As a movie that portrays young scientists as superheroes, Walt Disney Animation's latest release Big Hero 6, is all about celebrating scientific curiosity and individual potential. Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, the movie centers around a group of young "misfits" who, with the help of a compassionate robot, successfully save the futuristic city of San Fransokyo (a blend of San Francisco and Tokyo), from an evil scientist and his swarm of malignant microbots.
While the film’s protagonists, Hiro and his older brother Tadashi, are the on-screen intellectual prodigies, the true geniuses of Big Hero 6 are the members of the computer-animation team that used new cutting edge technology to create the epic film that has garnered millions of fans of all ages, since its release on November 7th.
The innovation starts with the use of a newly developed light rendering software called Hyperion. Built from the ground up by Disney's animation team, it attempts to create light like the way we see it. This means that it has to mimic the many obstacles the sun's rays encounter in our atmosphere, and then diffuse in the same way natural light does, to provide the glowing aura that saturates our world with a softened ambiance. It is therefore not surprising to hear that it took the Disney team of ten engineers two years to replicate this natural phenomenon that we all take for granted.
While Hyperion's ability to mimic natural light superbly using a set of complex algorithms is certainly laudable, what makes the software so instrumental for Big Hero 6 is its speed. Without the quick and efficient program, the animators would have had to create each light ray manually, which would have been practically impossible given the amount of rays present in each scene and therefore resulted in a movie with a much weaker image resolution. In addition to saving time, it also helped the filmmakers save a significant amount of money.
Of course getting the light right was just one aspect of the movie. Disney animators also had to develop other complex algorithms to simulate the salient features of the cities San Francisco and Tokyo that made up San Fransokyo. A program called Bonsai, allowed for the creation of 250,000 trees, which were interspersed with roads, buildings, and other city architecture, while another called Denizen helped develop realistic facial expressions, clothes, textures and colors for the approximately 700 unique background characters of the hybrid city's residents.
Yet another clever algorithm helped simulate and control the movement of the thousands of microbot minions of the movie's evil antagonist, Yokai. The simulation, combined with the marvels of 3D technology, makes them alarmingly real, especially during the scene when they appear to be hurtling toward the audience.
But of course all these special effects pale against the film's hero - Baymax, the extremely lovable, inflatable robot, that plays the role of caregiver to Hiro and frets over his every move, like an over-protective mother.
To create this kind, altruistic robot, Williams and Hall sought inspiration from some of the country's top universities that included Harvard and MIT. It was at Carnegie Mellon that they found exactly what they were seeking. Chris Atkeson, a professor at the university's Robotics Institute and Human-Computer Interaction Institute and his team were in the midst of designing huggable robots to help care for the elderly in nursing homes. Though Atkeson's vision of the robots was closer to the balloon animals crafted by clowns at parties then the Olaf-look alike Baymax, the skills were exactly what the directors had in mind.
That's because just like these caregiver bots, robo-nurse Baymax, requires human contact and therefore had to be soft and inflatable. And given that the movie's most endearing feature is the special bond between the robot and Hiro, Baymax had to be perfect. Judging from the reactions to the fluffy robot, the directors certainly seem to have gotten it right! Hopefully, Big Hero 6's success will inspire Disney Animation Studios to start thinking about a sequel, one that hopefully has tiny Baymax's!
Resources: cnet.com, fastcompany.com, npr.com