"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.
"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."
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."
While 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