Don Hall on Big Hero 6, Disney technique and helping Moana
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on DVD and Blu-ray. It remains an affecting, resonant film with some very accomplished animation, and like all of Disney’s modern work, a generous splash of cutting-edge technique.
We had already spoken at the start of the year, but a few months on, I’ve had another chat with the film’s originator and co-director Don Hall. Amongst other things, we discussed the ties between this CG feature and Disney’s legacy of hand drawn animation, the studio’s long development cycles, and the embedded themes of the story.
Do you think there’s a Disney style, a lineage of design that can be traced all of the way back?
I know that on the surface it can look like “What does Big Hero 6 have to do with Bambi or Dumbo?” but if you really examine those old films that Walt made, and the ones that I revere and everybody who works at our studios revere, they run the gamut of emotions. They were really about the human experience. Walt had a phrase “For every laugh, there should be a tear.” I feel like that describes Big Hero 6 to a T. We have tried to make a movie that everybody can relate to, even if it’s set in a strange, comic book hybrid world.
And we have always tried to make sure our characters are appealing, and designed in a way that we can get the maximum acting out of them. We make sure that the world is grounded in reality but still caricatured and fun.
What did you learn from your time working in hand drawn animation that we can trace all the way into Big Hero 6?
When I look at animation, it’s always about the character and what they are thinking and feeling at this particular moment; sometimes, as a director, I’ll get a little bit into the technical stuff with the animators, but by and large I don’t have to, because our animators are just the best.
I do think that something happened a few years ago, and it started with Glen Keane on Tangled. Glen really set the tone, the style of animation on Tangled. I think [directors] Byron Howard and Nathan Greno carried it forward, but Glen was such a creative force on the animation of that film. And a lot of people that he trained are now carrying that forward on these other films.
The way we do things, we do embed 2D animators in the animation department. Mark Henn, who is one of my favourite animators and I worked with him on Winnie the Pooh, he was also on Big Hero 6. He didn’t animate necessarily, but he was there as a resource. Animators would come and show him scenes and Mark would do them draw-overs. He was there in dailies, sitting right next to a Wacom Cintiq tablet, so I would describe what I’m thinking and he would do a sketch in real time so the animators had that as a reference.
One of the odd things about the way in which you make your films in at Walt Disney Animation Studios is that you have an incredibly long development period, especially compared to somebody working in live action, and yet you – because you can, and because you’re smart enough to do it – make some changes very late in the day. When I looked at the new Zootopia synopsis recently, it even looked like a change of protagonist.
So what was the last huge change you made on Big Hero 6 and when did it come?
About a year out. We looked at the reels and they weren’t gelling. That’s when I brought on Chris Williams, who had been storyboarding on the film, as a director. We knew that it was going to be dicey from then on out. There was no way I was going to be in all of the places I needed to be, and I really needed a new creative partner to bounce off of. We also brought on Nathan Greno, who had co-directed Tangled. A lot of people came on and helped out.
We simplified the story. There are versions of this film, maybe because it’s a comic book movie, where the villain’s plot was guiding everything and there was a lot of focus put on that villainous plot. We tried like crazy to simplify that, and we moved it towards the back of the movie, and not really get too focused on it.
We carved out some time for Hiro and Baymax to be Hiro and Baymax. They used to, right at the beginning of act two, suddenly become superheroes. It’s more fun to have delayed that, to let the movie breathe a little bit, and have scenes that are just about trying to sneak a giant robot past your aunt. The police scene was one that we invented then. The story beat is, obviously, that the police are not going to help this kid so he’s got to do it himself, but how much fun can you have with that?
You’ve got to carve out story time to do that kind of stuff, so we took that time out of the villain’s plot. But nobody goes to these movies wanting to see an intricate villain’s plot. I’m really happy with the way the movie ultimately balanced out, because we got to have scenes that were fun and funny, and animation friendly, and knowing where we were going, knowing that the movie is going to get progressively darker, and get to a point where, at Hiro’s low-point, he orders this robot to kill somebody. It was important that the audience fall in love with him first if they were going to be able to get over this.
You’ve got such a wide range of characters here. Did you feel a burden of representation with the diversity of this cast? And is there a particular pressure as to how you balance them?
Any pressure is just in making them feel like they’re real, observed and entertaining. There were versions of the film where we saw more of the team, but that time came out of the Hiro-Baymax story, and Hiro and Baymax are the emotional spine of the movie so we had to make sure the other characters sat on that spine. They never really found their place in the film until we defined the spine as being “The story of a robot, Baymax, and act two is him trying to heal his patient.”
Baymax wasn’t at first so proactive about it, he’d follow Hiro around and Hiro was calling all the shots. It now seems rather intuitive from a storytelling perspective, but as soon as we made Baymax more proactive, it became obvious that the rest of the characters were Hiro’s support group, the people, friends and loved ones, that he needs to be surrounded by to help him through his loss.
Once we worked that out, it connected those guys to the story of Baymax treating Hiro. That was one of the ideas that came relatively…. well, I don’t know if it was late so much as there’s a process you have to work through to find this stuff.
It’s Monday morning and you have a whole week ahead of you, but professionally speaking, what do you have on your slate? What have you got to do this week?
Well, Chris, my fellow director, is off on his sabbatical and hopefully spending some time with his family, and our producer, I think he’s on a sabbatical or maybe he’s on jury duty, I’m not sure. But I’m actually helping out on another film. It’s not Zootopia, but the one after it.
That’s right. And I’ve offered to help them out until my sabbatical and I’ve actually got to pitch a scene to them this afternoon, so I’m storyboarding and helping out on that film. And loving it, by the way.
Thanks again to Don for taking the time to talk with me.
is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and digital download.
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