Think of Disney, and you’ll inevitably think of mouse ears, princesses or the inevitable takeover of all mankind. But the House of Mouse is putting off Operation: Re-Mickification for at least a few more months, because it’s got a new obsession: robots.
Back in July, Disney Animation hosted a gargantuan press day for Big Hero 6, the studio’s latest feature, and the conversations hovered around big robots, small robots, malicious bots that would vaporize you as soon as look at you and bots designed to be huggable and mass-marketed to all the world’s children. This Big Hero 6-stravaganza (note: not actually what the event was called) was broken up into five stages: quality time was spent with the Visual Effects, Animation, Script & Story and Production Design departments plus with directors Don Hall and Chris Williams and producer Roy Conli. Everyone spoke on the subject of robotics, which it must be said isn’t too surprising when every Big Hero 6 ad in existence is plastered with images of the superhero robot Baymax.
Find out what goes into building a Disneyfied robot below.
Meet the Microbots: Tiny Horrible Swarms of Progress
As far as anyone can tell, there are two main sources of robotics in Big Hero 6. First is the aforementioned Baymax. Second are microbots, which have been far less prevalent in the ads. So far, they’ve been confined to the first 45 seconds of a theatrical trailer, seen below:
In case watching 45 seconds of a movie trailer isn’t enough to make you a microbot expert, here’s a quick rundown on what they are and what they do:
1. A microbot is a little sphere with two cones attached at opposite ends, allowing it to rotate or bend like an elbow.
2. A microbot connects to another microbot, which connects to another microbot ‐ according to the effects team, through the power of electromagnetism ‐ at which point microbots move by passing each other along a chain of microbots. It’s hard to picture without just seeing it in action, but imagine a chain of these little structures stretching from right to left. The very last bot on the right swivels up and latches onto a bot slightly further to the left. Then, from its new position, it performs the same action, moving another space to the left. And every time, bots extend from the chain to catch the traveling one. This continues on until the one on the very right has migrated all the way across the chain. When they move (as seen in those quickie cuts in the trailer) millions of bots are passing themselves along in the same fashion.
3. Yes, millions. According to head of effects Michael Kaschalk, “in our average shot, there are 20 million microbots.”
4. The purpose of a microbot is to build a structure. Here’s Kaschalk once again: “when they all do [the bot-passing movement], they can reconfigure themselves to build just about anything.”
That should cover Microbots 101.
Disney screened a significant amount of Big Hero 6 — the first act, give or take. And from that, we know how microbots factor into the story. They’re an invention of our hero, Hiro (and before you go railing on Disney for that sledgehammer-to-the-face of a play on words, remember that all the character names for Big Hero 6 were taken from the Marvel comic the film is based on. So instead, rail on Disney for leaving it in there). He introduces microbots to the world in a knockout school fair presentation, but an unspeakable tragedy robs him of his precious little robots. And also other things, which we’ll leave out because they might be a little on the spoilery side.
A little while later, the mysterious, masked Kabuki fellow known as Yokai is in command of the microbots, and he refuses to give them back. Rude, right? Well, it’s this rudeness that acts as a catalyst for the Big Hero 6, who will join together at some point, for a reason, and then perform actions that will probably be heroic. We’d tell you more, but the footage ended before the team actually teamed up, so we’re as much in the dark as you are.
Because the microbots are such an integral part of the story, they need character. But there’s an easy solution to that: the microbots take on the character of whoever’s controlling them. Here’s visual effects supervisor Kyle Odermatt, to tell you more: “They’re operated via a thought controller. Whatever the user envisions, the microbots will do. And we knew that with Hiro using the microbots earlier and then Yokai, who steals them later, we wanted to reflect a difference in their behavior based on who was controlling them. So there’s an elegance to the structures and the forms that Hiro builds with them. And then, really, Yokai’s are a product of a chaotic mind.”
This is instantly readable when the microbots are in motion. When Hiro shows them off, he transports himself around the giant science fair convention hall via microbot. Every time he takes a step, the bots raise a support system (neat and clean, composed of right angles and support beams) that anticipates his movement. Yokai’s, you can see for yourself. It’s all messy streaks and tendrils.
So, to Disney up your robots, you give them a personality. But they also need to be as realistic as possible. Kaschalk stresses the amount of research they did to make sure these things adhere to the real world, because “if you just make stuff up,” he says, “the audience won’t go along on that journey with you.”
And while no one at Disney ever mentioned it explicitly, microbots totally exist in real life. Just not these microbots. If someone had an army of the Disney version, we’d all know about it, because the first thing anyone does with a robotic superweapon is bellow “BEHOLD MY ROBOTIC SUPERWEAPON!” and then casually reduce the nearest metropolitan center to smoldering rubble. Real-life microbots are a lot uglier, and they’re not typically grouped in a number that ends in seven zeroes. This is the best we have so far: just over a thousand clunky-looking bots, which move as a cohesive unit but can’t do much else besides spell their own name.
Current technology is more like the shape-changing school of fish from Finding Nemo than it is Big Hero 6’s microbot swarms. But hey, at least technology is progressing on a scale that can be accurately notated with Disney films. Besides, the real life microbots have far more uses than construction or shuttling a 14-year old around a convention hall to give him a false sense of superiority. Science plans for microbots (in reality, referred to as microbotics) to travel inside people Fantastic Voyage-style and cure their horrifying futuristic ailments, or to function as cheap manual labor where cheap manual laborers cannot go, like deep underwater, or perhaps the moon.
Disney’s microbots are not so realistic as to be the immigrant labor of the future. But they’re realistic nonetheless, in those hidden, little-noticed details (the shapes the microbots create mimic the image of a circuit board), to the very-noticed ones. “Hey, if you have to have robots, and they can form anything, and they have to throw a car,” Kaschalk explains, “what would they do? They might form a claw and throw the car. We didn’t want to go down that road. We wanted to go where they’re always forming these devices to be able to accomplish their tasks.”
At that point the effects team cued up a quick video of a microbot swarm gathering under a motor vehicle, then propelling themselves and the car skyward. It’s extremely convincing. Also, it’s a little more grounded than … let’s say those giant robot squids from The Matrix. Or even something like Wall-E. Why did that little dude need eye sensors that resemble human eyeballs? Inefficient design decisions, that’s why.
Meet Baymax: Far Less Likely to Kill You Than the Microbots
Baymax needs no introduction. Presumably if you’ve gotten this far into an article about Big Hero 6, you know the adorable robot that’s legally bound (probably) to appear in every Big Hero 6 ad that will ever air in any medium. But just in case you do need a refresher, here you go: Baymax is an inflatable healthcare robot charged with protecting Hiro’s well-being. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, only with less killing and more immediate medical assistance.
However, Big Hero 6 does occasionally exude some serious T2 vibes. That “it’s just an expression” bit from the clip below, for example.
Towards the end of the day’s footage, Baymax makes his own “it’s just an expression” joke, having learned the ins and outs of our sarcastic human discourse. Presumably, from a few viewings of T2.
Like the microbots, inflatable health care robots also exist in real life. Or, at least they will in a few years. Baymax comes from what’s known as “soft robotics,” a concept Don Hall discovered on a research trip to Carnegie Mellon. In the beginning, he says, “there was no healthcare robot or anything like that, it just came out of, you know, a vinyl arm this guy was showing me. And it was like, ‘you had me at vinyl.’ That was it.”
Below is the very arm in question.
The principles behind soft robotics are pretty rudimentary. Cold steel surgical robots aren’t particularly well-equipped for invasive procedures (one of the major robo-surgeon outlets, Intuitive Surgical, recently faced a slew of lawsuits when the robots kept accidentally maiming their patients), but soft squishy ones are much more patient-friendly. We’re still a ways away from any of these soft bots performing real surgeries, but we’re getting there. Considering the government wants to roll out soft robotics in battlefield medicine, all that military budgeting will get us real-life Baymaxes way before the microbots can catch up.
We’ve got our real-life concept. So, like with the microbots, how do we Disney-ize it?
The answer is far more simple than you’d think: glue a few household items together, then step back and admire your creative genius. Because Baymax, under all that Hollywood FX, is really just a rice cooker with a weird dented bell stuck on top. This is where lead character designer Shiyoon Kim comes in. He saw a bell with a particular pattern on it, the same one you’re seeing below.
And he was inspired. “I thought it was really interesting, those two circles connecting with a line, he says. There’s something spiritual yet unique about it.” Later, he adds, “We found that he didn’t really need a mouth to emote, that he actually felt more robotic with just these two circles and a line.”
Kim took his mouthless bot to John Lasseter and received a glowing approval. For the body, he found his muse in a Japanese infomercial. “They sell these rice cookers that are, like, super-cute,” he admits. And for Baymax’s superhero form, Kim gave him some football-uniform padding and found the right sense of power by tinkering with his robobelly. “For me it was his stomach. There’s a couple versions where we kind of made his stomach a little bit tighter and more athletic, but I think we struck the right balance where it’s not, you know, not too big. But it still feels like an inflatable guy inside of there.”
From there, Kim passed the character on to the animation team, who gave Baymax a set of recognizable movements. The style was narrowed down to three options: the baby penguin, the toddler and the baby with a full diaper. Baby penguin won out, to the benefit of all humankind. Seriously. Imagine you’ve just seen an adorable children’s film, and some guy in the next seat over nudges you in the ribs and whispers, “the robot was modeled after a child struggling to walk with a full diaper.” Would you be able to go on enjoying the film at all? Or any other aspect of your continued existence? No, you wouldn’t. Be glad we got baby penguin.
Baby penguin won not just out of basic human decency, but because tiny arctic birds tend to walk with precious little flair ‐ faces blank, arms straight down at their sides. Which becomes the mindset for Baymax’s full range of motion, according to head of animation Zach Parrish. “He has to turn and then look and then walk, and he can’t overlap any of those things because he has to go through a certain protocol.”
Okay, we’ve glued a bell to a rice-cooker and given it a penguin’s movement. Now Baymax just needs some personality. Which, according to Chris Williams, stems from his childlike, baby penguin innocence. “There was something about this character that is completely naive and sweet and good and pure,” he explains, “and you almost aspire to be as selfless and good as Baymax is. And that idea of almost a newborn, who is experiencing the world for the first time and only sees things in that pure simple way, was so attractive to us from a story standpoint.”
The innocence, then, stems from Baymax’s design and its limited range of emotion. “If he just does a little bit of a head tilt,” adds Parrish, “it’s amazing how much curiosity… Or if he’s questioning, or if he’s confused, you get all of that from a simple little tilt of the head. Or if you place a blink at just the right moment, it says something. We’re working on kind of an emotional scene right now, and it’s like, ‘Oh no, if you slide that six frames earlier, it will say so much more about how he has to process this information before he moves on to the next thing.’”
So, eventually, everything about Baymax just boils down to a bell on top of a rice cooker. Good to know.
Having taken this journey through Disney, it’s reassuring to know that every family will one day have a Baymax to call their own, to care for those who need assistance. Less reassuring to know that huge swarms of microbots are also becoming a reality. But the future of robotics is just that, the future. For now, let’s just enjoy this film about a boy and his robot. When the future arrives, we can all point to Big Hero 6 and smirk out an “I told you so” right before our inevitable death by the robot swarms.
For more on Disney’s Big Hero 6 press day, check out our report on its accompanying short, titled Feast.