Disney’s Big Hero 6 topped the box office this weekend, making the first animated incarnation of an obscure Marvel comic book a hit. When we spoke to directors Don Hall and Chris Williams at the film’s press junket, we got into detail about a lot of the film’s specific jokes. So it’s a good idea to read this interview after you’ve seen Big Hero 6, and are ready to watch it again.
You might recall that Hiro uses a video of a martial arts movie to teach Baymax how to fight. You might have noticed the name Abraham Benrubi in the voice credits. You might have been surprised at the true identity of the masked villain Yokai. We asked Hall and Miller about all that and more.
Nuke the Fridge: Since my name is Fred, can I use “It’s Fred time?”
Don Hall: That’s all yours, yeah, that’s all you.
Chris Williams: For a nominal fee.
Nuke: How much?
Chris Williams: It’s free. For you, free.
Nuke: Thank you. So does Baymax have more than three pieces of tape on his arm after he tapes his arm up?
Chris Williams: I think you do see he’s got some tape previously applied on his torso.
Don Hall: Yes, he has previously done some taping.
Chris Williams: And I think you see in a later shot in the bedroom, I think you do see more tape.
Don Hall: Yeah, there’s more than three.
Chris Williams: We spent a lot of time, because we have to obsess over everything, gauging the correct amount of reflectivity for the tape so that it would garner the right amount of attention from shot to shot.
Don Hall: And then go away when we wanted it to go away.
Chris Williams: And have the audience not thinking about it too much. There were times where we wanted the audience to be aware of it and then less so, so we were dialing in and out the lighting and reflectivity because that’s how crazy we are around here.
Don Hall: We have that kind of control.
Nuke: Was it your dream to make an old martial arts film in animation?
Don Hall: That was actually pretty fun and fun for the crew because it’s funny, that’s not a long period of screen time that that little video goes on, but boy, we did a lot of research. Even the animators, I know we hired a stunt coordinator and a martial arts expert to map out all those moves. I know those guys got to spend a day going down to his dojo and watching him, filming him and all that. We didn’t because we had to stay here and work but the animators got to have fun.
Chris Williams: You’re probably sensing how obsessive we are and we have to be around here. Yeah, it’s a fairly brief shot, an insert on a computer, but we had to build the characters, we had to design the characters and create the set. And then create the lighting setup which we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to have a really pushed fun lighting setup that reflected those old movies. That was a lot of fun for everybody but of course a lot of work.
Nuke: I was happy to see Abraham Benrubi do a voice in the film. Did he ever do the Kubiak voice for you from Parker Lewis Can’t Lose?
Don Hall: I’ve never seen Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.
Chris Williams: Is it good? It sounds like we should check it out.
Nuke: It was great in the ‘90s.
Don Hall: So no, he didn’t. I actually knew him from ER because he was a recurring character on ER. He was really cool. We brought him and he’s a big guy but just really fun and did the voice of the general. He’s got a very commanding voice so he’s a very convincing general.
Chris Williams: Yeah, we were scared.
Don Hall: Totally scared, gave him no guff.
Chris Williams: He started bossing us around.
Don Hall: We’d do whatever he said.
Nuke: Is it a unique dynamic for super powers when Baymax’s motivation is based on healing, not fighting?
Don Hall: Exactly. And that was always going to be what we felt was very interesting about this story. You have a character that is completely devoted to healing and helping people, and Hiro by necessity wants him to commit acts of violence. Right there you’ve got contrasting ideas and that can lead to interest. Of course in the film, we bring it a little bit to a head and put it in the forefront of the story. I think that that just makes him a more interesting character because he has those warring dual purposes, but the healer’s always going to win out. That is Baymax’s character.
Chris Williams: That’s such an important idea for the film, no matter how much armor Hiro puts on him, no matter how much he tries to weaponize him, Baymax is always going to be Baymax. He’s always going to be a loving, caring character. We really wanted that to show through. We wanted to feel that through the armor. We wanted to feel that Baymax is still in there. So that was really important and this idea that Hiro has this nurse robot that is created by his brother, and then he has an intention to turn him into something other than what his original design was intended. That’s critical to the comedic dynamic of the film, when Hiro has something he wants to be something else. Then it does come to a head in an emotional way.
Don Hall: If you really want to get meta about it, it’s speaking to the idea of technology is not inherently bad or good. It’s how it’s wielded or how it’s utilized. If we utilize it in an immature way, it can lead to danger. That’s a sub-theme in the movie, it’s buried, but it’s there.
Nuke: Doing a superhero origin story, how did you want to balance the training and fighting/action, the actual villain they have to defeat with the origin of these heroes?
Chris Williams: Well, we knew it was an origin story. So we knew it was going to be a slow evolution. So much of the design of the story was that Baymax was going to be altered and adjusted throughout the film. So yeah, we knew we were going to be saving the scenes of huge epic scope until towards the end, and we were a bit more playful and fun in the personality of our action scenes at the beginning. That was something we were always very mindful of. It’s an origin story and we wanted to feel a real build throughout the entire movie.
Don Hall: Not only that but the team itself. You’re taking a bunch of science nerds and turning them into essentially superheroes. Not super powered beings. The super power in our movie is just super tech. Other than Go Go, Go Go is a gamer. I think she’s the one that probably has the most reason to be a superhero. Everyone else is coming from pretty far back.
Chris Williams: Yeah, she carries the team.
Don Hall: Fred’s got the enthusiasm but Go Go’s got the skill. And Wasabi and Honey are obviously a little more reluctant, especially Wasabi. So we had to honor that but also make sure that by the end of the movie, they could be capable and we can have fun. That’s why I think we earn those moments in the climax where they’re working together as a team and taking out Yokai. You feel it because you’ve seen their progression from pretty inept to being pretty good at it.
Chris Williams: One thing that’s different about our film than some superhero movies is that we have a separate universe, a unique universe where there aren’t superheroes that are pre-existing. These are this world’s first superheroes so we wanted to have a lot of fun with the evolution, with them learning the ropes and figuring out what it is to be a superhero.
Nuke: Marvel has a singular universe. Were they involved with any ideas of how Big Hero 6 might fit into their world?
Don Hall: They were very involved as friends of the court. I became very good friends with Joe Quesada and Jeph Loeb. Right from the beginning, we all discussed it and they really encouraged us to not be too encumbered by setting this in the Marvel universe, so you don’t have to worry about that. That was actually kind of freeing for us, because they are very connected and they have thought through where they want to take the movies and the comic books. So it was actually very freeing for us to hear that. That’s what led to the creation of San Fransokyo and our own parallel universe, or an alternate Earth or whatever you want to call it. It’s an alternate version so they were there from the beginning, from the first pitch, Joe and Jeph, to the last internal screening. They’ve been very involved throughout.
Nuke: With the story’s mystery, how much did you want it to be surprising with all the red herrings, for a family movie?
Don Hall: We were juggling so many things. At a certain point, what’s the most important thing? You’ve got to define that as filmmakers and I think for us, it had to be the Hiro/Baymax story. It had to be the story of this boy who loses his brother and this robot that attempts to heal him, and the relationship that forms between them. So that was the stake in the ground. Everything had to fall on that. As far as any mega twists or anything like that, I don’t recall any other roads that we went down.
Chris Williams: It is a story that has a very dense plot, more dense than you normally find in animation and a lot of characters. We had I think a hopefully very sophisticated emotional story that we were telling. We knew that had to take precedence. We wanted to serve a story that’s about a kid who loses his older brother but is left with his older brother’s robot as a surrogate older brother. That was going to help with the healing process. That was really first and foremost. That emotional story supercedes the importance of any mystery twists.
Don Hall: Yeah, I think we were more concerned with emotional twists, emotional surprises, taking it to places that an audience might not expect from this type of genre.