After Disney Tangled made its theatrical debut back in November of 2010, Roy Conli thought that there was no way to top the experience that this veteran producer had just had on that Walt Disney Animation Studios production.
But in the end, all those risks that Conli and the Tangled production team took ultimately paid off. This Academy Award-nominated animated feature — thanks to its strong female protagonist as well as its ambitious storyline (which had some genuine emotional heft) — represented a big step forward for Walt Disney Animation Studios.
“I remember telling the Tangled crew about grimace moments. How when you watch a movie that you worked on and you think ‘Ah, I wish we could have done that scene better,’ or ‘I wish that we’d had the time or the money to fix that particular story problem.’ But when I watched Tangled, I had no grimace moments. I could watch that film over and over and over again. I just love that I got to help Nathan Greno and Bryon Howard reinvent the way Disney does fairytales,” Roy enthused.
“That’s why — when Don Hall first came to me to talk about Big Hero 6 — I have to admit that I found his pitch for this project extremely compelling. The very idea that a boy could first lose his brother and then be repaired by his brother’s invention, this robot, that sounded like a story that was really worth telling,” Conli admitted.
More to the point, given the maturity of storytelling that WDAS had demonstrated with its recent work on Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen, Roy felt that the studio was now up to the challenges of Big Hero 6. Which — while it was set in a Marvel-inspired universe — was still basically a story about grief and loss.
“For this film, it was absolutely essential that we have a setting that felt contemporary and lived in. San Fransokyo had to be a city that you recognized but — at the same time — still be a suitable background for a comic book fantasy. Paul delivered in spades,” Conli enthused. “We’ve never built a world this big for a Walt Disney Animation Studios production before. How big is San Fransokyo? You could take the worlds that we built for Tangled and Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph and put them all together, and combined they still wouldn’t be as big as San Fransokyo is.”
And — of course — a city of that size needs citizens. Which reminded Roy of a challenge that he faced while producing Disney’s June 1996 release, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
There are lots of other impressive tech-related factoids that Roy could toss out there about Big Hero 6. Take — for example — how Disney used one of the biggest rendering farms in animation history while it was producing this motion picture. But by doing something like that, Conli feels that it then somehow diminishes the contribution of the genuinely talented WDAS employees who actually create that tech.
“The technicians who work here at Walt Disney Animation Studios? They’re all amazing artists,” Conli stated. “That — to my way of thinking, anyway — is the real magic of this medium. Chris Williams, Don Hall and I could hand a scene off to guys like Kyle Odermatt and Hank Driskill, who were our visual supervisor and our technical supervisor on Big Hero 6. We could give them a template of where we want them to go with that scene. And then Kyle and Hank would come back and surprise us. Because when we get that scene back, it’s always better than you expected it to be.”
“That’s the really cool thing about working at Walt Disney Animation Studios these days. There’s a team here that’s kind of grown up together. Don, Chris, myself, Paul Felix our production designer? We’ve all been here about 20 years. And Paul Briggs, the Head of Story on Big Hero 6 ? I’ve known Paul since he was an intern. And to see him mature into this phenomenal leader of men, that’s just been great,” Conli laughed. “Given our collective experience and the excellent work that this Studio did on Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen … Well, that’s why I felt we were up to the challenges of Big Hero 6. I knew that this team could strike just the right balance between this movie’s mystery elements, our boy-and-his-robot story and its superhero-sized setting.”
Which isn’t to say that — when push came to shove — that Roy wasn’t willing to play the I’m-the-Producer card and then tell his friends-of-twenty-plus-years about specific concerns he had about this motion picture. Take — for example — Big Hero 6‘s central character, Hiro Hamada.
“Of course, what helped us keep Hiro authentically 14 was his relationship with Tadashi. Anyone who has a brother or a sister knows about that special bond that siblings have. How there’s no one else on the planet that can tick you off quite as much as your brother or your sister can. But at the same time, there’s no one who moves faster to help you once you get in trouble,” Roy continued. “That’s why I’m especially proud of the work that was done on Hiro and Tadashi’s scenes together. I think that those scenes in Big Hero 6 have some of the most authentic depictions of brotherly love that have ever been seen on film.”
Which perhaps explains — as Conli sat watching the work-in-progress version of Big Hero 6 earlier this year — he once again found himself viewing another grimace-free movie. Or better yet, why Roy was thrilled earlier this month when he learned that this Walt Disney Animation Studios production had been nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar.