Big Hero 6 co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams tell Jean Noh about building the world of San Fransokyo for their Marvel comic superhero adaptation

Big Hero 6

Between them, Big Hero 6 co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have close to 40 years’ experience at Walt Disney Animation Studios, working on films including Winnie The Pooh, Frozen, The Princess And The Frog, Bolt and Mulan.

For their latest, they searched the Marvel comic vaults and found Big Hero 6, about a Japanese superhero team, creating a hybrid of San Francisco and Tokyo — San Fransokyo — in which to set the story.

“That’s the first thing we do before we go into story. We create worlds. And we like them to be fantasy worlds, because we deal in fantasy,” says Hall, speaking to Screen at the film’s world premiere at Tokyo International Film Festival in October. “We took an existing city like San Francisco because it’s very iconic. Then we took a Japanese aesthetic and applied it to the whole city to create something new and hopefully fresh.”

Williams says they were following Walt Disney chief creative officer John Lasseter’s mandate of creating worlds where hopefully the audience will want to go. “We’ve heard again and again — San Fransokyo has a feeling of authenticity, even though it’s a mythical place…”

“It feels grounded in reality,” adds Hall, finishing his co-director’s thought. “It comes out of the sketching, the photos and the observation. We’d like to take all the credit but Scott Watanabe and Paul Felix, our art director and production designer, did an amazing job of creating a synthesis.”

The tasks of lighting and peopling the world were aided by new in-house tech-nology: Hyperion and Denizen. “We had a strong desire to push ourselves for the look of the movie to make it very cinematic and push the lighting in directions we hadn’t really gone before and it coincided with the development of this new software, Hyperion,” says Hall. “Our desire was to make the backgrounds, or the world, very dense and detailed, and our characters by contrast would be very simple.”

Sim cities

Disney worked with Denizen to create the hustle and bustle of San Fransokyo.

“The software allowed for many different body types and ethnicities, but not only that, the animators were smart because while the story was still taking shape, and the main characters were still getting rigged and designed, they started doing animation cycles that could be used.

“They did people on the street talking on the cellphone — you know, just slices-of-life kinds of things — people walking up stairs, a hill. When you get into production, you don’t have the time to really think about that stuff but, thanks to them, we had a whole library,” says Hall.

“In one of the crowds there are people communicating with sign language. And we didn’t make that choice, an animator did years ago. And I think that’s really exciting. A lot of the movie really depends on investment from the entire crew,” says Williams.

Hall adds: “We’re trying to create as collaborative an environment as we can. We have to have the vision for the film and guide it but, even within those perimeters, you want people to bring as much of themselves to the project.”

“The challenge for this film was that it was such an amalgam. We always knew it was going to be this Marvel-and-Disney thing, and a meeting of East and West. We knew it was going to have some pretty deep emotion, taking on the idea of loss, with some broad comedy at the same time. We spent years putting out version after version of this film,” says Williams.

They explain how Disney’s screening process let them develop the story.

“We storyboard and screen the movie about seven or eight times over the course of its life. So we’re constantly in a state of, ‘What’s working, what’s not working?’” says Hall. “It’s all storyboards until your third or fourth screening and then parts of your movie are starting to work, other parts don’t, and we have faith that the overall story and thematic is there. We’ll start putting some sequences into production and they’ll start getting animated.”

Talking about this fluid process and collaborative environment for honing a story, Williams says: “We have to foster an environment where people feel comfortable expressing conflicting viewpoints. Then when you have that energy of people coming together who are passionate and volunteering their ideas, that’s how the movie gets better.”

Hall says, “I will say that the biggest challenge story-wise was always going to be telling the story of a 14-year-old super genius who loses his brother, and the brother’s robot becoming a healer for this boy and healing his broken heart. And having that being the emotional spine of the story and trying to integrate a superhero origin story with that proved to be extremely difficult. 

“And we didn’t crack it until we figured out that Baymax needs to drive the story in the second half. When that happened, when we made Baymax a little bit more active in trying to treat Hiro, then the story really started falling into place.”

The result is a film that is unlike any other animated feature this year.

Hall says: “From The Lego Movie to How To Train Your Dragon 2 to Big Hero 6, they’re all wildly different. I love that animation seems to be a place where there’s a lot of boundary-pushing right now. It only helps the industry to have a selection of films that are different thematically, have different looks; that’s a sign of a healthy industry.”