Don Hall’s mother says he announced – at a very early age – he was going to make animated films for the Disney company.
“Every time the story is told, the age seems to fluctuate,” Hall says. “First, I was 5. Then I was 3. And now I think they were my first words out of the womb.”
Regardless, the die was cast; the Glenwood, Iowa, native was determined to be a Disney animator. And now? He’s one of the directors of “Big Hero 6,” the company’s 54th animated film.
How did it happen? Thanks to extensive research, Hall knew many Disney employees came from California Institute of the Arts. He applied several times, didn’t get in, got a bachelor of fine arts degree in drawing and painting from the University of Iowa and decided to try one more time. “I finally got accepted but it was too late for that year, so I had to wait.” Hall returned to Glenwood and got a job at the bank where his mom had worked since she was 18.
The owner, he says, was a big Grant Wood fan, so he had him do paintings on sheds. “He kept my artistic fires going” until school started. Just when Hall got in the door, the Northridge earthquake occurred, the campus was closed and students were rerouted to a Lockheed weapons testing facility in Valencia.
“There were all these artists working next to armed guards,” Hall says. It proved just how determined the students were to learn.
When Hall graduated in 1995, he got a job at Disney and, save for a five-month period at Dreamworks, has been there ever since.
“I started at the tail end of ‘The Lion King’ wave and lived through a turbulent time,” he says. Because animators didn’t have an advocate for their work, life at the Mouse house was rocky. “We saw the rise of Pixar and Dreamworks. We always said, ‘If only we had John Lasseter as our boss.’”
The founder of Pixar, Lasseter cut his teeth at Disney and devised new ways of making animated features. Films like “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life” and “Finding Nemo” gave that company a leg up on the competition. Oscars followed and, finally, in 2006, Disney bought Pixar and put Lasseter in charge of the Walt Disney Animation Studios.
“It was a real culture shift,” Hall says. Instead of competing, directors worked to help other directors; feedback was welcomed. Harkening back to an earlier day, Lasseter got Disney directors into the habit of pitching ideas – much like their Pixar counterparts.
“I was finishing up ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and he asked us to look into our passions,” Hall says.
The father of two remembered his childhood – filled with Marvel comics – and thought it might be fun to turn one of them into an animated film.
“I got in touch with Marvel, made my list and took suggestions of ones that might work.” Lasseter was keen on the idea and encouraged him to pick a title.
“I was enough of a fan boy to know which titles to stay away from,” Hall says. The more obscure comic books held greater promise. Among them: “Big Hero 6,” a three-issue miniseries that was released in the 1990s, rebooted in the 2000s. “The characters were fun…the whole tone was light.”
Characters were done in a Japanese manga style. Baymax, a robot, could change shapes. Honey Lemon (a chemistry whiz) “had a purse that could go to another dimension.”
“I knew John was all about logic, so I decided to ground this in reality. Nobody was going to be super-powered. It was going to be about super-technology.”
The superhero team wouldn’t be blessed with superhuman abilities; the six would create the items that would make them fly, fight and win.
The goal: To show how intelligence can win out.
Once “Big Hero 6” got the green light, Hall and co-director Chris Williams set out to rework the comic book.
The big challenge: Baymax.
“We wanted a robot that wasn’t derivative,” Hall says. “We put up images of all the robots in pop culture and said, ‘That’s not what we’re going to do.’” The week “Winnie the Pooh” was released, Hall and company went to Carnegie Mellon University where Chris Atkeson at the Robotics Institute showed how vinyl and inflatables were being used for robots.
“What we saw was just a crude arm,” Hall says. “The practical application for that is in the health care industry.” Atkeson told them he was frustrated with films that portray robots as bad guys. “When is somebody going to make a film where a robot is the hero?” he asked. Hall’s response: “Dude, you had me at inflatable.”
Now the face of "Big Hero 6," the rubbery Baymax has the huggable factor Atkeson was seeking.
“We did a test screening in April and the audience went nuts for Baymax,” Hall says. “It validated what we were feeling internally.”
Back in Iowa, the character also has a tie.
“In a weird way, he reminded me of my grandma on my mom’s side,” Hall says. “I never met anybody more patient. When I see Baymax, he’s so slow and deliberate, he reminds me of her.”
Other Midwestern influences factor in, too. The film’s fictional city, San Fransokyo, is a direct reflection of Hall’s first impression of Tokyo. “I grew up with wide, open spaces and I was immediately taken by Tokyo’s dense, organized nature. My dad has a farm in Tabor, Iowa, and it feels like you can look for miles and see nothing more than low hills.”
When “Big Hero 6” opened in Los Angeles, Janet and Don Hall Sr. (who still live in Glenwood) came for the premiere.
“It was pretty awesome for them – they’d never experienced anything like that,” Hall says. Enjoying a post-premiere party at a restaurant that overlooks Hollywood, Hall couldn’t find his parents when he wanted to take a picture with them.
He looked and looked and finally found them sitting on a bench that provided a panoramic view of Los Angeles.
“They were so proud,” he says. “They couldn’t have had a better experience.”
Now, Hall says, he’s ready for a break. Fans have asked for a sequel but he’s not ready to commit.
“We just finished this film (a month) ago,” he says. “We put everything we had in getting it done. It’s like sending kids off to college. You’ve lived with them so long you’re ready to see them go. It’s bittersweet but you know someday they’ll return with baskets of laundry to do.”