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"Big Hero 6" producer Roy Conli reflects on his first-ever Academy Award nomination

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"Big Hero 6" producer Roy Conli reflects on his first-ever Academy Award nomination

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After Disney "Tangled" made its theatrical debut back in November of 2010, Roy Conli thought that there was no way to top the experience that this veteran producer had just had on that Walt Disney Animation Studios production.

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"I honestly thought that 'Tangled' was going to be my Disney legacy. I mean, we faced so many technical challenges on that movie. Scenes where we had 45,000 lanterns floating in the air to Rapunzel's 70 feet of hair. Not to mention that we reinvented WDAS' entire CG production pipeline while we were working on this movie. Which meant that we weren't getting any images on 'Tangled' that we could really use in the finished film 'til March of 2010. Which was less than eight months before this movie was supposed to be released to theaters," Roy recalled during a recent phone interview.

But in the end, all those risks that Conli and the "Tangled" production team took ultimately paid off. This Academy Award-nominated animated feature -- thanks to its strong female protagonist as well as its ambitious storyline (which had some genuine emotional heft) -- represented a big step forward for Walt Disney Animation Studios.

"I remember telling the 'Tangled' crew about grimace moments. How when you watch a movie that you worked on and you think 'Ah, I wish we could have done that scene better,' or 'I wish that we'd had the time or the money to fix that particular story problem.' But when I watched 'Tangled,' I had no grimace moments. I could watch that film over & over & over again. I just love that I got to help Nathan Greno & Byron Howard reinvent the way Disney does fairytales," Roy enthused.

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Now please note Conli's turn of phrase in the above sentence (i.e., "Got to help"). Given that Roy views feature animation as a director-driven medium, he thinks that a producer's main responsibility is to help the director achieve their specific vision for that project.

"That's why -- when Don Hall first came to me to talk about 'Big Hero 6' -- I have to admit that I found his pitch for this project extremely compelling. The very idea that a boy could first lose his brother and then be repaired by his brother's invention, this robot, that sounded like a story that was really worth telling," Conli admitted.

More to the point, given the maturity of storytelling that WDAS had demonstrated with its recent work on "Tangled," "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Frozen," Roy felt that the studio was now up to the challenges of "Big Hero 6." Which -- while it was set in a Marvel-inspired universe -- was still basically a story about grief and loss.

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Speaking of Marvel: Given that a tale involved superheroes needs a super-sized setting, "Big Hero 6" production designer Paul Felix really pulled out the stops as he was designing San Fransokyo.

"For this film, it was absolutely essential that we have a setting that felt contemporary and lived in. San Fransokyo had to be a city that you recognized but -- at the same time -- still be a suitable background for a comic book fantasy. Paul delivered in spades," Conli enthused. "We've never built a world this big for a Walt Disney Animation Studios production before. How big is San Fransokyo? You could take the worlds that we built for 'Tangled' & 'Frozen' & 'Wreck-It Ralph' and put them all together, and combined they still wouldn't be as big as San Fransokyo is."

And -- of course -- a city of that size needs citizens. Which reminded Roy of a challenge that he faced while producing Disney's June 1996 release, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

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"Given that crowds in the streets of that hand-drawn film were all computer-generated, 'Hunchback' was my first real foray into CG. But we're not rubber stamping crowds anymore. To properly populate San Fransokyo, Disney developed Denizen, which is this system that allows every citizen of the city to be an individual," Conli continued. "That's why -- on 'Big Hero 6' -- we were able to have a cast of extras which was 750 people deep."

There are lots of other impressive tech-related factoids that Roy could toss out there about "Big Hero 6." Take -- for example -- how Disney used one of the biggest rendering farms in animation history while it was producing this motion picture. But by doing something like that, Conli feels that it then somehow diminishes the contribution of the genuinely talented WDAS employees who actually create that tech.

"The technicians who work here at Walt Disney Animation Studios? They're all amazing artists," Conli stated. "That -- to my way of thinking, anyway -- is the real magic of this medium. Chris Williams, Don Hall and I could hand a scene off to guys like Kyle Odermatt and Hank Driskill, who were our visual supervisor and our technical supervisor on 'Big Hero 6.' We could give them a template of where we want them to go with that scene. And then Kyle and Hank would come back and surprise us. Because when we get that scene back, it's always better than you expected it to be."

"Big Hero 6" producer Roy Conli walks the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of 
this Walt Disney Animation Studios production with his inflatable buddy,
Baymax. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Of course, a producer has to have a lot of faith and trust in his production team before he'll then let them go off and plus a scene like that. But given that Roy has worked with some of these WDAS staffers for over two decades now, he really trusts in their artistic instincts and abilities.

"That's the really cool thing about working at Walt Disney Animation Studios these days. There's a team here that's kind of grown up together. Don, Chris, myself, Paul Felix our production designer? We've all been here about 20 years. And Paul Briggs, the Head of Story on 'Big Hero 6'? I've known Paul since he was an intern. And to see him mature into this phenomenal leader of men, that's just been great," Conli laughed. "Given our collective experience and the excellent work that this Studio did on 'Tangled,' 'Wreck-It Ralph' and 'Frozen' ... Well, that's why I felt we were up to the challenges of 'Big Hero 6.' I knew that this team could strike just the right balance between this movie's mystery elements, our boy-and-his-robot story and its superhero-sized setting."

Which isn't to say that -- when push came to shove -- that Roy wasn't willing to play the I'm-the-Producer card and then tell his friends-of-twenty-plus-years about specific concerns he had about this motion picture. Take -- for example -- "Big Hero 6" s central character, Hiro Hamada.

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"You have to remember that I had previously produced a movie for Disney -- 'Treasure Planet' -- where that film's central character was a teenage boy. And while I'm extremely proud of the work that Walt Disney Animation Studios did on that particular motion picture, I also have to admit that audiences had trouble warming to Jim Hawkins. Especially during the early parts of 'Treasure Planet.' And I think that one of the issues that audiences had with Jim Hawkins that he spent much of the First Act of that movie being a sullen teen," Conli explained. "Which is why -- during our earliest discussions about 'Big Hero 6' -- I kept saying over & over again to Don and Chris and Paul that the audience had to love Hiro. Which -- given that we wanted Hiro to be an authentic 14 year-old boy -- wasn't going to be easy. Because as every parent can tell you, most 14 year-olds can be a little surly."

"Of course, what helped us keep Hiro authentically 14 was his relationship with Tadashi. Anyone who has a brother or a sister knows about that special bond that siblings have. How there's no one else on the planet that can tick you off quite as much as your brother or your sister can. But at the same time, there's no one who moves faster to help you once you get in trouble," Roy continued. "That's why I'm especially proud of the work that was done on Hiro & Tadashi's scenes together. I think that those scenes in 'Big Hero 6' have some of the most authentic depictions of brotherly love that have ever been seen on film."

Which perhaps explains -- as Conli sat watching the work-in-progress version of "Big Hero 6" earlier this year -- he once again found himself viewing another grimace-free movie. Or better yet, why Roy was thrilled earlier this month when he learned that this Walt Disney Animation Studios production had been nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar.

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"I've worked with the greatest artists in the animation field for the last 22 years. This nomination means the world to me, but more importantly, 'Big Hero 6' 's nomination means the world to them. I will always cherish this moment, and share it with the hundreds of artists that have made this dream come true." 

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page on Friday, January 23, 2015

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  • No new articles in nearly 2 weeks, only 3 articles since Christmas...I hope everything is OK, Jim.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Everything's fine, Jim. My daughter Alice has been out here in New England visiting with Nancy and myself since just after Christmas (She flies back to Southern California tomorrow afternoon). And since Nancy was already planning on volunteering at the US Figure Skating Nationals in Greensboro, NC last month ... Well, it seems like January 2015 was a good month to put the ladies in my life first. Make sure that Alice & Nancy had a good time, rather than putting JHM and my writing career first.

    Mind you, it wasn't like I've been totally idle these past few weeks. I actually recorded three (or was it four?) brand-new "Unofficial Guide Disney Dish" podcasts with Len Testa last month. And in honor of Presidents Day, he and I are getting ready to record a new show about Disneyland's Liberty Street project, Liberty Square at WDW's Magic Kingdom and Disney's America. Which will then be posted on Bandcamp on or about February 16th.

    And just this past weekend, Alice and I were down in Orlando for Universal's "Celebration of Harry Potter" (My daughter had never seen The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley. So I figured that this Potter-centric event would be as good a time as any for her to see Universal Studios Florida's new "land"). And while I was in town, I spent a lot of time documenting the changes at Downtown Disney / Disney Springs (I even got to go behind the construction fences and tour the still-being-built Boathouse restaurant. Which is this project's first major new restaurant and should be opening on April 8th) and the Polynesian. And I'll be putting photo-heavy articles about those two WDW revamps up on JHM next week. 

    So please hang in there, Jim. Once Alice flies out of Logan tomorrow afternoon, I'll take off my Dad hat and got back to writing full-time. But I won't lie to you. It's been kind of nice to get this break. Not be chained to my laptop 24/7. But starting next week, I'll be getting back up to full speed again by churning out lots of new stories for JHM and the Huffington Post. And provided that we don't get snowed in again, (Which is a very distinct possibility. Just in the past 10 days, we've had over four feet of snow fall in our section of New Hampshire), Nancy and I will be venturing out to go cover Toy Fair as well as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" at the Paper Mill Playhouse. So they'll be new content a-plenty headed your way shortly.

    But for now,I get to be just a Dad and a spouse for one more day. Which is why -- later this afternoon -- Alice, Nancy and I (instead of going into Harvard Square to cover Chris Pratt as he gets named Hasty Pudding's Man of the Year) are going to catch a late matinee of the new SpongeBob movie and then have a family dinner together somewhere near that movie theater.

  • i just adore big hero 6. hope it will win trophees

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