An An­i­mated Mar­vel from an un­likely comic-book prop­erty

Animation Magazine - - Features - By Ramin Za­hed.

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.

Bondish Birds

“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.

Work­ing Fast

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

Skip­per, Kowal­ski, Pri­vate and Rico hang on for their first solo fea­ture, Si­mon Smith

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