San Fransokyo architects built a new world for Disney’s ‘Big Hero 6’

Oct. 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m.
la ca 0908 big hero 6 022 San Fransokyo architects built a new world for Disneys Big Hero 6

The San Fransokyo cityscape in "Big Hero 6" is an urban mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo. (Disney)

la ca 1021 big hero 6 131 San Fransokyo architects built a new world for Disneys Big Hero 6

For the movie "Big Hero 6," filmmakers combed the streets of San Francisco to find this Victorian architectural gem in Haight-Ashbury that served as the inspiration for Aunt Cass' cafe. (Disney)

la ca 1021 big hero 6 132 San Fransokyo architects built a new world for Disneys Big Hero 6

Disney artists then "wonkified" an image of the house by stretching it and exaggerating it. This concept art, inspired by the Victorian house, was drawn by Scott Watanabe. (Disney)

la ca 1021 big hero 6 133 San Fransokyo architects built a new world for Disneys Big Hero 6

The final result is the Lucky Cat cafe on a steep hill lined with cherry blossom trees. Disney's Paul Felix and Scott Watanabe obtained data on every building in San Francisco and began Japanifying them. (Disney)

la ca 1021 big hero 6 142 San Fransokyo architects built a new world for Disneys Big Hero 6

"Big Hero 6" concept art of a San Fransokyo street -- the view from the Lucky Cat cafe. (Scott Watanabe / Disney)

la ca 1021 big hero 6 143 San Fransokyo architects built a new world for Disneys Big Hero 6

Disney artists based their San Fransokyo architecture in "Big Hero 6," left, on real-world architecture. (Scott Watanabe / Disney)

la ca 1021 big hero 6 149 San Fransokyo architects built a new world for Disneys Big Hero 6

Disney artists based their San Fransokyo architecture in "Big Hero 6," right, on real-world architecture. (Scott Watanabe / Disney)

Before the directors of the new Walt Disney Animation movie “Big Hero 6” settled on their story, they created the world in which it’s set: a jammed, vibrant place called San Fransokyo.

A mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo set in the not-too-distant future, San Fransokyo is a dense, hilly city with cable cars and cherry blossoms, Victorian row houses and glittering neon billboards.

The filmmakers’ idea — never stated in the film — is that in a parallel universe after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the city split off and an influx of Japanese immigrants helped rebuild it.

San Fransokyo is a quintessential example of the craft of world building, the process of constructing a wholly imaginary universe for films, television, video games and other media, that involves creating the look of everything from buildings, vegetation and vehicles to the way light refracts and how people look, move and talk.

A version of production design on steroids, world building is enjoying increasing recognition as an art form thanks to the ambitious worlds created for such fantastical live action films as “Avatar” and the “Harry Potter” series, and video games like “Grand Theft Auto” and “Halo.”

Concept art for "Big Hero 6" showcases San Fransokyo during the day. (Disney)

Concept art for “Big Hero 6” showcases San Fransokyo during the day. (Disney)

Though science fiction films as far back as “Star Wars” and “Blade Runner” depicted created worlds, ever-more sophisticated computer graphics programs, including one Disney developed in-house and is debuting with “Big Hero 6,” have enabled creators to bring more densely designed worlds to the screen.

Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams from a loose adaptation of a little-known Marvel Comic by Duncan Rouleau and Steven Seagle, “Big Hero 6,” which opens Nov. 7, follows a rebellious robotics prodigy named Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) and a guileless, inflatable healthcare robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit) as they’re drawn together by a devastating event. Four other motley heroic characters Hiro meets in the science lab round out the team of “6” in “Big Hero 6.”

The film marks the first time another division of Disney has taken on a Marvel property since the media giant acquired the comic book company behind “Captain America” and “The Avengers” in 2009.

Disney artists based their San Fransokyo architecture in "Big Hero 6," right, on real-world architecture. (Scott Watanabe / Disney)

Disney artists based their San Fransokyo architecture in “Big Hero 6,” right, on real-world architecture. (Scott Watanabe / Disney)

Much of the appeal of taking on an obscure comic rather than one with an avid fan base, Disney Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter said when he announced the film, was the opportunity for Disney’s artists to put their own stamp on it.

“John believes your story’s going to change over the course of the years it takes to do these movies,” Hall said at the Burbank studio. “But your world is something you’re going to live with the whole time. … We put a stake in the ground and said, ‘OK, we want this world to be very lived in, very rich, very detailed.’ … The idea is to pack the frame full of a visual wealth so you feel like people have been living here for a long time.”

Hall first pitched the film to Lasseter in 2011, and the story evolved over the years to focus on the relationship between Hiro and Baymax. The completed world in “Big Hero 6” is a vast one, with 83,000 buildings and more than 200,000 streetlights — it’s so complex, in fact, that the worlds of the last three Disney Animation movies, “Frozen,” “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Tangled,” could easily fit within it.

As a starting point, Hall, Williams, production designer Paul Felix and art director of environments Scott Watanabe obtained the San Francisco assessor’s data of every building in the city and began Japanifying them.

A Victorian home on a picture-esque corner near Haight-Ashbury inspired the Lucky Cat cafe, which Hiro lives above with his aunt and brother. In the “Big Hero 6” version, artists stretched out and exaggerated — or “wonkified” in Disney shop parlance — the shapes of the house. They added a figurine of a Maneki-Neko cat and Japanese signage, steepened the hill and lined the street with Japan’s signature cherry blossom trees.

 

A real Victorian home in San Franscisco's Haight-Ashbury district served as a model for the Lucky Cat cafe. (Disney)

A real Victorian home in San Franscisco’s Haight-Ashbury district served as a model for the Lucky Cat cafe. (Disney)

The filmmakers found inspiration in everything from intricate Japanese manhole covers to karaoke bars, vending machines and electrical wires.

“There are no found objects in animation,” said “Big Hero 6” producer Roy Conli. “You literally have to create the grain of the wood.”

“Big Hero 6’s” makers had a new tool at their disposal, a program developed at Disney called Hyperion that lights a scene, automatically performing the calculations of how sunlight streaming in the window of Hiro’s messy bedroom, for instance, will bounce off multiple surfaces, diffuse and pick up color.

It sounds simple, but the process allowed the makers of “Big Hero 6” to create a more ambitious and artfully designed world, one where the glow of streetlights shimmers on wet pavement in a car chase and a fiery blast illuminates the city.

“The audience isn’t necessarily conscious of why they’re enjoying being in a place,” Watanabe said. “Sometimes the best environment is the one you don’t notice.”

– Rebecca Keegan | @ThatRebecca

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