‘Big Hero 6’ Interview: Don Hall and Chris Williams Talk Disney’s First Marvel Animated Film
Monday, February 23rd, 2015 at 12:00 pm
It has been quite an amazing journey for Big Hero 6 directors Don Hall and Chris Williams. When Disney acquired Marvel back in 2009, Hall found an obscure Marvel property that he would use as an inspiration for his follow up to Winnie The Pooh. Chris Williams then came on as co-director to help help him out.
Big Hero 6 may be an adaptation of a Marvel title, but this is a Disney movie through and through, and is a culmination of years of research at Carnegie Mellon, San Francisco, and Tokyo, as well as writing and rewriting the story over and over until it was just right.
The Academy Award-nominated* film is already out on Digital HD, but will be available on Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack on February 24. We had a chance to sit down with the directors for a one-on-one interview where we talked about going from the pages of the comic book to the film, the recording process, cosplay, the research, and working with Marvel. Hit the jump for the full interview.
*At the time of this interview, Big Hero 6 had been nominated for an Academy Award, but last night, the film won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
Geeks Of Doom: Congratulations on the nomination again, I’m sure you’re getting tired of hearing that by now.
Don Hall: No.
Chris Williams: We never get tired of hearing it.
Geeks Of Doom: Oh wow. Now that that’s out of the way, you had mentioned in the long leads that there is this collaborative process between the writers and directors of other Disney films who come and go to help out with the production of the film, and this goes for all the others as well. Can you tell us a little bit more of what is that like, and how they help/influence the film in their own little way?
Don Hall: There’s about 12, I think, 12 to 13 directors, and essentially a story trust. We consider the story trust the writers as well. Actually heads of story as well. It’s actually whoever you could pull in.
Chris Williams: Anyone who could help.
Don Hall: Essentially, 12 to 13 directors that are making the core unit. We’ve acheived a level of maturity with each other, and honesty, in that we really are there for each other, to challenge each other, but to also pitch in, and help whenever we can. It started when John [Lasseter] came eight years ago, but it’s baring fruit now.
Chris Williams: There is a real generosity with our group, on the third floor of Disney animation, where we create the stories. They’re so quick to help on other movies. I worked on Frozen for a year. We’ll all work on each other’s movies, and we brought in great directors, writers, and story artists on our film, because there is something about Disney animation itself that is so important to us, so every movie has to be great. We have a relationship with the audience, I feel like there is a deal we have with the audience that every time you come to see one of our movies, no matter what genre it is they are going to have a great experience, and we have to keep up that contract. So that is one of the things that motivates me want to make great films.
Geeks Of Doom: So what was to work with Ryan Potter during the recording process? Was it long hours in the recording booth, etc.?
Don Hall: For Ryan it was. It’d just be like every time we brought Ryan in he’d go “what is it today, 30 lines?” and we’d say “no, no, no, 130;” “what, stop writing so much.”
Chris Williams: He’s a fast-talking character. He’s in every scene.
Don Hall: One of the things important to remember when bringing an actor in is to foster a spirit of collaboration, specifically to the recording booth, it’s not just an actor reading off a script page. It’s about treating them as co-collaborators, and letting them have ownership of that character. And you do that, you’ll get so much more from the character. And then you hire great people like Scott [Adsit], Daniel [Henney], Ryan, TJ Miller…
Chris Williams:Genesis [Rodriguez], Jamie [Chung]…
Don Hall: And Damon Wayans Jr. and really let them hone the character. I mean we come in obviously with script pages and working these scenes over storyboard. It’s not like we come in and say “Hey, do whatever you want.” I think every stage, whoever is working on that part of the movie, let them collaborate on a deep level, because the returns you get from being open to that far outweighs whatever you would come up with.
Chris Williams: I think that people don’t realize how challenging that voice work can be. Because when we invite them into the booth, we will be asking them to do multiple scenes. And so we will be asking them to go from one emotion, to another, to another very quickly, and they have to be very nimble. And they don’t have the benefit of a costume, or a set, or even another actor to bounce off of, they have to conjure all of it up. And because we work in animation, it is very physical often times: it’s you’re crashing through a window or you’re on a motorcycle or you’re in a room by yourself or you’re in a room with ten people, they have to imagine that while they are doing it, and I am always so impressed by the guys that can do it, and we do ask them to do long sessions. And the stamina is also something I am very impressed by.
Geeks Of Doom: Explain what was it like to work with Marvel during this whole process. Disney had just acquired them, and you were researching this having just come off Winnie the Pooh, so what was that like to work with the comic book giant?
Don Hall: They were very collaborative to work with. Right out the gate they said, don’t worry about setting this in the Marvel Universe, make it your own. Joe Quesada, Marvel Chief Creative Officer, and Jeph Loeb, who’s head of Marvel TV and a writer, became our buddies our friends. They were there for the first pitch, and they were there for the last screening, and everything in-between. It was such a great relationship because they never came at it from a Marvel perspective, they came at it from a storytelling perspective, and they speak the same language. It’s all about character; it’s all about story; it’s all about emotion. They we really cool to work with.
Chris Williams: It was nice in a way to work with more obscure Marvel characters because then the audience wouldn’t have a strong expectation of what they were going to find. It gives us a lot of creative freedom.
Geeks Of Doom: Looking at the film’s setting as well as the science and technological aspects, what was it like to research to create San Fransokyo as well as all the technology seen in the film?
Don Hall: It was awesome. I loved that part of the movie, the research phase, because it felt like you were a student in college again, you were just so wide-eyed and learning on a daily basis, almost to a point of over saturation because you’re consuming so much. But it’s also a really exciting time, and the cool thing is you don’t know how it’s going to come out the other side, you’re just ingesting as much as you can. Baymax is the perfect example of that as the process working so well, because prior to that Carnegie Mellon research trip, there was no inflatable robot, there was no character Baymax, there was a name, there was an idea to use a robot. It was such a profound part of our process.
Chris Williams: I think people make the mistake of, after having that initial pitch, and they are going to make a movie, they jump right into the story stage, and they work off a story in their minds, and they just do research to support that story, whereas Don worked on it without a world that was formed, and really allowed the research to form the story, that’s when the research can have the impact it is suppose to have.
Geeks Of Doom: So getting into some fun stuff, what’s it like to see the merchandise?
Don Hall: It’s cool. Early on we met with Ban Dai, and they asked, “What’s your dream toy?” And we’re like “Okay, this is what we want. I want a vinyl Baymax that you could put the pieces on to create the mech, and I want Hiro to be able to magnetically attach to the back.” They looked at me and go, “That is impossible, but we’ll try.” So they went back and they thought about it, and they came up with an ingenious solution, because they are different shapes, the mech is like a v, it’s cut, and Baymax is a pear, it’s the opposite, so how is that going to work? We cheated in the movie, you never see it, but they took the toy, the vinyl toy, so that you can twist it so that it is inverted, and the armor goes on.
Chris Williams: I’ve seen lots of people with the vinyl Baymax, and the armored Baymax, and really all the characters. It’s a fun thing to see it, but it means that the audience wants to take the characters home, and they want the characters to live outside the film, and that’s one of the things that Disney movies can do really well. So that’s what I think is a fun benefit of working at Disney animation.
Geeks Of Doom: So then what is it like to see people dress up as the characters?
Chris Williams: That’s cool, too. It’s the same thing. We go to Comic-Con every year, and I can’t wait to go this year.
Don Hall: This past year, I did a little talk at Comic-Con before the film was released, and there was a dude in a homemade Baymax suit sitting in the front row, and I was like “Hey, that is pretty cool.” And then all of a sudden, my picture showed up on the chest, and then it was like “Oh, hey, this just got pretty weird,” and then he took off the mask, and it was actually someone who used to work at Disney, and now works at Apple. He had made his own homemade Baymax costume that was amazing. He was like the hit at Comic-Con, people were taking pictures with him at Comic-Con.
Chris Williams: We’ve seen online the tons of people that are creating the costumes, and recreating shots and scenes from the movie, and that’s really exciting, it means they’ve really connected with the film.
Geeks Of Doom: So, what’s next for you guys?
Don Hall: Vacation.
Chris Williams: Yeah, vacation. We went right from finishing the film into, you know, trying to promote the film, flying around the world, getting the word out because you make a movie because you want to lots of people to see it. We’ve been very lucky the audience wants to come, but I think it is important that when that all winds down, to take a nice long break, get away, and read and travel, not just race into the next thing for the sake of keeping busy.