Marvel Comics, The Future Of Robotics & More: A Chat With The Cast & Crew of ‘Big Hero 6’

By November 5, 2014
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A few weeks ago, GeekNation was invited to an exclusive screening and press junket for the upcoming release of Disney’s Big Hero 6.  The packed day included interviews with the cast and filmmakers of Disney’s follow up to Frozen. Through the day, we touched on everything from Japanese Culture, partnering with Marvel and the many challenges faced when working on an animated feature. This piece may be a lengthy one but be sure, it’s an entertaining read and provides great insight into Disney’s newest animated feature.

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We began the day by talking with actresses Jamie Chung (Go Go Tamagi) and Genesis Rodriguez (Honey Lemon). The conversation started with a question about their experience working in animation.

Jamie Chung:

It’s great and I’ve never been a part of the process fairly from the beginning in terms of when the actors come on. It’s four or five, six, seven, eight years into the project. But it’s interesting watching your characters come alive and kind of transform. It’s great because the characters progressed as much as we got comfortable with the characters. So it molded out quite nicely.

Genesis Rodriguez:

It was a lot of fun. It was equally exhausting too because my character was so high energy. She was the happiest person in the world and that took a lot of hours. This high energy really brought each line to that level.

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On finding the strength in the character of Honey Lemon, Genesis let us in on her experience in Robotics:

I was a part of a robotics team growing up. So I went to this very demanding school. It was an all-girls school, and it was a very hard college preparatory school. It had crazy activities and, and I fell into robotics, and it’s a really big love of mine, and I wish I could do this in my spare time. It’s just very cool that it’s being portrayed in a kid’s movie. I hope that with this movie, we can inspire kids to wanna be real super heroes with their brains- that they can achieve incredible things just by education and just doing really well in school. Hopefully, we can get some really good scientists after this movie.

When Scott Adsit (Baymax) and Ryan Potter (Hiro) sat down with us, we were given further insight regarding the emotional and physical character exploration both actors experienced. 

Scott Adsit: 

Well, for me it was, establishing this relationship and finding the arc to it – but within my limitations as he’s only programmed with a finite number of things he can say, with variables; at least at the beginning. He does learn some things from Hiro. But I was really interested in seeing if I could have a relationship without displaying any emotions you could point to and still have some kind of character arc and emotional life, in spite of the evidence. That was my challenge and that was the great joy of this. We (Ryan and I) didn’t get to work together.

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Ryan Potter:

This film is very emotional. It’s very emotional. They’re all things that- I think most people have experienced before and they’re all very real emotions. I don’t think anything’s really overplayed in this. There’s loss, there’s happiness, there’s laughter, there’s all these different emotions and these things that you feel. They had a few cameras on me. And I was just jumping all over the place. When you see how physical Hiro is in the film, you know he’s running all over the place, he’s being picked up, being thrown, falling. I mean the creators of the film created an awesome environment for me to just be able to play. Like I was like a kid in the sandbox you know?

Scott Adsit:

That’s off the table.  They didn’t have a camera on me. Because I think part of the joy of Baymax is that his voice doesn’t match his actions all that much. So they don’t need to see what I’m doing. And generally I would stand there keeping my hands in one place so that my voice wasn’t affected by me moving. It was a lot of reining it in.

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The two actors were humbled and excited by the ideas that their characters will be toys and featured at Disney Theme Parks around the world.

Ryan Potter:

I mean you asking that question is surreal. Like using the word surreal. It’s all very surreal. Like I spent my first birthday at Tokyo Disneyland. I’m a Disney fan. My favorite Disney film is Treasure Planet, who the executive producer of that, the creator, is Roy Conli and he worked on Big Hero 6. It comes full circle for me and it’s very surreal.

Scott Adsit:

I have, in my life, collected action figures and had them displayed and stuff…in my twenties. But I still have them all. And I’m still very much interested in and I still buy them. So to then pick up one that speaks with my voice, that’s something! But then I know that other people are playing with it and that’s weird.

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Our last cast visit was with Damon Wayans Jr. (Wasabi) and TJ Miller (Fred). Almost immediately, our conversation turned to their role as the movie’s comic relief.

Damon Wayans Jr:

Aside from Baymax, I feel like our characters facilitate the comedy as far as keeping it light when needed and making the group of friends feel real, like they actually have been friends for awhile. I feel like being friends with a guy like Fred is like you have to have known him for awhile to maintain that friendship.

TJ Miller:

They came and they said, you know, you’re both comedians so we want you to do a lot of the comedy in the movie. Baymax is comedic but he’s everything, and all of it. And they told me that Fred’s kind of like you, kind of like a chill guy, who’s very excitable. And I think that’s what I love about his character is that he’s so excited for everybody in this journey. And this is like a comic book and we’ve got to do this. We should go for it. This is our Origin story, all that sort of stuff. He’s very silly. They let me be kind of absurdist in a couple of points and sing that Fred’s Angel song that’s so bizarre. And those moments allowed me to sort of play to my idiosyncrasies but then they also trusted me and Damon to kind of do the Disney moments where we have to have some heart, you have to add some sweetness to it and you’ve got to act a little bit, which I’m not very good at but I fooled everybody.

Damon Wayans Jr:  

The animated characters have been some of my best acting work. I just put my voice but the way they animate those guys, like the certain facial expressions that I would make reacting to something – I would just be like Wow. Wasabi is a better actor than me. And you do see it in the characters and that is so fascinating cause the animators are doing your physical acting for you and you’re sort of doing every else. Human Beings – there’s so much about body language but the only thing that separates them from animals is language. So I’m talking and I talk a lot.

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The two discuss how Big Hero 6 is different than your average Disney animated feature.

TJ Miller:

Marvel is so great with action and the superhero through line but there’s a lot of wish fulfillment in this movie. I think even as adults we think about what would be our super power and what does it take to become a hero and how do you overcome loss and there’s just a lot of themes that are dealt with here that aren’t dealt with in every comic book or superhero story. That’s like what I’m so excited about to see people go whoa! This has 50 elements to it and they’re all handled well, that are balanced out with some pretty good comedy from Damon and then some fairly mediocre stuff from me.

Damon Wayans Jr:

I also love the idea that these characters are normal human beings and what makes them Superheroes is their minds. With Hiro making all these special suits for these guys. They’re not from a Planet Farkinon or somewhere that gives them their powers.

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Our day concluded with a very insightful conversation with filmmakers Don Hall (Writer, Director),  Chris Williams (Writer, Director) and Roy Conli (Producer). They had some interesting things to say regarding the choice to work with Marvel on Big Hero 6.

Don Hall:  

It’s interesting, when you’re first developing a story or even in development with John (Lasseter), you don’t pick one idea. You pick at least three – it’s by design so that you don’t put all your emotional eggs in one basket. That’s John’s process and that’s worked how many years now. So, after that first conversation was when I said, “I wanna do a Marvel thing” and he’s like, “I love that you wanna do a Marvel thing, go find something.” I would scroll, on my lunch hours through the Marvel Wiki page that has all of their five thousand plus characters and the first thing I saw was Big Hero 6. And I thought, “Ooh, that’s interesting. What is that?” Japanese superhero team?  Oh, that’s interesting. And so I bought the comics and read them and I was impressed with the tone of it, you know.  It was sort of light-hearted and fun and the characters are very appealing. The whole thing was, sort of, this love letter to Japanese pop culture. So I think we all saw an emotional potential there, an emotional story between this kid who suffers a loss and this robot who tries to heal him. But it was one of the more obscure ones that were pitched, but I think all the directors liked it when I pitched it and John definitely gravitated towards it. It kind of had some, I guess what I call humble beginnings but I’m absolutely thrilled that it’s become what it is today.

Chris Williams:

And yes, we have comedy, action and all the rest of it but it’s really the heart, the emotion that John will always latch onto initially. And then we spend years sort of working on the story to realize that potential.

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On the amazing work the animators did in creating the large cityscapes featured in Big Hero 6.

Chris Williams:  

We did a lot of things you’re not supposed to do in animation. We have a large cast. We have a fairly dense plot. We have two genres, the boy and his robot one and then the superhero origin story. Normally you want fewer characters, a simpler plot line and that was a big challenge.  So much of the journey of making this movie is about taking all of these disparate elements. Then, we had all these things and making them work together.

Don Hall:

And also these stories crack and then start production. The story continues pretty much until you rip it out of our hands and it goes into a theater. We’re constantly fine-tuning and crafting the story. So early on there was a lot of forward thinking by the team and Kyle Odermatt, who’s our visual effects supervisor, as well as the animation team knew that, while we’re working on the story, they needed to set us up for success as far as the world. And part of that was we were gonna build the city so that we can fly around and go wherever we want. And we’re gonna populate that city with a bunch of people, and we don’t want them to look like the same person – Xeroxed or whatever – because we hate that. And so there was a lot of forward thinking early on while the story was coming together for those type of things. And boy it paid off because I think the second shot of the movie has 5,000 characters.

Chris Williams:

That’s the thing I was most amazed by because our crew was so invested in the movie, really wanted to do everything they could to make the world feel plausible and believable and realized.  And so as I look around the city, even now I’m noticing things.  There will be characters doing sign language way off in the corner and there’s all this very specific animation that isn’t just cycled.  It wasn’t good enough for them.  It had to feel more believable than that and more specific than that.

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Mr. Hall then spoke on the original Marvel subject matter and the liberties Disney took with their adaptation of Big Hero 6.

The title.  I’m not even kidding.  The title and the characters’ names. I mean Go Go Tomago, her name is in the comic books. To us, she’s just Go Go. She’s the speedster in the comic book but it took on a completely different form. You know, it was a sort of jet powered suit that she rolled around in.

Honey Lemon had a purse that opened up to another dimension in the comic books and we tried to just make it more grounded in real science. That may seem strange because in animation, you can do anything. But it’s really important for us to ground it in a believable world. And it’s actually really important to John too. And therefore those early decisions, early on to kind of put a stake in the ground and say “Nobody’s super powered. Nobody’s gonna turn into anything.” There’s no gamma radiated, not that I don’t like that.  I love that stuff.  But for this movie, it was going to be no super powers and it was gonna be super tech, and then we kind of extrapolated from there. And intelligence. So yeah, their powers are loosely based on some of the kind of broad stroke ideas that they had in the comic book but we pretty much reinvented that. And the tone of the movie is kind of a love letter to Japanese pop culture.  Yeah, we definitely kept that spirit.

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When the topic of the relationship between Baymax and Hiro came up, Producer Roy Conli explained how the group developed that storyline.

Well, I don’t know if I can speak to things that you would not see but certainly when we’re making our movies and it’s a very fluid and ever-changing story environment the story’s constantly in a state of change.  One of the things we keep asking ourselves is what are we, what’s it really about?  If you boil it down to one thing, what are you saying?  What is the theme of this movie?  And we did talk about the idea of the fact that this was gonna be about loss and that Hiro was gonna need to arrive at a cathartic moment where he dealt with loss.

And we knew that what we ultimately were saying was that if you lose somebody, they’re not necessarily gone.  Physically they’re gone but they can live on through you in the choices that you make.  And that’s something that you hear a lot if you’ve lost somebody.  To the point where it can sometimes come off almost trite.  But what I love is the fact that this movie tells you there’s actually truth to it and it’s a profound truth.  And I think that that’s, that is something we’re always building on.

We’re always going back and referencing that idea.  So we knew that that moment had to happen between Hiro and Baymax in the portal at the end of the film.  He needed to ingest that idea and it needed to come from Baymax.  So we’re always building towards that moment.  Now that’s not something that you didn’t know, but it’s certainly something that was a guiding idea for us.

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When asked about the concept of the microbots in the film, Don Hall discussed their eye opening trip to Carnegie Mellon.

There were some folks doing research into nanobots which are not very cinematic.  It’s like this is really cool that there’d be these little molecule-sized robots that can deliver medicine in our bloodstreams.  But it’s not very cinematic, right?

So microbots are sort of the next step above nanobots. It was that technology – this idea of microbots coupled with the idea of swarm technology. They all moved in unison. But they also were so connected to each other that they would miss each other. And they could do these air ballets where they would move in unison. It was the coolest thing and a little creepy. And so it was that swarm technology coupled with this idea of microbots…like we could devise something that could be very animation friendly. Something that could create shapes that we never want to be cartoony.

As the conversation ended, Mr. Hall took a beat before adding this final statement:

God bless the smart people!

Disney’s feature follow-up to Frozen is a fun film that’s equally packed with action and heart. Big Hero 6 opens in 3D everywhere this Friday November 7th. Go see it, you won’t be sorry!

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Aside from throwing words onto your screen here, he has written for the likes of FEARnet, Examiner, Dread Central and MTV Movies Blog. And yes, he was Percy on VR Troopers.