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Interview: Chris Williams

Chris Williams has been with Walt Disney Animation Studios for twenty years, working on a variety of projects, including Mulan, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Bolt. He also co-directed Big Hero 6, winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host and his guests discuss various geeky topics.

Your new movie is called Big Hero 6; how did this project come about?

There were actually two directors on the movie, I’m one of them and Don Hall was the other. It really began with Don and his passion for the superhero genre. He grew up loving superhero stories and reading comic books and he also loved animation, and that’s what brought him to Disney. He was coming off of directing Winnie the Pooh and he expressed to our boss, John Lasseter, how much he would like to work in that genre and, at the same time, try to defy peoples’ expectations of what you might do with that genre. John is very passionate about passion, and when he sees that people are excited about something, that gets him revved up. So he asked Don to go off and explore. Don found this original Marvel property called Big Hero 6. It was, obviously, on a bit more of the obscure side. He pitched it to the other directors at Disney Feature Animation, and to John as well, and at that point, about three and a half years ago — you don’t pitch an in-depth plot; you don’t get into the minutia — he just pitched a broad overview of the emotional potential for the film, and he talked about the idea of a young protagonist who loses his brother but is left with his older brother’s creation, this robot Baymax, who would become his surrogate older brother. He focused on that, and it got everybody really engaged. At that point, John green-lit the film and the last three and a half years has really been about this attempt to realize the emotional potential that Don laid out.

As far as myself, I came on the show about a year and a half ago as a storyboard artist, and I’d been on it for a few months when Don asked me to join him as the co-director. He was in a very similar situation to the one that I was in when I was directing Bolt; I got a certain ways down the line and realized I just couldn’t be in enough places. At that point, I reached out to Byron Howard, who had been storyboarding on the film and was a powerhouse story artist and someone who had been along for the journey, so it was a great transition for him to join me as co-director.

Do you remember, specifically, at what point in the project you were first introduced to the Big Hero 6 and what your first impressions of it were?

Don brought it to our attention; I’d never heard of it before then. Because it was a little known property, we had a lot of flexibility; we knew the audience wasn’t going to come with a preconceived notion of what this movie should be, or what these characters should be. We knew we were going to have to take a lot of liberties and create something fairly new.

I haven’t read the comic books but, doing a little research, it seems like, as you say, that there are a lot of changes. For people who haven’t read the comics, what are they like and what were some of those big changes?

I’m not an expert on the original comic; I sort of took a glancing look at them. At the point where I joined the show, I almost thought that it would be better for me to be an outsider from the original source material. Don is more familiar with the ins and outs of the original comic. But probably the biggest change is the character of Baymax himself: He’s physically very different. He’s a robot, and not able to transform into lots of different things, and the idea of him being a nurse robot created by Hiro’s brother — it was all new stuff that was there to serve our story.

Where did your concept of Baymax come from, this sort of friendly, inflatable robot? Were there any influences on that?

I love Baymax. He is purely selfless, purely good, and I love these kinds of naïve characters that have almost a newborn’s perspective on the world; they’re seeing the world with fresh eyes. To me, you can trace the lineage back to characters like Bambi or Dumbo, some of the original Disney characters, where there is this innocence and purity to them that is a big part of their appeal. I was really drawn to that.

No character is strong in a vacuum; it’s always about how they relate to the characters around them, so it was also important to make sure that Hiro and Baymax would work well as a duo. We didn’t want Baymax to be a human in a robot suit; we wanted him to be robotic and very deliberate and methodical in the way he made decisions and the way that he moved. So we figured the best contrast would be to have Hiro be someone who was very young, energetic, sort of manic. He’s a really smart guy; he’s got a thousand thoughts a second, and to have all that energy next to Baymax and to have these two characters working at very different paces, we knew that they would be great foils for each other. To me, it was about examining and pushing the dynamic between them, so each made the other funnier and more interesting.

I heard that you guys actually know some robotics students, and that Baymax was at least partially inspired by students who were making inflatable robots. Is that true?

This was before my time on the film, but Don had gone to Carnegie Mellon and done a bunch of research. He had gone to a lot of robotic schools and things, but he had a real epiphany there. He was introduced to the idea of inflatable robotics, and they did say that it was something that would have practical applications in the medical field: They’re soft, and they can’t hurt people, and they’re not intimidating-looking like robots can sometimes be, so people are very comfortable with them.

A light bulb went off for Don at that point, and for us, that was a real Hallelujah moment, because, if you work in Disney animation, and certainly if you work for John Lasseter, and you embark to tell a story that features a robot, he’s going to ask you to put up an image of every iconic robot that’s ever existed in movies or TV shows or anything and then say, “Give me something new.” And that is a great exercise; it was the same thing on Bolt — he asked us to put up iconic dogs — and that forces you to not go with your first impulse; it forces you to really go out and explore and find something original. When Don came back and had these sketches and ideas, we all realized that we’d found a very special version of a robot. Once we had that, the character design got resolved pretty quickly, so we’ve had that for a long time.

When you were putting all of those iconic robots up on the wall, which of them were your favorites? Or which ones did you think were the most interesting?

I think we all have a soft spot in our hearts for the Terminator, and Robocop — the original one is a great movie; one of my favorites — but we looked at a lot of Japanese robots, and you had your Mechagodzilla up there. We also looked at some of the original anime and one of the things I was first turned on to as a kid was a show called Battle of the Planets, that was just repackaged Gatchaman — which is a really old anime series — and some of the robot designs in that were really cool. You end up putting them all up, everything you can think of: Johnny 5 would be on the board. It makes you aware of all the things you’d forgotten about and forces you to stretch.

How about the Iron Giant? My friends and I sort of saw this movie, in a way, as a spiritual successor to the Iron Giant.

Sure, that would’ve been up there, and just to be mentioned with that movie is a real compliment; it’s one of my favorites. I was so moved emotionally. You know, you have those special experiences watching movies that you remember as much as you remember the movie itself, and I saw that movie with my family. I’m from Canada, originally, and I’d been living in the States at that point and I was back home and we went to see a matinee, and my brother and I both erupted in tears at the end. It was just a powerful movie: that whole moment where he flies up into the sky. I get emotional just thinking about it.

The other robots in this movie that really struck me are the microbots, which I thought were just amazingly cool on-screen.

That was another element in the story that was really inspired by the research; they had sort of discovered this swarm technology, where tiny robots — some of them were on the ground and some of them could actually fly — can react to each other and they can form a pattern, and that was something that was a real springboard. You really can’t underestimate the importance of research in our process; once we pitch a simple version of a story or an idea, we’ll always be asked to go out and do lots of research. The goal is to do research before you’ve had your story take shape, because if you don’t, there’s a danger that you’ll always try to twist the research to serve your story as opposed to being really inspired by and letting the research inform the story. One of the things with a movie like this, where we’re trying to have it feel like it’s a slightly futuristic and fantastic world — at the same time, you want it to feel plausible and grounded and based in a real science, so we were drawing from cutting edge technology. But one of the dangers is that the actual technology moves so quickly that you have to work extra hard to make sure you’re ahead of it when the movie actually comes out. We weren’t really worried about the idea of telekinesis — that’s one of the things in the movie: The microbots are controlled through telekinesis. Ten months ago, maybe eight, I was driving in my car and there was a news report about people actually testing out telekinesis, and they had one guy who was able to make another guy move his finger involuntarily — they were both hooked up to a computer — and that just floored me.

Speaking of rapidly advancing technology, I heard that it was a technological challenge to show the microbots on-screen; that it required all sorts of fancy computer equipment. Can you talk about that?

One of the biggest breakthroughs that was employed in this movie was the Hyperion Rendering System; that was a thing that was developed in-house. Again, I am not very technologically savvy myself, so I wouldn’t be able to get into a ton of detail about it, but it was something that allowed for us to have the light behave more authentically: Light coming from a light source would bounce many more times in our movie than any movie that have come before. You feel it when you watch Big Hero 6, where we’re in a city with a lot of light sources, and there’s just something that feels more grounded and real than anything you’ve ever seen before. This new system allowed us to set the movie in a city as dense as San Fransokyo. It’s also something that you see front and center because one of our main characters, Baymax, is a vinyl robot and light is passing through him and bouncing around inside of him, and it does feel like a soft vinyl surface that he’s made out of, and I don’t think we would’ve been able to capture that with the technology that we had before.

The decision had to be made, a few years ago, as to whether we were going to use this new technology — it was hot off the presses and still needed some development — and I think there’s just something culturally here at Feature Animation that I felt has been growing over the years, especially since John and Ed took over — about eight years ago — where nobody wants to back away from a challenge. So they said, “Let’s go for it,” and they created this thing, and suddenly we were able to have this incredible world and that pushes the story, because we’re all in-house; we’re all in one building together. And so then the creative side gets energized, and they create something that’s bigger and better than anything we’ve tried before, and that motivates the technology side. It’s very cyclical, and I think that’s something that’s pretty unique to this place.

You mention San Fransokyo, this wonderful setting that you guys came up with. Could you talk about the process of developing that?

It came about because the original source material, Big Hero 6, was a Japanese superhero team, so that’s why that was in our heads. At the same time, one of the things we love to do is create new worlds, so we wanted it to be not on our Earth as we know it; that got the creative juices going. I think it was Don Hall who first conceived of this idea of San Fransokyo, this hybrid — this blending — of east and west, of San Francisco and Tokyo.

To me, it’s cool, it’s different, but one of the things I like the most about it is that it’s a visual indicator of something that’s very important to the movie, which is this idea of synthesis. Because we knew that this movie was going to be blending what Disney is and what Marvel is and what the superhero genre is, and one of the things that I was very mindful of was that, even genre-wise, we had a melding of two things: We had a superhero origin story, but we also had a boy and his dog — or robot — story, and we had to tell these stories without telling one at the expense of another; they needed to come together.

I heard that the city was procedurally generated, so it was sort of randomized to develop the whole city?

To some extent. I know that they started with the actual map of San Francisco; all the streets, all the buildings are accurate; the layout of San Francisco, all the topography. But then everything was heightened: The hills were made twice as tall, and the buildings maybe two or three times as high, and then it was given an injection of a Japanese aesthetic. So to some extent, I suppose there would be some random generation, but really, once you create the shots, you have to go in and design the city; you can’t just let a computer do it. It really comes down to our Art Director and our Production Designer, Scott Watanabe and Paul Felix, and our incredible Visual Development department to really figure out how to bring together these two aesthetics without it feeling slapped together. Scott Watanabe was essential to that; he had lived in Tokyo and San Francisco, and is just an incredible artist. He did it in a very thoughtful way.

I love the establishing shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, where it has this Japanese architectural styling to it.

I love it too. Those are the kinds of things I can’t take credit for; we definitely benefit from an amazing visual development crew and I look at that shot and my mouth is agape.

Are there any other details like that, that you might not notice as a casual viewer but, working on the movie over this long period of time, caught your eye?

One of the things that’s nice about San Francisco is that it is a very iconic city; I really love the treatment of Coit Tower, the way it’s been given a new aesthetic; the Transamerica building — it’s fun to look at these things that you know and then see how they were treated. There were also a few Easter eggs; little hidden things that people can look for in the city.

One thing about this movie that my friends and I really liked was how positive it was about science and being a nerd. At what point in the process did that idea come to you, or how did you include that in the story?

I think it came pretty naturally. One of the things to bear in mind is that working at Disney Animation is sort of a mecca of nerdom in its own right, and a lot of us grew up spending a lot of time in our bedrooms writing stories and drawing pictures, lost in our own heads.

We started from a point where we wanted to have Hiro and his brother both be really intelligent, and we knew that Baymax was going to be designed and built by Hiro’s older brother, Tadashi, so it just naturally made the college setting right for us. We knew that we wanted to have our heroes not be powered by superpowers or magic or anything like that; it was going to be something that was using technology. We knew that was going to be fundamental to the story. We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback, and one of the things that is most satisfying is what you’re talking about: I hear people say that they saw the movie with their kids and their kids were excited and inspired and told their parents they want to go to college — making being smart and curious cool. We essentially wanted to make a really fun and emotionally engaging movie, but if it in any way inspires scientific curiosity, then I’m all for that.

You mentioned doing scientific research for the robots; did you have to do any research for the plasma lasers and mag-lift stuff?

Yeah; and again, I wasn’t actually on those trips. That was Don Hall. Those are cutting edge technologies that we were excited about and wanted to put in the film. He spent a lot of time visiting campuses and seeing what people are into these days.

Which aspects of the film were you the most involved with?

Basically the story; I come from a story background. I’ve been at Disney Animation for twenty years now in the story department, and I’ve been a storyboard artist and director. I spend most of my time in the story room or recording room, or in editorial. That’s my passion, and that’s where I’ll always want to be.

You mentioned growing up reading a lot of books and comics; which particular books or comics got you into this so passionately?

As far as comic books, I tended to be drawn more to the artist. Joe Kubert was one of my favorites, and I’m never convinced I’m pronouncing his name properly, but he did Sgt. Rock and I collected all those and there was just something about his drawing style; he was able to suggest an entire forest with a few well-placed brushstrokes. To this day, I aspire to draw more like him.

How did you go from being a kid looking at the art to actually working at Disney?

I think it was almost pre-destined; all I did as a kid was draw and write and I would create these stories and make these worlds out of Plasticine and I got into making motion capture — not motion capture — stop-motion —

You had a motion-capture rig in your house growing up?

That would be a strange story. No: Stop-motion films when I was a kid. It was just something that was in me, but at the same time I don’t think I had quite worked out a master plan as far as what I ought to do with my life. I studied fine arts up in Canada for a few years, and then it was my mom that encouraged me to go to Sheridan College and study animation. At that point, I was interested in animation but I wasn’t that much of an expert on it, and it was there that I discovered how much I loved it and made it my focus. They had an international program there where I would study for two summers and then a Disney recruiter came up and looked at my portfolio, and they asked me to come down to the Florida studio as an intern to study story, animation, layout, backgrounds, and all sorts of things. But I kept turning every assignment into a story assignment and that’s where I really discovered that, and that Disney figured out, that’s what I was best at and passionate about. So they sent me to California and I’ve been here ever since. That was about twenty years ago; my first film was Mulan.

When you say that you studied story, what would you say are some of the big lessons you’ve learned about doing a story for an animated film?

One of the things that I’ve come to really value is a collaborative environment; that’s one of the most important things, if not the most important thing, as far as constructing a great story. It’s a small team of us that make these stories — a director or two, a writer or two and then maybe six to ten story artists, and then also an entire crew who will see internal screenings and give you their feedback — and I think that if you can foster an environment where people feel comfortable volunteering their ideas, and even comfortable disagreeing with each other or me, that’s when you really start cooking. A lot of people aspire to a collaborative environment, but in a lot of ways it fights human nature. It’s nice to just be reaffirmed all the time and be told you’re brilliant and every idea you have is great, but ultimately it’s not going to allow the movie to get better.

When I first started, I had a lot of confidence; I know story, I know what works and what doesn’t, and I was probably headstrong and saw things more black and white. And then one of the things you come to accept and understand over the years is that even when you’re absolutely certain that you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong.

Are there any specific instances where you were absolutely sure you were right and then later decided that you were wrong?

There was a scene where Hiro and Baymax fly through the city together — we call that scene “First Flight” — and it’s really dynamic and cinematic and let a lot of our departments show their stuff; the lighting and the layout is just fantastic. After that, there’s a very quiet scene between Hiro and Baymax. Initially in the reels, that scene didn’t just have Hero and Baymax on top of the wind turbine; it had all six of the Big Hero 6, and it was more of a comedic beat. I was convinced that was the right thing to do; I felt we needed to hear the teams’ voices again and get them more engaged and structurally it seemed very sound. But when we put the whole movie up, you just felt there was something missing from Hiro and Baymax’s relationship, so at that point we looked at that scene again and realized it would be much stronger, and serve the movie better, if it was a quieter and sweeter scene just between Hiro and Baymax. That was a late change in our schedule, and it paid huge dividends. It’s the scene in the movie where we realize how deeply Hiro and Baymax care about each other; I think it’s the point where the audience invests in those characters as a duo in a way they hadn’t until that point.

That’s one [instance] that comes offhand, but it’s a constant process of stating your point of view and then being able to be flexible.

I have a couple random questions I wanted to get to: Which of the characters in the movie do you identify with the most?

Being a fan of superhero movies and science fiction — and just movies in general — there’s some Fred in me and a lot of us here at Feature Animation. His awareness of the tropes of the genre is something that I think is always kind of fun. There’s also a certain goofiness in Honey Lemon that I probably possess, but I aspire to be as cool as Go Go. I might give a different answer on a different day. I suppose I would also aspire to be as good and selfless as Baymax, but I suppose that’s impossible for us humans.

Fred’s technique for stretching out his underwear use: Who came up with that?

That’s funny, because we do spend years on these things. We debate everything and go into the minutia, and that line and his exact methodology did evolve; it was a different order of events for his front-back-inside out and all that. At one point T.J. Miller, who plays Fred — he’s a master ad-libber — came up with some of his own versions. Even John Lasseter, who goes from being engaged on a macro level to a very micro level at times, gave his point of view on what the line should be. I can’t remember when exactly we landed it, but it certainly went through some growing pains.

Have any of the reactions you’ve gotten to the movie from fans been particularly interesting or memorable?

The one that I especially appreciated was the one that I mentioned: The idea that people are talking about the fact that it’s making nerds, and especially science and technology, cool. That’s something that I really was taken aback by. After the years of working on the film — and it involves late nights and working weekends and a lot of sacrifice and missing time with my kids, and everybody on the crew makes sacrifices; they are dedicated, professional people who work hard and are committed to making something great — I got to go see it in a proper theater with a proper audience; to hear people laughing and especially to have people get as emotionally engaged as they were — you hear the sniffling and things like that — is so gratifying and makes the whole journey worthwhile. I’ve seen it a few times now, and all three times there was applause at the end, and it means everything to us. To me, it really is high stakes; when you embark on making one of these films, it’s just a few people, but as you move forward in the production, you have hundreds of people investing their creative energy and their time into this one thing. And that’s where the stakes get very high. It cannot be a bad movie; it cannot be an okay movie. It has to be a great movie. That’s a very motivating thing to me; I think about the crew and the sacrifices they’re making.

How about the Stan Lee cameo at the end? Was that something you always planned to do, or was that something that developed at some point in the process?

We did try to keep that under wraps, but at this point I think the cat’s out of the bag. We were making this very ambitious film — it’s huge in scope, the sets are massive and there’s a lot of characters — and so Don and I both said, “Boy, it would be great to have some kind of end credit button, but I don’t know if we have the bandwidth or time or crew to do that.” We were just trying to work on the movie itself and make sure it was where it needed to be.

So we put it off and I remember Don and I both had the same experience when we went, opening weekend, to see Guardians of the Galaxy; the movie ended and nobody budged. Everybody knew to just sit and wait. Don and I, that Monday morning, basically ran to each other and we were like, “We got a problem,” because yes it’s a Disney film, but everyone knows there’s a Marvel connection. What if people sit and wait through the credits and there’s nothing? Then the last emotion they experience would be disappointment. And we said, “We can’t let that happen.” This was very late stages of the production, so we knew we had to come up with something quickly. I went off and wrote the “button” and storyboarded it very roughly and laid it out on my floor, and I called Don over and pitched it to him and he laughed. But I knew that the challenge was just going to be the logistics of it; we were running out of time, the crew was very busy, and that would make it more expensive.

Then something great happened: When I was pitching the button, our producer, Roy Conli, walked in just as we got to the big joke, and Roy busts out laughing, and we knew at that point that it was going to happen, because Roy is the money man of the movie and he’s someone that puts the movie first and he knew it was a good idea. One of the things that we did, and a lot of people don’t know this: We actually kept that button a secret from our own crew, which is nearly impossible here at Disney Feature Animation; all the computers are linked up so you can look at each other’s work. Our visual effects supervisor, Kyle Odermatt, went in and created a secret area where people wouldn’t know it was hiding, and we brought in this skeleton crew — representatives from each of the departments — and let them in on the fact that we were going to create this button. We had these secret meetings with secret knocks behind closed doors where we were designing the Stan Lee character.

When we had our wrap party, where we present the film — finished in its entirety for the first time — to our crew, we screened the movie, got through the credits, and right when it goes to black the crew started standing up, and then that first shot comes on of Fred’s mansion. I heard this incredible gasp echo through the theater, and people say, “What is this?” And they sat down and watched and I knew we’d actually kept the secret. That was one of the most thrilling moments of the entire production. For me, being able to — if only briefly — direct Stan Lee was a life goal I didn’t even dare to have.

Because we were keeping it a secret from our crew, we didn’t record Stan Lee in our building; we went to another studio. When we got there, they had booked it on a second floor studio, and there were no elevators, so we knew that Stan Lee was going to have to walk up this long flight of stairs. And none of us had ever met Stan Lee, but we knew he was in his nineties, so we didn’t know how frail he would be. The whole time we’re waiting for him, we’re like, “Okay, when we go up the stairs, we’re going to position ourselves behind him so if he falls we can catch him. We cannot be responsible for killing Stan Lee, because then we would be marked men.” But I got to say, when the car rolled up, Stan Lee was full of energy, he was funny, he had the voice, the persona. He was amazing; he took those stairs like a champion and he was everything you’d want him to be. Being able to record with him was a thrill. That was the icing on the cake of making this movie.

Is that button canon going forward? If there’s a sequel, will Stan Lee appear as one of the heroes?

It certainly feels like we’re setting something up there. We were just thinking about a funny button and we just finished the movie not that long ago, and Don and I are in a place where we’re just getting some distance from the film and looking forward to some vacation soon. It is important to step away and let the adrenaline die down a bit — do some traveling, do some reading, and see what you feel connected to — and not race back into something. So we’ve had no discussion about a sequel.

It is a funny thing that happens, when you are in these story rooms and working with the animators; these characters start to become very real to us. We know how they would behave in any situation. You feel connected to them, and when the movie is released, you feel like a proud parent and your kids are going off to college and are going to live lives without you and be exposed to new people. You really grow to love them, so the idea of working with them again someday certainly has its appeal, but it’s not something we’re actively thinking about right now.

Is there anything else you want to say about upcoming projects? I hear maybe you’re doing a Philip K. Dick thing that you may or may not be able to talk about?

I think I know what you’re referring to, but I’m not working on that show. At home, I’ve always got my little piles of ideas and characters and genres that I’m excited about, but I’m trying to make a real point of not racing back into something.

Unfortunately, we’re all out of time, so I think we’re going to need to wrap things up. Chris, thanks so much for coming on the show; it’s been a real pleasure.

Thank you very much; this has been fun!

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.