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Tuesday, February 17 2015 08:00

Interview: The Directors of BIG HERO 6 - From A Bear Named 'Pooh' to Giving Stan Lee His Biggest MARVEL Cameo Yet...#BigHero6Bloggers

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Sitting down for a chat in the stylish confines of the W Hotel in Los Angeles, Filmmakers Don Hall and Chris Williams are pretty laid-back as they settle-in to talk about their latest effort, BIG HERO 6. The Co-Directing duo of Walt Disney Animation Studios' 54th feature film have much to be excited about, with the press days for the in-home release of BIG HERO 6 coming on the eve of the 87th Academy Awards - a ceremony for which they will enter as nominees, as BIG HERO 6 stares down some steep competition for "Best Animated Feature"- a category that Disney and it's various arms (including Pixar) has dominated in recent years. Should Hall and Williams (along with Producer Roy Conli) take home the gold, BIG HERO 6 will continue the massive roll that started with FROZEN in 2013, and just found the film overtaking BEAUTY AND THE BEAST to become Disney's third-most-successful domestic performer, with only THE LION KING and FROZEN before it. Like all great adventures, the big-screen presentation of BIG HERO 6 started off with some pretty humble beginnings...

Don Hall and Chris Williams"I was just finishing up WINNIE THE POOH and started thinking about my next project," began Don Hall as he spoke with a group of 25 family-focused writers and bloggers about the film's genesis. John Lasseter, who oversees Walt Disney Animation (in addition to Pixar and DisneyToon Studios) had asked his Directors to zero in on interests that they're passionate about, and for Hall it was MARVEL Comics. "[Comics are] really where I learned to draw and tell stories, and I'm not unique in that way -- the entire Studio pretty much has that same story. I just happened to be the guy who brought it to the forefront, and I pitched John that idea and he got super excited and told me to go find something. It was that simple -- a 5 minute conversation."

With Disney having recently acquired MARVEL Entertainment at that time, an entire library of properties ripe to develop where now accessible to the filmmaker as he explored his options beyond the borders of The Hundred Acre Wood. 

BIG HERO 6 Comic"I came across BIG HERO 6 having never read the comic -- I liked the title, saw it on their website, researched it further and found it was a Japanese Super Hero team and thought that was cool," he said. "[Then] I read the comics and thought the tone was appropriate -- light hearted, the characters are fun, had goofy names, and you could tell the Creators just loved Japanese Pop Culture." After making a solid pitch to Lasseter and a group of his peers at Disney Animation (along "five or six other ideas"), Hall received a "Go!" based on an amended version of the core story, focusing on "a 14-year-old super genius who loses his brother and this robot who becomes his surrogate big brother."

"I remember so vividly the day that Don first pitched BIG HERO 6 to myself and the other Directors at Disney," recalls Chris Williams about the earliest days of the project. "It was so powerful, and I really hoped that John would greenlight it, because for him, emotion is everything. I was thrilled when Don asked me to join him, and I feel like the last 3 1/2 years has been about realizing that potential that Don laid out in that pitch."

Baymax Comparison Art

One of the biggest challenges was crafting what has become the face - and heart - of the film - Baymax. In the comics, the character is often referred-to as "Monster Baymax," a reptilian-looking robot that shape-shifts, and sometimes wears a suit of armor similar to what we see Baymax in during the later scenes of BIG HERO 6. To fulfill the vision of Hall and Williams, Baymax was reworked into his now-loveable, "huggable" persona as a "health care companion," one who becomes both friend and protector to Hiro Hamada in the wake of his brother's untimely death. A Clinical Child Psychologist was brought in to help shape the dynamic between Hiro and Baymax, a crucial detail in making right one of the film's biggest themes - dealing with loss.

"She reinforced that we're on the right track because a lot of things she and her Social Worker friends talked about, we were already doing in the film," said Hall. "In a sense, it kind of validated our approach and also gave us some new insight."

BIG HERO 6

baymaxhotelWhile serious themes play a role in BIG HERO 6 (and much of the Disney legacy), BIG HERO 6 is also a lot of fun, and one of the most memorable elements was completely unplanned in the beginning. Even before MARVEL became a part of Disney and birthed the "MARVEL Cinematic Universe," there has been a long-running tradition of MARVEL icon Stan Lee making cameos in film and television projects based on MARVEL properties. In BIG HERO 6, Lee was given an homage as "Fred's Dad," appearing in a painting toward the midway mark of the film. Though not officially a "MARVEL film," a screening of last summer's runaway blockbuster GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY opened the door for what became Lee's biggest cameo to-date.

"Oh my God, nobody left the theatre." That was Hall's reaction to seeing GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY with Williams when it was released in August. "Everyone stayed for the Howard the Duck [P.S.] scene, and we didn't have one. We both came into work on Monday morning a little panicked."

"We were winding down," added Williams, noting that with an animated film set for a November release, by August they were in the final stages and most of the crew was gone. He went and storyboarded a little tag for the end, setting up some cool tie-ins and callbacks between Fred and his Dad. They hit up their Producer for a little money, and on a crew of about 20 people put it all together, managing to keep it completely under-wraps (sworn-to-secrecy with code names) until the final wrap party. The biggest challenge was recording Stan Lee's dialogue, and that was something the then 91-year-old would have to do on a separate lot, in a second story studio in a building with no elevator.

Watch: Stan Lee's take on BIG HERO 6

"We were waiting up front and he rolls up and springs out of the car and was everything you want Stan Lee to be -- you know, lots of energy, the persona, the voice," Chris says. "He was very self-effacing and awesome, and he took those stairs like a champion! He nailed the part. It was the part he was born to play."

BIG HERO 6 is out now on Disney Movies Anywhere and Digital HD. The Blu-ray and DVD will hit retail on February 24, 2015 

#BigHero6Bloggers

James Zahn

James Zahn is best-known as The Rock Father™, a media personality, commentator, adventurer and raconteur. He is the Owner, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of THE ROCK FATHER™ Magazine. In January, 2019, after nearly a decade of publishing The Rock Father™ Magazine, he joined Adventure Media and Events as Senior Editor of The Toy Book—the leading trade publication for the toy industry since 1984, as well as The Pop Insider — a destination for all things pop culture, and The Toy Insider — the leading consumer guide for toys and games. He is also editor of The Toy Report, a weekly newsletter published by The Toy Book each Thursday. Zahn has over 27 years of experience in the entertainment, retail and publishing industries.

He regularly serves as a Brand Ambassador and spokesperson for several Globally-recognized pop culture and lifestyle brands in addition to consulting for a number of toy manufacturers. 

Creatively, James has directed/edited music videos, lyric videos, and album trailers for bands such as FEAR FACTORY, has appeared as an actor in feature films and commercials, written comic books, and performed in bands. He currently serves as an artist manager and video director for PRODUCT OF HATE, whose debut album was released by Napalm Records in 2016, distributed by ADA/Warner Music in the U.S. with Universal Music handling global. A new album has been completed and is set for release this year.

Zahn and/or his work have been featured in/on CNN, NBC, ABC, WGN, CBS, GCTN, G4, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes, MarketWatch, Reuters, BusinessWire, Fangoria, Starlog and more. He's appeared as a music expert on CNN's AC360 alongside Anderson Cooper, and has been interviewed by Larry King. In the past he served as a writer for the Netflix Stream Team,  Fandango Family and PBS KIDS, penned articles for Sprout and PopSugar, and was a contributor to Chicago Parent.

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