Following in the footsteps of recent Walt Disney Animation Studios hits like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen might seem a daunting undertaking, but it’s one that the team behind this fall’s Big Hero 6 is eager to take on. The new film, hitting theaters on November 7, is directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams and is loosely based on the Marvel Comics series of the same name. To show off their unique approach to the material, Disney recently invited a small group of journalists to take a look at the world of both the superhero ensemble as well as that of Feast, the new short film that will precede Big Hero 6 in theaters.
Hall’s career with Disney began when he joined the story department on 1999’s Tarzan, continuing on at the studio through animated features like The Emperor’s New Groove, Meet the Robinsons and The Princess and the Frog. He then made his directorial debut with 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. Williams, meanwhile, began on Mulan in 1998, worked in the story department on films like Brother Bear and The Emperor’s New Groove and made his own debut with 2008’s Bolt. Now, not unlike the heroes at the center of their new film, the two talents have joined forces. Instead of taking on evil high-tech criminals, however, they’re aiming to deliver a family adventure with heart.
Read on for our conversation with Hall and Williams to learn about some of the themes behind Big Hero 6 and its connections to Marvel and, in the gallery viewer at the bottom of this page, check out a collection of behind-the-scenes stills that show off concept art, inspirational architecture and the talented crew themselves behind the upcoming fall release. Check back soon, too, for more coverage from Big Hero 6, including our interview with Feast director Patrick Osborne.
Q: I imagine that, for artists with focuses on animation, getting to tackle a superhero story is a particular delight.
Chris Williams: Oh yeah. Specifically yours, Donnie. He grew up with the comics.
Don Hall: Yeah, it is a dream sort of thing. It wasn’t like I was a fan of “Big Hero 6,” specifically, just because it wasn’t invented in the ’70s. It was much later, in the ’90s. But the idea of Marvel Comics and Disney Animation? Those are my top everything. If you ask my eight-year-old self what he was into, it was that. In addition, that is, to “Star Wars” and a few other things. The chance to combine those two things, though, in this new and unique way, makes it one of those things that — yeah, it’s hard to do right now because we’re still in the woods with it — on reflection, is such an amazing chance to be able to tell this story. There have been so many challenges because there’s so many elements we want to get into the story. There’s a robot story, a superhero origin story, there’s Disney and Marvel and the eastern and western thing. Now, being on this side of it and knowing that we — hopefully — got all those things to work together in a nice, pleasing way and seeing all those things come together, it’s a nice, gratifying feeling.
Q: Was there ever a point where this could have taken place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Williams: That was never considered.
Hall: Yeah, it was just early on that we had inquired about “Big Hero 6.” They were like, “That’s interesting. That’s cool.” Then we had a meeting where we sat down and talked it out. It felt strong. They were like, “You guys should just take this and go. We’d like to see what you do with it.” I think they were just really curious to see what that would be. There was really nothing but encouragement from that side of the fence with the Marvel guys.
Williams: Yeah, I think there was general agreement on all sides that it would be great to have something inspired by a Marvel property, but that we’d be happy to take it and make it out own. If we had tried to make it adhere to the Marvel world, it would have been too tangled. It was important to take it and make it our own and they were very supportive in that. The Marvel guys were always a part of the process. They would come to screenings and give feedback. They’re really smart guys and we speak the same language. They were never limiting and they were always protective. They were always willing to let us just see where we could take it.
Hall: Then, during the making of all this, we made “Tangled,” “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Frozen.” They’re astute guys and they went and saw those movies and, I think, saw the animation that is being done at this place and thought, “God, what are they going to do with one of our things?” I think there was a genuine excitement and curiosity on their part about what would happen.
Williams: It was a real level of respect going both ways and we both share such similar creative cultures.
Q: There’s an extremely beautiful metaphor in Hiro’s brother, Tadashi, leaving him with a robot specifically designed to heal. How quickly did Hiro’s healing from an extreme loss become a driving element of the story?
Hall: It was very early in the original inception. We knew we wanted to have an element of that. The healing robot wasn’t a part of it yet. That came during the research trips. But the idea of a kid going through a loss and then the notion of a robot creature helping him deal with that and become a surrogate brother, that was very early. That was part of the original DNA. The actual healing robot came when we went to Carnegie Mellon and found the soft robotics and the vinyl and stuff like that. That was where Baymax the character — our Baymax the character — was birthed. It always seemed like there was something very poetic about a kid losing an older brother and the older brother’s creation being the thing that’s left behind to fill the void. We realized that there was something very powerful in that and Tadashi, as a good and selfless person, would pass it along to his creation. Then we came up with the idea that Baymax knows quite a bit about physical injuries, but isn’t so good at emotional ones. So he’s going through his own learning process, too and they’re going to grow together. We realized the potential of this kind of relationship more and more over years of development.
Q: The last few films from Walt Disney Animation Studios have been huge hits, both critically and at the box office. Do you find that things are changing artistically as far as the way new ideas are approached on a company level?
Hall: Well, every since John Lasseter showed up, the culture changed dramatically. We’re really, really proud of everything we’ve made since then. It’s a collaborative culture, which is the main thing they’ve brought to this place. There are no egos. Its a very humbling thing to develop something and pitch something and then be given all sorts of alternative points of view of how we might have done things differently. But what has really grown since John showed up is maybe a sense of confidence. We really believe in what we can do. Nicely, though, that has not been coupled with ego. There’s a big sense of confidence and a sense that we have a lot we can prove, but I don’t see it going to anyone’s head. As long as that’s the case, we can keep that collaborative environment.
Williams: It really was about a culture shift more than anything else. You can’t really ever predict how much money a movie is going to make or if it catches fire or not. There are so many variables. What you can control is sort of the culture and the way you approach the craft of making one of these films. That’s what drastically changed when John and Ed [Catmull] came in. It has always been a magnet for talent, the chance to work at Disney Animation, because of the legacy. Disney has always pulled in the best talent in the animation industry. What they came and provided was the ability and the confidence and the knowledge on how to craft a masterpiece. How to create something that will live on well past us. How well it does at the box office is kind of a variable, but what they did was create a culture as to how to approach the filmmaking in a way that would make these movies the best they can be.
Hall: They did encourage us to challenge each other. They encouraged us to really invest in what we’re making and pursue only movies that we really love. They unleashed this creative potential in this place that was already there. They just allowed it to really grow.