The newest film from Walt Disney Animation Studios might be based on a Marvel Comic book, but it is definitely not a Marvel film, or so said the directors of “Big Hero 6” at a panel discussion held after a screening of the film at the Writers Guild of America in Beverly Hills.
The screening was held during the film’s opening weekend, and had a packed house ready to pepper the directing duo of Don Hall and Chris Williams, who were there along with the head of story on the film, Paul Briggs, and the producer, Ray Conli. Frank Gladstone, the executive director of the International Animated Film Society (ASIFA), moderated the panel, which fielded many questions focusing on one of the film’s main characters, the inflatable and huggable robot, Baymax.
“Lisa Keene said he had to be a huggable robot,” said Don Hall – who pitched the original idea to John Lasseter and Ed Catmull nearly three and a half years ago.
“If you’re going to do a movie about a robot, John Lasseter asks you to put up photos of every robot ever done, and not do the same as any of them,” said Chris William.
Lasseter sent the pair on research trips to a variety of robotics research centers, and it was at one of them where they saw an inflatable robotic arm being developed. That arm was part of project related to futuristic health care robots, based on a perception in that area of making things softer and more lifelike.
“Once we saw that, we knew how to approach the design of Baymax,” Hall said.
The film tells the story of a super-intelligent younger teenage boy, Hiro, who is listless about life, despite all ready graduating from high school.
— Warning Spoilers Ahead! —
His intelligence is demonstrated early on when he has a small robot defeat a very fierce looking one in the first sequence. His older brother tries to persuade him to do something with his life, and takes him to his nerdy robot lab, where he meets his eventual cohorts.
His brother is killed in an explosion and initially Hiro is totally morose, but when Baymax appears to comfort him, the plot thickens from there. Eventually Hiro seeks revenge for his brother’s death and enlists the others from the robot lab in his quest. They all design suits that give them super-hero like powers. But Baymax is the emotional and ethical core, making Hiro see that revenge is not the answer.
The directing pair talked about how even with the very short production time from the initial idea, which typically is more like five years, they were still free to try different story ideas and throw them out, or work them back in. “The bot fight was in during the early development, but then it was taken out after a few screenings. But as the film developed, it found its way back in,” Briggs said.
Many of the voice actors have a background in improvisation, and added to the evolving storyline.
“Scott Adsit (the voice of Baymax) is one of the best improvisational artists around, and he doesn’t just do improvisational comedy, he improvs life. He was able to do that with what was a very narrow role and bring more to it,” said Ray Conli, the film’s producer.
Though the film is based on a Marvel property, it is not a Marvel film. “It was never going to be a Marvel movie,” said Hall. “It was always going to be a Disney movie. But the Marvel folks were still involved. They came to every screening and would give us some great notes.”
But that didn’t stop the creative team from putting someone in the movie familiar to fans of the Marvel Universe, Stan Lee.
“We kept that a secret from everyone involved in the production, except for a very small team sworn to secrecy,” said Conli. Lee appears at the end of the film, after the credits, as Fred’s Dad. Not only is it an animated version of Lee, it is his voice too.
“We recorded him at a recording studio off the lot,” said Hall. “We were concerned because the recording booth is up a flight of stairs, and Stan is like 90 something years old. We didn’t want to be the cause of serious injury when he would walk up the stairs. But when he got there, he hopped out of the car and almost ran up the stairs, so no worry.”
The character was created to close a gap in the story, and to fulfill a dream. “It was on our bucket list, to get to work with Stan Lee,” said Williams. “Yeah, we’re all nerds, and it doesn’t get any better,” added Hall.