An Animated Marvel from an unlikely comic-book property
Take an obscure Marvel Comics property, toss aside a good part of the story the book tells and reinvent the characters, their relationships, and almost everything about them and focus on new broader emotional arcs.
Sure, this might not seem like a recipe for success but this is exactly how Big Hero 6 will become the first Disney animated film to feature Marvel characters since The Walt Disney Co. bought Marvel Entertainment in 2009. And it’s important to remember Disney knows how to do this — they had incredible luck just last year around this same time with another heartfelt story loosely based on some mythic source material.
Marvel’s head of TV Jeph Loeb and chief creative officer Joe Quesada were both on board with the changes, according to codirectors Chris Williams and Don Hall. In an interview with Animation Magazine, Hall stressed that Marvel wanted to see the filmmakers do a unique take on the source material. So, off the co-directors went, working mostly with the idea of brilliant young man named Hiro whose abilities are actually brought out when he has to overcome personal tragedy and loss by leaning a little on an inflatable robot named Baymax, who was designed to heal others.
Emerging robotics genius Hiro needs Baymax practically as well as emotionally. When Hiro loses control of his own invention — microbots, which can be summoned to do just about anything — to a Kabukimasked villain named Yokai, he can no longer work alone in his lab. He must reach out to those around him: robots, fellow scientists and family.
Veteran directors Williams and Hall were clearly up to the task and bring substantial experience to the project. Williams directed the Oscar-nominated Bolt alongside Byron Howard and worked in the story department on Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen. Hall directed the 2011 feature Winnie the Pooh, and served as head of story on The Princess and the Frog.
The film also shows off vocal performances by Maya Rudolph (Aunt Cass), James Cromwell (Professor Robert Callaghan), Damon Wayans Jr. (Wasabi), T.J. Miller (Fred), Alan Tudyk (Alistair Krei), Jamie Chung (GoGo Tomago), Genesis Rodriguez (Honey Lemon), Daniel Henney (Tadashi Hamada), and features Ryan Potter as lead character Hiro Hamada and Scott Adsit as Baymax.
The Face of Baymax
While Big Hero 6 is loaded with both vocal and behind-the-scenes talent, Baymax has already become the most recognizable “face” of Big Hero 6 through much of the film’s ad campaign — that’s clearly part of the design.
Zach Parrish, head of animation for Walt Disney Animation Studios, describes their work on Baymax as “un-imating” the character on many levels because they focused on stripping out anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary so he could be reduced down to his essence.
Animators also watched the movements of baby penguins and human babies walking with a full diaper while looking for inspiration in developing Baymax’s own walk. They finally settled on the baby penguin walk since the little birds manage to waddle around without engaging their arms much.
All this research and careful pealing away of anything that wasn’t key to Baymax was done with one goal in mind: To create a character that was engaging and sympa- thetic while also making it easy for the audience to project their own feelings about loss and family onto him. This meant that every little thing — a word, a movement — for Baymax became big and impactful. So, animators had to become quite subtle in how they used the companion robot.
Hall — who had his own set of childhood fantasies in mind — was excited about one particular scene, in which the puffy robot becomes a lightning-fast rocket, for the sheer thrill of it and for the way in which it could push Hiro out of his comfort zone.
“Baymax starts thinking about how he can use situations to heal Hiro, what experiences he can create, and taking Hiro on this ride where he has to feel his fears becomes that moment,” says Hall. “It’s a great situation because it’s funny and scary and really emotional.”
An Extensive Cast
After the look and feel of Baymax was established, the animation team faced another substantial challenge on Big Hero 6 — there were more than a dozen main characters for them to work with in the film. As central characters are added, each with their own
set of movements, expressions and character-defining attributes, the work load naturally multiplies, so it was desperately important to have both the crew and the organization in place to manage the work load.
Oh, and there’s one more thing. The story takes place in San Fransokyo, a portmanteau of San Francisco and Tokyo that’s clearly full of all the hustle and bustle of both the cities implied by its name. So, animators needed to find a way to create believable crowds (in addition to working with all the main characters).
The character team, headed by Carlos Cabral, designed a new rigging software named Denizen, which was pioneered by John Kahwaty and allowed them to meet these needs. With this package, they were able to move easily across different character traits — body shape, face types, different sets of clothing and hair styles — as they populated this new world.
“We had 701 unique characters and 1,324 animation cycles,” says Parrish. “So, Denizen was very important to that process.”
All in the Details
With the enormous data sets generated by both the animation and VFX teams, the formidable rendering system called Hyperion also played a crucial role in moving the film along. The VFX team worked with the team behind Hyperion to develop specific abilities to work with water and the microbots that both Hiro and the film’s villain want to control.
The microbots are mind-controlled robots that connect to each other through electromagnetism, allowing the person in charge to create all kinds of shapes, structures and even weapons. These little robots convey a ton of power to the person who can summon them. They also reflect the state of mind of their wielder and that’s seen to both magnificent and terrifying display in the film.
“For the VFX team, this was huge,” says head of effects Michael Kaschalk. “In our average shot, there were something like 20 million microbots, and when someone evil is in charge, you really see they’re chaotic and reflecting a chaotic state of mind.”
Hyperion also provided the filmmakers with expanded lighting choices, such as projecting an illuminated glow through a translucent object. And, on top of that, it’s very scalable, allowing filmmakers to reduce the quality of a shot in order to take a sneak peak at a scene before final decisions are made.
All these tools were employed in the service of telling a story Hall and Williams designed to reach out to audiences on a fundamental level. The ideas of loss and overcoming loss through friendship, family (those we have and those we choose) and teamwork were at the core of their process.
“I think we all have to struggle with loss at some point in our lives,” says Hall. “Hiro comes to that struggle early in his life and I think this could be powerful for kids who see it and see that it can be overcome by challenging yourself and moving forward, even if you don’t have your own personal robot to help you at the time.”
Since their first appearance in DreamWorks Animation’s 2005 blockbuster hit Madagascar, audiences knew that Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private were destined for greatness. With the debut of Penguins of Madagascar this month, the fabulous foursome is finally starring in its own theatrical extravaganza, which also offers a glimpse at the clever birds’ origin story as well.
“The film is a continuation of where we left off in the last Madagascar movie,” says Eric Darnell, a veteran of the first three movies, who co-directed the movie with Simon Smith ( Antz, Bee Movie). “There is a prologue sequence during which we go to Antarctica and see our four characters when they were baby penguins and show how they became this renowned espionage team.”
Smith says the movie’s tone, sense of humor and conflict with the adversaries will be familiar to fans of the Madagascar franchise. “We’re basically taking the penguins and putting them center stage, so instead of having them in small bits and pieces, we have a whole film that allows us to have a lot of fun with them.”
To make the penguins work as central characters, the team at DreamWorks had to go deeper and underline elements of the foursome that hadn’t been explored either in the the three previous feature outings or the popular TV series, which ran from 2009 through 2013 on Nickelodeon. “In the Madagascar movies, we could just have fun with them or they were allowed to make the plot go forward in some wacky way,” says Darnell. “The characters weren’t growing or changing. For this movie, we had to dig a bit deeper, to explore what really makes them tick, what is underneath the surface and really understand the dynamics and relationships between the penguins.”
Smith adds: “What’s really appealing about them is that they are not passive characters. They shoot first and ask questions later. They react illogically and always run towards danger. They do have a strong moral code, but they do the exact opposite of what a normal person would do. They have this incredible sense of belief that they can do anything — and that actually becomes a question in the movie.”
The film, which once again features the voices of Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, John DiMaggio and Christopher Knights as Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private, also welcomes Benedict Cumberbatch as Classified, the team leader of a super slick espionage group called the North Wind; John Malkovich as a villainous octopus named Dr. Octavius Brine; and Ken Jeong as Short Fuse, an explosives expert seal. Adding a certain sophisticated quality to the proceedings is the film’s narrator, who is none other than highly regarded German director Werner Herzog.
“We didn’t want the movie to be a parody of spy capers,” says Smith. “We actually approached the film as if we were jamming our characters in a 1960s-era Bond movie.” Darnell says they also took a page from classics such as Kelly’s Heroes, The A-Team, and Hogan’s Heroes. “We have this sophisticated North Wind agency that is always looking down at the penguins, so we had a good opportunity to use the conventions of the spy movie genre. In the third act, for example, we see the villain’s submarine emerge from the water, and it’s a beautiful scene. One of my favorite sequences has the penguins falling out of a plane, 30,000 feet above the ground. It’s a huge action scene, which involved a lot of choreography. It was actually one of the first scenes we produced for the movie. Simon even managed to work a several minutes to push up the film’s release to this holiday season rather than the originally planned March 2015 date. It seemed logical to use the popularity of the penguins to go up against Disney/ Marvel’s Big Hero 6 and push back the release date of Home (a movie which introduces brand new characters) to the less competitive spring date. “They really liked the progress on the film and figured out that Thanksgiving would be a good time for us since it’s really a film for everyone in the family,” says Smith.
The directors are also quick to express their gratitude towards the DreamWorks Dedicated Unit team at Technicolor, based in Bangalore, India, which helped with the animation production. “They are a very professional group of artists and although they have worked on many projects before, they had never done an entire feature,” says Darnell. “We didn’t know what to expect, but they did an amazing job. They’d be up at six in the morning, and we would stay until 10 at night to communicate. We were very pleased with the way our teams here in Glendale and Redwood City (near San Francisco) and the group in India on the other side of the planet were able to work together and the results were really outstanding. “
As they put the finishing touches on their four-year-long project, the directors seem to be quite happy with what they have achieved. “I am most proud of the fact that we took the penguins on such an emotional journey,” says Smith. “You don’t see it coming, but the movie has a lovely heart. I’m really ecstatic about how every character has a great moment in the film.”
Darnell agrees. “You never want the audience to say that the latest movie isn’t as good as the other ones,” he says. “One of the advantages of working on a franchise for over a decade is that we know the rules and the characters very well. People who have worked on the Madagascar films have all these years of experience working with these characters. When all is said and done, we all just want to make the best movie we can make and for audiences to enjoy it all.” DreamWorks Animation’s Penguins of Madagascar opens Nov. 26 in theaters nationwide.
Osborne tapped his main team of about five core crewmembers to run the production, going through about four months of story work before the start of a 16-week animation production schedule. Animators would hop on and off the project as their schedules allowed, with Lasseter seeing the movie and giving feedback every three or four weeks.
“There’s a point where the story is working and you no longer have to pitch it to him, he starts to pitch it to other people around the building and tell other people it’s going great,” says Osborne. “You start to