Marvel comic turned 3D animation “Big Hero 6” began production in 2012, and since then its health-monitoring robot has come a little closer to reality thanks to wearables and health apps. But unlike an app, Baymax the robot cares, looking after prodigy Hiro’s physical and emotional well-being after his brother Tadashi’s tragic death. Directors Don Hall (“Winnie the Pooh”) and Chris Williams (“Bolt”) talk about compassionate health care, drawing, and their favorite apps.
The thing that struck me most about the film is how much Baymax replicates the experience of Apple HealthKit and even the health and fitness functionality we’re anticipating from the Apple Watch.
Don Hall: Baymax’s whole health care persona came out of a Carnegie Mellon study about applying soft robotics to the health care industry . Also, I really like the idea that we can have these robots help us out when we need it. And the idea of his being an app is a really interesting idea. But technology is advancing faster than we can keep up with it, and even now with the Nike+, they’re keeping track of our vital signs and encouraging us to exercise more. So there’s a rudimentary health care app idea already in the ether, and who knows where it’s going to go.
Chris Williams: There’s definitely a future in it, because a lot of the people who’ve seen the movie say they want a Baymax, because he seems to actually care. He’s not just a bunch of numbers, not just readings, or a cold bit of advice. He seems to genuinely care about his patients, so I think that’s what we responded to — this thing that seems to genuinely care about my well-being. I don’t know if there’s an app for that, but there will be someday.
It’s interesting how Baymax is supposed to epitomize health, yet his appearance is reminiscent of an even rounder Michelin Man.
Don Hall: When we were researching, we realized that it’s a big stigma. These health care robots started in Japan, and the way they designed them is very similar to how we designed Baymax — very simple and appealing — but they’re not as large as Baymax. But we wanted them to be very nonthreatening and huggable. His shape came out of that idea of not wanting to scare a patient or scare a little kid. So, looking like you just want to wrap your arms around his bigger belly, it never occurred to me that it might read as an out-of-shape person. He is a robot without a mouth, so there’s no overeating. Height-wise, we made him the same height as Tadashi, because they’re mirrors of each other.
As co-directors, how did you divide your workload?
Chris Williams: There’s a lot of overlap, because we’ve both been storyboard artists for quite some time. We’ve known each other for almost 20 years, so we knew we’d spent a lot of time in the story room together, so only when the schedule became too much and we needed two bodies in different places did we split up. Don focused on the animation side, and I focused more on the lighting and effects side, but then we brought it back together as soon as we could.
Do you two use apps as part of your directing work?
Don Hall: It hasn’t entered that, but I do have a lot of drawing apps on my
iPad for personal use. Paper by FiftyThree, ArtStudio, and SketchBook Pro are good ones, but they haven’t gotten facile enough yet to be used in our day-to-day work.
Chris Williams: We both come from storyboarding backgrounds, and I was the last artist in the building to give up drawing on paper. I’m very traditional in that way, although I’ve given myself over to drawing on a
tablet using Photoshop, and I’ve begun to really love it, because it opens up a lot of possibilities for suggesting camera work and allows you to do certain things more quickly.
How do you create a film that both parents and kids can enjoy?
Don Hall: We’re fans of these movies, and that’s why we work here. At some point in our distant pasts, we both became enamored of Disney films, so also we’ve seen it done poorly, when a film only focuses on one thing, and it can be kind of brutal to sit through it as parents. Those are not good films. You want films that can operate on different levels and appeal to everybody. The old Disney films did that. Walt never looked at it like a children’s medium, ever. He felt like he was making movies for everybody, and that’s still our mandate today.
Chris Williams: As long as it’s accessible for a wide audience and in the ether enough, you just have to make a movie that you think is great. To Don’s point, Disney movies have never been afraid to take on really challenging subject matter, going back to “Bambi” and “Dumbo.” “Bambi” was the movie that told me my parents were gonna die. “Bambi” took on death in a very powerful and artful way, so it’s a movie for everyone. We want to be part of that lineage.
Don Hall: There are some really weird moments in this movie that I’m actually really proud of. Obviously, the emotional stuff, and I still cry every time I watch it at distinct places. There are some weird moments, especially with fanboy Fred, and I’m proud that we work at a company that embraces a character singing a theme song for a good 20 to 30 seconds unstopped.
Don, you’ve worked on “Tarzan” and “Chicken Little,” and Chris, you’ve worked on “Mulan,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” and “Frozen.” Do you see “Big Hero 6” in that lineage of memorable Disney films?
Don Hall: We’re very proud of the movie and feel it can sit on the shelf with all the big Disney films, because it’s got all the heart that those films had and all the humor that those films had, and obviously the action that comic book genre movies have. But we worked really hard, ’cause we work there, and we’re so inspired by the Disney films of the past to create great movies for the future. I think this’ll sit on the shelf alongside those other ones, even though it’s not a traditional fairytale. But if you look at Disney history, Walt didn’t make just fairy tales. He drew inspiration from a wide variety of properties. He looked at children’s books and English literature, so he was going all over the map to inspire these films. Now I feel like we’ve reached a place where we’re doing that from some of the more traditional fairy tales, like “Entangled” and “Frozen,” but also “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Big Hero 6,” which don’t fit the mold.
What are your top five apps?
Don Hall: Notability is a fantastic app, ’cause I hate using paper. I hate killing trees, especially when you’re looking at scripts, which change all the time and keep going into the shredder. Paper by FiftyThree is a fantastic app because it mimics a real sketchbook. It’s harder to erase, and there are no layers. It has everything from drawing to throwing watercolors on it, which is pretty cool. I think ArtStudio is a really good app, because it’s the closest to Photoshop with all the layers, and you can do pretty much everything up to creating your own brushes with that. Oh, and the Podcasts app.
Check out the movie’s companion game, Big Hero 6: Baymax Blast.