To promote the upcoming November 7th release of the Walt Disney Animation Studios feature Big Hero 6, the studio invited members of the press out to see portions of the animated action-adventure comedy and to participate in presentations and demos to show what it takes to put a film like this together, from all aspects of the production. The story follows robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) who, after a tragic event, turns to robot companion Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit). With a dangerous plot unfolding on the streets of San Fransokyo, Hiro transforms a group of like-minded friends – adrenaline junkie Go Go Tomago (voiced by Jamie Chung), precision freak Wasabi (voiced by Damon Wayans Jr.), chemistry whiz Honey Lemon (voiced by Genesis Rodriguez) and fanboy Fred (voiced by T.J. Miller) – into high-teach heroes determined to solve the mystery and save the day.
During the early press day to preview what audiences can expect when the film inspired by the Marvel comics of the same name opens, Head of Animation Zach Parrish (who oversees the artists charged with creating the movement, emotion and physical performance of the characters) spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how exciting it is to know that people are already falling in love with the characters, that each of the character’s superpowers come from their personality, how much it helps the animation process when characters each have their own unique style, what he was most drawn to with this project, animating a character like Baymax who only has simple eyes to express himself with, what being head of animation on a project like this entails, and whether he can watch the finished film objectively. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
ZACH PARRISH: It’s amazing! You work on these films for so long. I’ve been on this for almost two years, and it feels like it’s a small production. We’re a small family team. And then, when you start seeing people outside latching onto it and really falling in love with it, you realize how deep of an impact the films have outside of these walls. It’s really encouraging. When people start falling in love with characters from a trailer, you know you have something special. It’s really exciting! I can’t wait for them to see the whole movie and see how much more people can fall in love with the characters. It’s very humbling, and it’s very strange.
Do you think that’s because this is such a diverse group of characters that people are already relating to them and are excited about them?
PARRISH: Yeah! I think it’s a really unique, diverse cast of characters. There’s someone that everyone can relate to, which is what I think is really cool about it. They’re really appealing, in their own way. They each have their own unique visual style. They each have their own unique personality that people can connect with. Within the context of the film, they all mesh so well together that it also speaks to friendship and diversity and acceptance. I think that’s a cool message. If people start picking that up and hanging out together, it’s a really cool message to be spreading.
Each character’s superpowers seem to also really come from their personality and who they are.
PARRISH: It really does. That’s something that the directors did a fantastic job with, from the very beginning. They even redid it, at points. Wasabi changed, over the course of the film, to really become this precise character who’s almost obsessive compulsive, but it speaks to the precision of his lasers. And Go Go is the speedster. The way she moves through life really speaks to her, as her superpower. It’s a nice thing to have a really comprehensive character, from beginning to end, in that sense.
PARRISH: It really does. It’s easy, as an animator, to fall into commonalities. You use this particular hand gesture on all of the characters because it’s very easy to throw that in there, but then you’re projecting yourself. I think the challenge is always to remember that you’re projecting that character. A lot of times, that’s the notes we’re given in rounds. Someone will say, “That works, but that doesn’t feel like the Go Go way to do it. She’s cool because she just stares.” Wasabi is very precise, so then you have the opportunity to freak out. And Honey can be a little zippier. It is liberating to say, “Okay, this is a Honey scene, so we can do this with it.” Now that we have really gotten to know these characters, we can push that even further to really help diversify. But, it’s a challenge. As an animator, you act it out the way that the character would act it out. A lot of times, you have to really switch off that hat and be like, “Wait! Sorry, I’m Honey now, so I would do it like this,” or “Now I’m Go Go and I have to do it like this.” It’s very specific. Switching the hat is the challenge, but it helps when they’re so unique in their style.
Did you find yourself drawn more to one of the characters, in particular?
PARRISH: I was drawn to the film, as a whole, because of the brothers’ relationship. I’m a younger brother, and I’m very close with my older brother. Hiro was always a character where I was like, “I get him.” And then, in addition to that, I was the lead animator during pre-production on Go Go because I felt like I could relate to her, too. I liked the contrast that she brought to the team. I liked that she was the Clint Eastwood, cool, calm, collected character, but then also had this ability to do crazy, outlandish physical activity, where we could really push the Marvel dynamics of the whole thing. It’s like picking a favorite child, though. They’re all awesome. And Baymax is just so endearing and lovable and innocent. That you get to put into him exactly what the story is saying and let the audience project onto him, is such a cool, new thing that we’ve never gotten to do before.
When you have a character like Baymax, who only has eyes to express himself, were you nervous about being able to pull that off?
PARRISH: No, actually. We never were. That was one of the cool things. Actually, when I started on this, Patrick Osborne was my co-head of animation before he started on Feast, and that was one of the things we were in a meeting about. We thought about putting a mouth on it, but we were like, “No.” It doesn’t need it. We could tell, from the beginning, that it was so well-designed and it had this rich innocence to it that you knew that he could just blink and the audience would get it, or he could just tilt his head and the audience would get it. If you space things out enough and you give each thing its proper phrasing, you can communicate an entire arc of a character with very limited animation, but that’s the challenge. You have to be very specific with each one of those phrases.
And Baymax’s eyes are so simple.
PARRISH: The eyes are so simple. They’re just circles. They never change shape. And we experimented with that, too. We were like, “Maybe he could have angry brows or sad brows, and you could rotate them.” But, it just became too specific. He was giving too much. With Baymax, if you set it up right and you give it the right amount of time, you know when he’s sad. The tiniest motions say so much with him, and that’s an awesome little tool to have in your animator tool box.
What exactly does being head of animation on a project like this entail?
PARRISH: I am the fall guy, for lack of a better term, for all of the character motion. Patrick and I chose supervisors, and they’re responsible for the sequences. I have the overlying view of all the animation. I’m tracking the character arc. For Baymax, he evolves over the course of the film. In our action sequences, we wanted to go from people who are put in a situation of action to people who become superheroes. We wanted to track how far we were pushing it, and making sure we stay within the characters. I should have a more global view of everything to make sure that that’s on model. They have to look like themselves, and that choice in their acting has to be specific to that character. So, most of my day, earlier in the production, is working with the layout department to work out the story. And then, I’m at all of the meetings with the directors, where they’re talking through the arc and what they want to get out of the scene. And then, I work with the animators in rounds and dailies and give them notes that say, “Well, this is the best way to communicate the idea of the shot, rather than the acting that you want to do. Here’s the best way to meld them together, and to have a consistent view across the entire thing.” It’s super rewarding because it’s an educational process, as well as a support system for the animators. They’re the best team in the world to work with. It’s been really rewarding.
Where do you begin with something like this? Does it start with trying to build the city, or does it start with the characters, or does it all happen at once?
PARRISH: It all happens at once. Each of us takes our own little piece. We started right in on Baymax, right away, doing our research. We looked at similar movies to make sure that we’re not repeating anything. We looked at robots. We looked at animals, like penguins, to define that style. We did a lot of checklists of, “Here’s what we want to accomplish.” Character specificity was always #1. We need to make sure that all of the characters are unique. Our action sequences have to be really pushed. We just started with the goals for what we want to accomplish with the film. I’ve had those written down the whole time, and I’m trying, every day, to make sure that I do all of those things. The first animation that we really started working on was what we could do action wise and who Baymax is. Those were the biggest question marks, from the very beginning.
Once it’s all put together, can you watch the finished film objectively?
PARRISH: Oh, absolutely! There are so many other people who contribute, along the way, with the effects and the lighting and the music. When you see everything put together, it’s amazing.
Big Hero 6 opens in theaters on November 7th. For more on the film, check out the official Facebook page.