Disney’s Big Hero 6 is the tale of a young robotics genius who forms a heroic team with his friends and a big, charmingly puffy robot. The winner of 2015’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, BH6 also won the hearts of audiences all over the world.
Big Hero 6 story artists Normand Lemay and Brian Kesinger led a panel at WonderCon where they discussed the art of and process behind creating the story the film. Their talk was supplemented with a visual slideshow presentation, most of which Lemay put together in order to demystify the Disney storyboarding process.
They also presented two early-stage prototypes: never before seen sequences appearing neither on the Blu-Ray nor in the official art book.
Here are ten Big Hero 6 behind-the-scenes secrets from the film.
1. The first prototype scene shown was entitled Baymax Vs. Yokai. Kesinger narrated each sketched panel of the storyboard as it came on screen, explaining the action, reading out the dialogue, and even making sound effects. The scene was first created early on in production, and was meant to focus on the main character Hiro’s relationship with his robot sidekick Baymax without the rest of the heroic team as support. It starts with Hiro rushing down a dark alley looking for Baymax, only to find the robot surrounded by hoodlums, getting tagged with bright green spraypaint. “Creative expression can be very therapeutic,” Baymax calmly explains.
Of course, that’s when the villainous Yokai shows up, leading to a chase throughout the city, complete with runaway cable cars, baffled tourists, and lots of friendly, misplaced advice from everyone’s favorite healthcare robot.
2. Lemay presented the second scene, Akuma Island. It features the whole heroic team as they stumble across an old scientific lab hidden in an abandoned prison, full of machines they don’t understand. “Whatever they were doing here, it didn’t go well,” Hiro remarks as they poke around the roots of the villain’s tragic backstory. Soon enough, Yokai appears, attacking the kids with a viciousness for which the team is not at all prepared. They fumble a little with their new powers and contraptions, but manage to survive…long enough for Yokai to escape. The scene ends with them racing after him — Fred via water, Baymax and Hiro via air, and everyone else via Honey Lemon’s chemical balls turning ocean water into bouncy rubber.
3. Once it had been decided that the film would be set in a futuristic amalgam of San Francisco and Tokyo, a core group of artists from the BH6 team set off on an epic field trip. World creation, look, and feel are incredibly important in Disney movies, from the Norwegian-inspired Arendelle of Frozen to Litwak’s Arcade in Wreck-It Ralph; the BH6 artists wanted to make San Fransokyo come alive in the same way. While many other movies adapted from Marvel comics take place more or less in the real world, Hero had an opportunity to create a location different from any found today, but one that still would feel real and engaging.
Lemay and Kesinger showed photographs from the team’s research trips to San Francisco and Tokyo. In order to be able to pitch the idea to the studio, the team had to achieve a deep understanding of these locations. They took pictures, researched all types of architecture, and talked to people living in these cities, all to be able to capture and communicate a dynamic, authentic feel when crafting the world of the film.
4. Carnegie Mellon’s research labs not only provided inspiration for The San Fransokyo Institute of Technology in the film, but also for the actual character design of Baymax himself. Lemay showed pictures of an inflatable robotic arm they had seen in development for health care needs, explaining that they realized a soft, huggable robot was the perfect look for the gentle Baymax.
5. When asked about his favorite character, Kesinger chose Baymax first, but then wavered. He ended up being split between Baymax and Fred, explaining his affinity for the latter: “Fred is kind of like all of us nerds!” He also revealed that before T.J. Miller was cast, he got to be the voice of Fred in early screenings.
6. Lemay also chose Baymax as his favorite character, but added that Go Go Tomago is a close second: “I like how stubborn she is,” he explained, “and I just love her as a character, she’s very specific, and kickass!”
7. Much of the visual presentation was focused on breaking down and explaining the process of how story turns into storyboarding, and how storyboarding in turn becomes a full movie. Most slides shown looked like bits of storyboards themselves, evocative sketches of teams arguing plot points and storyboard artists presenting sequences. Storyboarding is a key element of any animated project, whether the animation is hand-drawn or digital, but Walt Disney was actually one to create the process as it’s used today. One slide of the panel presentation showed a photograph of one of the early concept meetings for Big Hero 6. Front and center in this photo was Burny Mattinson, a Disney Legend and the last person in the Disney animation department to have worked with Walt Disney himself.
8. The script of BH6 was broken into chunks, assigned out to individual story artists. Each artist then worked on their own sequences, looking at external media for inspiration, but even more so focusing on their own experiences and memories to give their work a real sense of authenticity. They would then present the storyboarded scenes to the team — in much the same way as Lemay and Kesinger presented their cut scenes to the audience — and get feedback, and keep iterating, over and over, until…
9. Eventually, the storyboards were passed to the editorial team, who prepared all available resources for a first screening. Anyone in Disney Animation can come to these initial viewings, and while they’re watching the screen, the story team is watching the audience, noting reactions (e.g. if the audience laughs when they’re supposed to). After that first screening, everyone had input, from Jeph Loeb and Joe Quesada of Marvel to John Lasseter of Disney and Pixar. More and more iterations and screenings came out of these meetings. Lemay explained that most Disney animated movies typically have between seven and nine screenings, meaning there are essentially “nine different versions of every movie we create” as they course-correct for maximum emotional impact.
10. As of now, Kesinger and Lemay don’t know anything about a sequel or television adaptation. Big Hero 6 is still airing in some parts of the world — they just recently finished promotion for the final opening of the movie — so there is nothing planned for the future at this point.
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