialogue in this movie, so we would have these five-hour marathon recording sessions, and he never flagged. He was amazing.
Don Hall: He was as fresh at the end as he was at the beginning.
Chris Williams: We were exhausted, but he was ready for more.
Don Hall: And not only that, but Hiro had to carry the emotion. There were some dramatic scenes that had to get across, and he was great at it. He had us crying in the booth several times.
Chris Williams: He tapped into that so readily. I was always amazed by that. It was very authentic, and he got there really quickly. That’s one of the really difficult things about acting in animation, because it’s not like you put on the clothes and go to the set and get in the mindset of the scene and work with the other actors: you have to imagine everything. Because we sort of zipped from scene to scene to scene in the midst of one recording session, he would be asked to go from one emotion to another: this is a dramatic scene, this is a comedic scene. Ryan aside, generally, actors are pretty wiped out by the end of these sessions because so much is asked of them.
Don Hall: Even this one, it’s like, “Okay. You’re brother just died, you’re sad. Okay, you’re robot just farted in the window.” He had to do both of those things, and he handled it brilliantly.
Roy Conli: It’s a distillation process. It’s all about distilling it to what the absolute essence of the story is.
Chris Williams: We work in a very fluid story environment. We’re always questioning our assumptions, we’re always making changes, and after twenty years, I’ve really come to believe that change is almost always for the better. Basically, if you’re changing your story, it’s because it needs changing, and it’s getting better. So we’ve learned to let go of things pretty readily, because there’s usually something better around the corner.
Roy Conli: I’ve seen directors hold onto things and hold onto things, and it slows the story process down. If you’re bold, as these guys were, they get in there and just go, “This is not helping us get here.” So they would move it aside – because it’s always there, if you need to bring it back, it’s there – but they would move it aside and just move on, and it was very wonderful.
Don Hall: Yeah, “try it without and see if you miss it” is a common thing.