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Walt Disney was a maker. Disney movies inhabit a world of fantasy and magic, but the man behind the mouse was also a roboticist and a futurist who built theme parks and automatons.

So it’s fitting that the latest Disney hero is a maker and roboticist, too. Culled from the pages of a Marvel comic, Hiro Hamada, the teen at the center of Disney Animation’s Big Hero 6, is a prototypical boy genius. His closest companion: an inflatable robot named Baymax.

Robotics has been done before, including by Disney. But Big Hero 6 is tackling it a different way — with 3D printers and scanners, nanobots, makerspaces, and soft robotics. In bringing maker tech to the big screen, Disney is saying a maker can be a superhero.

This article appeared in Make: Volume 42.  Don't have this issue? Get it in the Maker Shed.

This article appeared in Make: Volume 42.
Don’t have this issue? Get it in the Maker Shed.

Hiro’s efforts to uncover a criminal plot lead to the formation of a superhero team propelled, not by radioactive accidents, but by their own ingenuity as they battle a masked figure who commands a swarm of micro drones. Disney Animation’s last two movies, Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, were fairy-tale fantasy and ’80s nostalgia, but Big Hero 6 is celebrating the maker, and not by accident.

“We’re all big fans of the world of makers. A lot of us are hobbyists, 3D printers, and 3D machinists, and in our spare time we build lots of odds and ends,” says Disney Animation chief technology officer Andy Hendrickson, a diver who mills his own SCUBA parts. “We’ve been watching the 3D printing spot, and the Internet of Things, for years now. Besides personal fascination, we’ve always tried to find a way to take what’s hip in the world and put it in
our movies.”

Rooted in Reality
As with much of what Disney does, the maker tools in the story are re-envisioned with a sort of Disney panache, based in reality but moving slightly beyond it, an example of what could be coming next. Hiro himself assembles a nanobot swarm, like an advanced version of the shape-building Kilobots designed this year at Harvard. The 3D printers he uses in a school makerspace have multiple extruder arms, and print (much) faster than current printers, using better materials. Over the city float inflatable wind turbines, sending power down through their tethers.

BIG HERO 6

“We knew that we wanted the movie to be slightly futuristic, but grounded in reality. So we were looking at a lot of bleeding edge technology,” says co-director Don Hall. “We were trying to look ahead at the next five to 10 years and think, where is technology going? And try to make assumptions. And it looked like 3D printing, to me, was magic.”

And then there’s Baymax, who first appears as a nurse robot for Hiro who, like a typical teenager, doesn’t feel much need to be nannied. When Hiro has to fight a supervillain, Baymax requires some modifications, including 3D-printed armor and rocket boots. “So it was really important for Hiro to have the intellect,
and also the tools, to be able to have Baymax go through that transformation,” says co-director Chris Williams. “It’s absolutely fundamental to the story that Hiro was a maker.”

The ensuing adventures draw directly from research on core soft robotics ideas, including durability and (self) repair, and could even inform future robotics work — the crunchy-on-the-outside exoskeleton, for example.

While exploring ideas for the technology and scenery, Hall and Williams traveled extensively, visiting NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, TechShop, and Disney Imagineering, as well as robotics labs at MIT, Harvard, Tokyo University, and more. (The movie’s setting, San Fransokyo, is part Tokyo, part San Francisco.) At Carnegie Mellon, they met Chris Atkeson, a robotics professor, and toured his lab.

BH6-San-Tokyo

“I knew the challenge was going to be to put a robot on screen that we’ve never seen before. It had to be appealing, and huggable, and all things good,” says Hall. “When I saw what Chris was working on, this vinyl, inflatable robot, I knew right then and there that that was going to be our Baymax. So Baymax’s personality, and entire being, actually came out of that fateful research trip to Carnegie Mellon.”

Atkeson showed the directors a video of a soft robot from iRobot expanding out of a smaller, portable case — not unlike what Baymax does, and asked, “Why don’t you make the robot inflatable?”

“If you’re going to have robots essentially interacting with people, they need to be soft and safe, and our vision of that is inflatable robots,” Atkeson told them. Not only are inflatables cheaper than metal robots, they’re light and safe and appropriate for personal care. To take care of people, robots will have to touch them, he explains. “You’ll have to dress [people], you have to comb their hair, you’ve got to brush their teeth. You’re not going to do that with a bulldozer. It’s just too dangerous.”

Beta Baymax
Hiro’s story began back in the ’90s, before “maker” was a common term, and Baymax was more of a bodyguard than a nurse. Two Marvel writers, Steven Seagle and Duncan Rouleau, assembled a team of characters based partly on Japanese pop culture tropes — boy genius, a boy and his robot — for a comic called Alpha Flight. The duo never expected the team to exist past a single comic. This was before anime, manga, and their ilk were well known in the U.S., and it led Seagle and Rouleau to address the relationship between humans and robots, a question that seems even more prescient today. The pair gave the characters robust bios and backstories, and that’s partly what Disney latched on to.

In the movie, Hiro inherits Baymax from his brother — a slight diversion from the comic book story — and the pair are more like brothers than an engineer and his robot. “If you’re a genius, could you build your own replacement to fill a hole in your heart, a hole in your house, a hole in your family?” asks Seagle. “Robotics kind of came as a way to make that somatic concern come to life in the comic.”

Seagle and Rouleau still work together, as part of a multimedia production studio called Man of Action. As with Big Hero 6, when they speak about their best-known work, the Cartoon Network show Ben 10, Seagle and Rouleau focus on their love for the characters and their stories. The cast includes more than just Hiro and Baymax, and in Disney’s interpretation, they’re all makers, with one exception, who joined the team late.

BIG HERO 6

Big Hero 6 popped up again in 2008, this time as a comic written by Chris Claremont, a Marvel rock star whose work appeared in the X-Men movies. While the five-issue series doesn’t devote much time to backstory, Claremont introduced an additional character, Fred — aka Fredzilla — who harbored an enormous, mysterious power. “It was a chance to play with some new characters who hadn’t been around for a generation or two, and see what kind of fun I could have with them and they could have with me,” says Claremont, of writing the series. “The nice thing about Big Hero 6 is that it always was a cool and different take on what many people consider the standard model trope.”

In Disney’s retelling, Fred is instead a lovable fanboy, equipped with a super suit, thanks to Hiro. The others are geeks like Hiro, experimenting with lasers (Wasabi), chemistry (Honey Lemon), and magnetic levitation (Go Go Tomago).

For those last two, co-director Hall recalls finding inspiration in an all-girl robotics team from Pittsburgh. “I was really impressed with the spirit of these girls, and the idea that they had been on other robotics teams of the past but were always sort of delegated to be the videographers, that sort of thing,” he says. “So they formed their own group, called the Girls of Steel … their spirit really kind of infused some of the early thoughts on our characters, like Go Go and Honey Lemon.”

“I think we’re inspired by people who … have the guts to try to tackle some of this stuff on [their] own,” Hall goes on. “I love the fact that this movie could celebrate that, celebrate science, and I guess nerd culture, and might help kind of inspire more kids to get into science.” To that end, Disney also collaborated with XPRIZE for a challenge related to the movie: Six kids who send videos of their approach to solving a world problem will win trips to the Big Hero 6 premiere.

“We allow ourselves to dream about what the future could be, and we have the ability to make a really great illus-tration of what that future could be,” says Hendrickson. “It’s not so farfetched that the things we put on screen here are things that actually could be made in the future. And the Maker Movement is a key
to that.”


Want to explore soft robotics? Check out 3 Techniques for Building Soft Robots from Carnegie Mellon’s Chris Atkeson.

BIG HERO 6