Why the Software Behind ‘Big Hero 6’ Could be a Game Changer in Computer Animation

Disney Animation Chief Technology Officer Andy Hendrickson, left, and "Big Hero 6" producer Roy Conli pose with the Baymax character at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank. (PHOTO CREDIT: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Disney Animation Chief Technology Officer Andy Hendrickson, left, and “Big Hero 6” producer Roy Conli pose with the Baymax character at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank. (PHOTO CREDIT: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“Big Hero 6” has been a critical and commercial hit for Walt Disney Animation Studios, scoring an Oscar nomination and taking in more than $500 million at the box office.

But the more important number may be the 39,000 hours Disney Animation spent developing the computer program that made the movie possible.

The software, called Hyperion, simulates the physics of light, which can make animated films more lifelike or give them an otherworldly look.

It’s the latest salvo in a technological arms race among animation houses. One of Disney’s rivals, DreamWorks Animation, had a research and development group of about 120 people as of last year — among them nearly a dozen former employees of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Disney Animation’s sister company, Pixar, has long been a trailblazer, producing the first feature-length computer-animated film, 1995’s “Toy Story.”

But Hyperion could transform animation.

“It’s a major step for them,” said Dan Sarto, co-founder and publisher of Animation World Network. “They are only as good as the tools they allow their artists to use.”

Computer-animated films are big business: In most years, a handful rank among the top 10 U.S. box-office hits. They can also generate toys, clothes and other products that will produce big profits.

Disney Animation’s “Frozen” grossed more than $1 billion and has bolstered profits for several business units of the studio’s parent, Burbank-based Walt Disney Co.

Such massive hits are rare. But in Hyperion, Disney Animation has a powerful new tool.

The software — named for the Silver Lake street that was home to the first headquarters of Walt Disney Studios — was created to solve a problem. Disney Animation executives felt that none of the existing programs available to the company was advanced enough to create the world that the “Big Hero 6” filmmakers had envisioned.

The movie, released in November and directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, centers on a robot (Baymax) and a robotics prodigy (Hiro) who form a superhero group and take on a masked villain in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo. The metropolis, a mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo, is situated on a shimmering bay and teems with towering skyscrapers and pulsing neon lights.

“We wanted to make sure we could get the air and light of San Francisco,” said “Big Hero 6” producer Roy Conli. “I lived there years ago as a student, and I just remember the skies.”

The film’s animation drew praise from reviewers, and several aerial sequences — including a memorable twilight flying scene — are filled with eye-catchingly realistic uses of light. Without Hyperion, the movie would not have looked as lush and could not have delivered on the vision of the directors, said Disney Animation Chief Technology Officer Andy Hendrickson.

There could be a big reward on Sunday for the painstaking effort it took to create Hyperion. “Big Hero 6,” which cost an estimated $165 million to produce, is among the favorites to win the Academy Award for best animated feature. Most Oscar prognosticators believe it is in a two-movie race with DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”

But no matter what transpires Sunday, Hyperion will be utilized for years to come. The software is now being used by Disney Animation for its forthcoming movie “Zootopia,” which will be released in March 2016. It also was deployed for “Frozen Fever,” a short that features the characters of “Frozen” and debuts in March; and “Feast,” the Oscar-nominated short that premiered alongside “Big Hero 6.”

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SOURCE: LA Times, Daniel Miller

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