Interview with Hank Driskill, Technical Supervisor on Big Hero 6


By: Haylee Fisher(@haylee_fisher)

Disney has been getting a lot of great buzz for its newest movie, Big Hero 6. It tells the story of science prodigy Hiro Hamada and his friends Go Go Tomago, Wasabi, Honey Lemon, Fred, and of course Hiro’s inflatable robot Baymax. However, bringing the film to life required technology that didn’t exist yet. In developing the movie, Disney simultaneously created a new light rendering tool called Hyperion. Hank Driskill, technical supervisor for the film, recently spoke to The Nerd Machine about the invention of Hyperion and what is next for the technology, plus why the power of science and the importance of being smart are such a big part of Big Hero 6.

Can you tell me about your personal involvement with Big Hero 6?

Sure. My role on Big Hero 6 was as the technical supervisor. The technical supervisor comes on to the film pretty early – around the time we’re coming out of early story development and it’s starting to become a film we actually want to make and it’s starting to feel like something we’re ready to start going on. Two of the first people that come on are the visual effects supervisor and the technical supervisor and we’re kind of joined at the hip. The visual effects supervisor for the film was Kyle Odermatt and his job is to focus on working with the directors, understanding what their vision is for the film, working with the art director to figure out what the look of the film is – from concept painting and all that – and figure out how to get the artists to deliver that. And then my job as technical supervisor early on during pre-production is to figure out all the innovation that we’re going to pursue on the movie: what are all the changes in process and workflow that we’re going need to make our artists better, stronger, faster as well as any new tools or techniques to tackle, things that are particular to the film or just things we’ve never been able to do before. So [I work on] all the early [research and development], all the development effort to go into getting ready to make the movie, and then as we transition into shot production, my job kind of becomes chief firefighter. It’s to work with the [technical directors] that report to me on the show as well as our central technology group, who are just full-time coders and tool-builders, just to make sure the show keeps running. Make sure all the tools are working, make sure any time anything’s breaking down with the data or with the tools, that we’re jumping right on it and making sure the artists are as productive as possible.

Big Hero 6 is the first Disney movie to use a new technology called Hyperion. Can you tell me a little about it – what it is, how it came to be – and what made Big Hero 6 the perfect first movie to use it?

Yeah, so Hyperion, the name, comes from two different places: it’s the titan of the sun from Greek mythology – so using it as name for a lighting tool was kind of fun – and it’s also the street where Disney got started. The Disney Company started on Hyperion. So that name Hyperion means a lot to us as Disney folk. Hyperion started out a couple of years back. We had been bouncing around ideas for how we were going to tackle just the increase of light [activity] we were seeing with each film. We have this group called Tech Trust that reports to the [Chief Technology Officer] and we spend a lot of time in there just trying to figure out where we think we’re going to be in three years, five years, and trying to think ahead, trying to think about long-term innovation. One of the very smart guys in that room, one of the guys from the central technology group named Brent Burley went off and had a really, really clever thought that was the germ of an idea that became Hyperion. He pitched it around to a number of us here in the building and we all kind of went, “Ooo, wow, that’s neat!” It’s a different way of [how] you manage light transport, the way light bounces around in the scene. It’s a different way to manage it that in concept we thought would enable us to both put more stuff in a scene and let the light bounce around more times. The way we were rendering, and the way pretty much everyone was rendering, you had to truncate the amount of light bounces you’ll allow because it’s really crazy expensive with each bounce. And the core idea that eventually became Hyperion was a different way of managing [it] that we thought was really clever so Brent led a team that kind of went off in the corner and did a little science experiment – and this was pretty much in calendar 2012 – to try out the idea. Meanwhile, May of 2012 was when Kyle and I came on to Big Hero and we started plotting out just the desires of the directors and how we were going to achieve that and we started to give some deep thought to the city of San Fransokyo, the idea of the rich urban environment, and the idea of a Marvel movie! This was going to be both a Disney movie and a Marvel movie. To us, Marvel meant big. It meant expansive and it meant spectacle, more so than necessarily some of the other animated films, and so this was a film that was going to demand a big jump up in complexity. So late 2012/early 2013, the science experiment kind of came to a close and Brent and his team came back with the results and we were like, “This is really promising,” and then we just made the crazy idea to go for it. So early 2013, we decided we were going to write a renderer while we’re making the movie that needs the renderer so it was a little insane and I still can’t believe sometimes that it worked! (Laughs) But there was a lot of anxiety every step of the way and a lot of stress and strain, but it worked as advertised. It was really, really awesome. We could not have made the movie the way we made it without it in both of those areas that I mentioned. In terms of light transport, we have a lot richer imagery because the light can bounce around more times so it’s more like the real world. When photons leave a light bulb in your room and bounce around 50 times before they get to your eye, it [creates] a visual richness that [Hyperion] really helped us [achieve]. And then just in terms of complexity, the way it managed geometry, the way it accessed it to do the rendering, was just a really clever new idea and so we could put a magnitude of more stuff on the screen. Some of those shots in the movie, you can see the whole city and there is as much geometry in the city of San Fransokyo as our previous three films combined. It was a big step up for us in what we were able to put on screen and we were really, really excited about that.

Hyperion has to do a lot with light. Nerd Machine readers would probably be very familiar with Tangled, so how would the lantern scene have been different had it been made with Hyperion?

Up all the way through Frozen, we were doing what’s called one-bounce indirect. There’s direct lighting, which you can imagine as a photon of light [leaving] the light source, and [bouncing] off an object straight to your eye. That’s direct lighting. One-bounce indirect means you track all of those and you track the ones that bounce from the light source to the wall to one bounce off another surface to your eye. One extra bounce. We were pretty much limited to one-bounce indirect because once you get to two, three, four, it’s kind of this geometric explosion in the number of rays you’ll be chasing and because normal rendering engines were kind of completely unstructured in how they dealt with that, it just exploded in the amount of stuff you had to keep track of. So for something like Tangled or Wreck-It Ralph or Frozen, you had to cheat. It would put a lot of burden on the lighters because the appetite for rich imagery was there, but with the toolset, you just couldn’t deliver it easily and so they’d end up putting lots and lots of lights in the scene and secondary light sources to kind of fake a bounce, so [for example], you’d want this beautiful fill bouncing off a red wall onto the character’s face so they’d put a red light there and dial it in really subtle just to give a little bit of a red tint off the wall onto the person’s face. With Hyperion, we just don’t need to cheat anymore. Some of the scenes in Hiro’s bedroom with him and Baymax talking, it’s lit by the sun outside and it’s coming in through the window, it’s bouncing around off the apartment floors and the walls and the books on the shelves and eventually illuminating the whole image. A lot of times, we have sometimes ten, 15, 20 bounces with some of the images now.

So it makes scenes brighter?

Not just brighter, but a lot of subtleties. It fills in the shadows, it creates just a much more realistic-looking lighting environment. But realistic in terms of predictability. You have an understanding of where the light’s going and it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be photo-real. For example, Feast, the short [in front of Big Hero 6], was rendered with Hyperion as well. Sometimes people equate those two, that realistic light transport must mean photo-real, and it doesn’t, it just means a richer environment, it means more control for the artist, and it means that you don’t have to cheat as much to get what you want.

I understand now. You’ve kind of touched on it already, but what are some of the things people will notice about Big Hero 6 that wasn’t possible before Hyperion?

Really those two core points. It’s the subtlety of the light – there’s a lot of richness in the lighting, especially in direct-lit environments like Hiro’s bedroom and the warehouse where there aren’t direct sources of illumination, there’s no lamp turned on nearby, it’s just the light coming in through the skylights in the warehouse bouncing around in that environment that’s illuminating it. And in particular, with Baymax, it turned out we kind of needed Hyperion with [him] because he’s made of vinyl. Turns out, vinyl’s a really, really hard thing to light because light enters the vinyl, which is a very diffused surface, and it just bounces around a whole bunch of times and then exits kind of everywhere and so you get this character that almost self-illuminates and it almost glows. And that’s what vinyl does in real-life and without real, multi-bounce [global illumination], it just looks plastic. It just looks like a hard plastic and then they would have had to fake it in every shot. They would have a whole bunch of light sources inside him that kind of mimic that feel and it would have been really hard on the lighters. It would have been a lot more work to try and achieve that look.

Yeah, Baymax definitely looked real. I could just look at him and tell the texture that he was meant to be.

Yeah. And then the other one is just complexity. There are shots in the movie where you see all 82,000 buildings in San Fransokyo. There’s shots where you see a couple of hundred thousand trees and thousands of crowd characters just walking around on the street and so it’s just a huge jump in the amount of stuff we can put on screen. And it really helped for this movie because we wanted it to feel big, we wanted it to feel something like a rich environment you could walk around in and it wasn’t vacant, that it was, I guess bustling is a good word for it. It was full of people moving around doing their thing. Those are the two big steps for us that Hyperion allowed.

Clearly Big Hero 6 would not have been what it is and look like it does without Hyperion. What is the future for Hyperion and how will its new technology affect upcoming projects?

Well, our next movie is Zootopia. In Big Hero 6, we did a rich urban environment with lots and lots of characters and in Zootopia, we’ve decided to put fur on every single one [of the characters], which is a big step forward in just the amount of stuff on screen because now you have thousands of characters with hundreds of thousands of hairs each. So that’s a big step they’re working on. We’re already starting pre-production on Moana, which is our film after that, and we’re already starting to figure out what are the real challenges for Moana, which I can’t really talk about quite yet, but it’s really exciting. There’s a lot of fun stuff from that film that we’re going to have a lot of fun putting on screen. Hyperion’s just a great test bed. I’ve said it in other interviews that we kind of made the movie on beta because Hyperion was coming together as we were making the movie. Now we have a foundation and now we’re looking at all the neat new stuff we can do on top of that because it’s a real, modern rendering instrument.

What do you hope audiences take away from Big Hero 6?

The biggest thing for me is it’s a celebration of technology. It was really important to [director Don Hall] early on that he was tired of movies where technology was the bad guy. You know, where it’s the evil scientist or whatever. Here, technology isn’t the bad guy in this movie. People use it for bad things, but they’re bad people. [Big Hero 6] is a celebration of being smart, it’s a celebration of using technology, it’s a celebration of an optimistic future, so it was really exciting for us internally that it also was a big testament for us to try out a whole lot of new ideas and what we were capable of putting on screen. But I hope people who see it come out feeling really good. I read one [review] where he started out saying his 12-year-old turned to him halfway through the movie and said, “Dad, I want to go to college.” We passed that one around internally because it makes us feel so good that we could touch people like that and that’s what I hope this movie does is that it just celebrates working hard and being smart and those are important things to all of us.

You touched on it with that answer, but Big Hero 6 places a lot of emphasis on science – obviously with robotics being a big part of that – and by my count, is the only Disney movie in recent memory to directly do so.

I think since Meet the Robinsons, really, yeah.

Can you go into more about why was it important to filmmakers to place such value on science and why should it get its due in the media?

It started out with the germ of the idea that we got from the original Marvel property, this teenage boy and his robot – this teenage genius and his robot – so that was certainly [on our minds] from the beginning. As we started to look at the themes of the movie and the story we wanted to tell, it absolutely stayed front and center that this was about this really amazing, smart kid as he’s dealing with this loss, as he’s forming his circle of friends, the fact that they’re all really, really smart and all really capable and they solve problems in the film by being smart, that they can become heroes just based on the skills they have. They didn’t get bit by a spider or have chemicals dumped on them or a bomb blow up on them and they’re not aliens from a strange world, they’re just really smart people who work hard and are really good at what they do. It’s exciting. It was a fun world to put together and then we had a lot of fun just exploring the world, from the wind turbines floating over the city to a whole lot of things where we kind of looked at near-future technology. We kind of put it five minutes in the future, it’s this unspecified kind of near-future, but it’s a really nice near-future hopefully. I hope people watch it and would love to visit San Fransokyo some day. It’s the feel we were going for, certainly.

One thing I appreciated about the film was the characters participated in science and robotics without being stereotypically nerdy about it –

It was really important, certainly to me as a lifelong fan of technology and purveyor of technology myself. But there was a bunch of us. I mean, the film was made by 300+ people from all varieties of skillsets, but there are certainly a lot of us who are really interested in technology and passionate about it and we wanted to make sure that there was a diversity there.

But more than that, that girls were shown right along with the boys and they weren’t treated any differently. Can you tell me a little bit about the choices made in that respect?

Certainly something I love about the movie is that there’s ethnic diversity, cultural diversity, gender diversity without it being a point at all. You know, any of the characters could have been male or female, any of the characters could have been whatever, it isn’t important to the story, it isn’t hammered at all. It’s just a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural environment set in a cosmopolitan city so it made it really effortless. I have two teenage girls and my wife has a Ph.D. in computer science, same as myself, and so it was certainly important to me that we celebrate that. There are lots and lots of smart people and it really doesn’t matter what they are or where they come from, it’s just celebrating smart people, period.

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