Big Hero 6: Disney's most technologically advanced movie so far

Disney's Chief Technology Officer, Andy Hendrickson and I discussed the extreme tech behind Big Hero 6. When you think robots, don't think Asimov or Transformers; think Big and watch for the blinks.
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor
Big Hero 6 - Hiro and Baymax

I think it's safe to say that anyone who watches Lost in Space reruns loves robots. We love that guy. "Danger, Will Robinson, alien life form approaching. My sensors indicate a hostile presence." And the way he would groan out a gutteral "Uuuuuuuhhhhh," when Dr. Smith removed his powerpack on almost every episode.

We all reference the "Three Laws of Robotics" or have them referenced on various cartoons and sitcoms. And we cringed at Transformer battles, where robots, huge in stature and loaded to the hilt with advanced weapons couldn't hit each other. Now, we have Big Hero 6 — a boy, his four friends, and a robot named Baymax.

The story

From Walt Disney Animation Studios, the team behind "Frozen" and "Wreck-It Ralph," comes "Big Hero 6," an action-packed comedy-adventure about the special bond that develops between Baymax (voice of Scott Adsit), a plus-sized inflatable robot, and prodigy Hiro Hamada (voice of Ryan Potter). When a devastating event befalls the city of San Fransokyo and catapults Hiro into the midst of danger, he turns to Baymax and his close friends, adrenaline junkie GoGo Tomago (voice of Jamie Chung), neatnik Wasabi (voice of Damon Wayans, Jr.), chemistry whiz Honey Lemon (voice of Genesis Rodriguez) and fanboy Fred (voice of T.J. Miller).

Determined to uncover the mystery, Hiro transforms his friends into a band of high-tech heroes called "Big Hero 6." Inspired by the Marvel comics of the same name, and featuring breathtaking action with all the heart and humor audiences expect from Walt Disney Animation Studios, "Big Hero 6" is directed by Don Hall ("Winnie the Pooh") and Chris Williams ("Bolt"), and produced by Roy Conli ("Tangled"). The film hits theaters in 3D on Nov. 7, 2014. For more information, check out www.Disney.com/BigHero6.

Big Hero fun facts and filmmaking details

The 'Big Hero 6' animation team topped 100 members (103, to be exact). That’s about 15 more animators than 2013’s feature film 'Frozen.'

Filmmakers selected karate to broaden Baymax’s skillset — but animators had to adjust some of the movements to work for the voluminous character’s build. A few members of the team visited a nearby martial arts studio to get a feel for the practice. Pros were asked to attempt some of the moves while on their knees to simulate Baymax’s signature proportions.

Filmmakers consulted with flight specialist Jason McKinley, who worked on both 'Disney's Planes' and 'Planes: Fire & Rescue,' to choreograph and execute the flight sequences with Baymax and Hiro.

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ proprietary system Denizen allowed filmmakers to create bigger, more believable crowds for 'Big Hero 6.' created around 670 unique characters, compared to 270 in 'Frozen,' 185 in 'Wreck-It Ralph' and 80 in 'Tangled.'

Each of the 670 characters has up to 32 different clothing look combinations, plus 32 different hair and skin tones. That means, filmmakers could invite 686,080 unique characters to the San Fransokyo party before there were any exact repeats.

Denizen was made available to everyone at Walt Disney Animation Studios and employees were encouraged to model themselves in the system to join the crowd. More than 200 characters were created, and employees will see themselves up on the big screen — walking among the 'Big Hero 6.'

  • The "Port of San Fransokyo" scene has over 6000 people in it.
  • 23 districts were built in 3D.
  • 83,149 lots of the 150,000 in all of San Francisco were built.
  • 18.8 million building parts.
  • 215,000 streetlights.
  • 260,000 trees.

The technology

 The "big" secret behind the film's tech is Disney's Hyperion rendering system, Disney's Chief Technology Officer, Andy Hendrickson said. The system allows animators to project light, to reflect light, to refract light, to create realistic shadows, and to show varying levels of light/dark contrast for objects and characters. For the real nerds reading this, Disney's new rendering technology emerged from research leading to a paper titled, "Sorted Deferred Shading for Production Path Tracing".

And for the super-duper nerds, the description of the technology from the aforementioned paper in an excerpt from an FXGuide article: "The renderer sorts large potentially out-of-core ray batches, effectively lumping similar ray bounces together, and the renderer does not do the actual shading of the ray hits until the rays are sorted and grouped. This allows for a cache free system of doing large model global illumination, irradiance, radiosity and/or physically based lighting inside the memory constraints of a practical renderer on a chip."

The team took data from the County Assessor's office in San Francisco to build the city of San Fransokyo. So the city itself is based on San Francisco, but is also unique in that it was built from scratch. Disney had to create the technology along the way to do this. Hyperion took two years to create. Hyperion is a virtual camera inside a virtual world.

The film's creation was extremely complex, as you can imagine, due to the sheer number of objects and people included to give the feeling of size, depth and three-dimensionality. For you fellow system administrators out there who want to know some technical details of what drives a complex, graphics-heavy film like Big Hero 6, the animation studio operates about 2,000 Linux and Mac workstations, 80 percent of which are Linux. The server farm consists of a 55,000 core Red Hat Enterprise Linux cluster. To manage that computing behemoth, Disney wrote its own management software they named CODA.

"Moviegoers," Hendrickson said, "will notice an order of magnitude of visual complexity compared to other films." If you've seen the trailers, you'll understand what he means by the level of complexity in the film.

Look for Big Hero 6 in theaters today, November 7, 2014. Remember to watch those blinks.


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