Oscar nominee “Big Hero 6” is on track this weekend to become the No. 3 all-time domestic earner for Walt Disney Animation Studios, passing the $218.9 million of “Beauty and the Beast” (after “Frozen” and “The Lion King”). One factor in the film’s success is the new approach at Disney Animation, says president Andrew Millstein, “which is about elevating storytelling and putting filmmakers at the center of the process.”
It sounds like a no-brainer for a film company to focus on filmmakers. But in the past, Disney Animation was often administrative-driven, with layers of notes from executives that dictated content and bogged down the creatives.
“Big Hero 6″ provides a one-two punch for the studio after last year’s “Frozen.” “Big Hero 6″ boasts flashy work in the San Fransokyo setting and the action sequences, but the center of the film is the relationship between inflatable robot Baymax and tech prodigy Hiro. “It’s the absolute key to the film and the reason the film resonates with audiences,” “Big Hero 6″ co-director Chris Williams says.
Williams and Don Hall, who both directed the film, are 20-year vets at Disney Animation, with many years’ experience on the storyboarding team.
When Ed Catmull and John Lasseter took the reins of Disney Animation in 2006, they initiated a culture shift. The key changes were to put an emphasis on the creative team and to make sure all the filmmakers were cooperative rather than competitive. So instead of the existing “bake-off,” where directors vied to get their projects made, they initiated a what’s called the Story Trust. Similar to Pixar’s Braintrust, it consists of 10-20 animation directors, writers and story artists who exchange notes, with the emphasis on collaboration.
“The change was about the Pixar team sharing ideas with us, sharing their key principles,” Millstein says. “‘Hero’ is one example of what we’ve learned over the years and our embracing some of the Pixar DNA.”
The screenwriters for “Hero” are Jordan Roberts, Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird, with Paul Briggs and Joe Mateo credited as head of story.
Baymax and Hiro are together for 80% of film, “So the Story Trust spent most of our time on their relationship,” says Williams. “The movie centers on loss, and so we all talked about our own experiences. We made ourselves vulnerable once the doors were closed, when we were in the sacred space of the storyroom.”
One of Catmull and Lasseter’s other contributions was to recognize and promote talent. Like animation greats Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, Disney Animation promoted Hall and Williams to directors because of their strength in storytelling. And the two directors were told that collaboration was paramount. “These are not new ideas, and there had been some lip service to those notions — but when John Lasseter and Ed Catmull came in, we’ve taken it to heart,” says Williams.
“Hero” has earned $505 million internationally, with several key territories still to launch. As for sequel plans, Williams says he and Hall haven’t had time to seriously discuss it. He’s glad there is “such a strong fanbase” for the film, and quotes Lasseter’s dictum: No sequel will ever get made unless the directors want one and feel strongly that there is a story that needs to be told.
“If it’s not a great story, it won’t be a great movie,” Williams emphasizes. “The crew deserves a great story. And we have expectations from the audience, who grew up with Disney animation. They deserve a great story too.”