Roy Conli interview: Disney, Big Hero 6, robots

Disney producer Roy Conli talks old Disney vs new Disney, Big Hero 6, robots, and new technologies...

Roy Conli is a producer with a long track record at Disney. His producing work stretches back to The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, and since then, he’s also produced the likes of Treasure Planet and Tangled.

His latest? That’d be the Disney/Marvel crossover Big Hero 6. We sat through a short footage presentation from the film, that we don’t spoil in this article, and then got the chance to chat to the man himself about it. Here’s what he had to say…

Let’s start with some Back To The Future Part III parlance. There’s a bit in that film where Doc Brown gets the train to absolutely the point of no return. At that point, you are absolutely, fundamentally committed to it. Big Hero 6 is an odd project for lots of reasons, and off the Disney track. So where was the point of no return bit, and was a little scarier than some other recent Walt Disney Animation Studios productions? Where was the eureka moment?

It’s interesting. We do a series of screenings every 12 weeks. There was a point, and quite frankly relatively recently. February [this year] I knew we had a film. And then in April, I went ooh, we have a good film. And then in June, I went oh, this is going to be really interesting. And it’s interesting because the way we work, the stories always come late in the game.

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We deal with each film where the theme is a big aspect to it. I don’t think that you start with a theme and end with that film. You actually find that theme. So within the structure of this thing we went through many thematic concepts and ideas. What’s been really great is a lot of them have stuck. That’s what makes this film so interesting. There’s a thickness to the broth that’s really cool.

We’re dealing with some really big issues in a way, but at the same time it’s issues that people have to deal with.

I’m a bit of a stuck record on this, but I think one of the biggest issues that recent Disney animated films have dealt with is loneliness, and a lack of a sense of belonging.

That’s interesting.

It’s been at the core of the most successful Walt Disney Animation Studios stories of recent times, I’d argue. Is it coincidence that Big Hero 6 touches on that too? Does your story start at the fact that you’ve got someone who’s trying to find their place in the world?

In a sense isn’t that the root of the dramatic structure? Oedipus is doing that! I think it’s fundamental. We can talk about Chekhov if you want to!

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Help yourself, this is a Geek site!

When you’re telling a story, the best stories, every character has an arc. Every one. And that arc is usually about finding yourself, or about at least finding something about yourself that you didn’t know. So yeah, there is a universal truth to that, and for a thematic standpoint, it always kind of pulls together that way. What I love about Big Hero 6, with Baymax himself, this sentient creature who’s actually a learning robot, with each experience this naive and gullible creature becomes more aware of issues. It’s neat, because you get to see a big arc in him as well as the rest of the team.

You’ve said that you want the character of Baymax to be distinct from other robots on the big screen. Visually he clearly is. But how tricky is that tonally? Because from what I’ve seen of Big Hero 6 – which isn’t much – towards the start it feels a bit Meet The Robinsons, and then if anything a bit Terminator 2? How do you make sure then, outside of the character design itself, that you don’t steer too close to both?

Early on, one of the things that Don and Chris [directors] look at was the East/West culture. In the West, robots are generally evil, they’re the Terminator. In the East, in Japan, robots are kind of the future, and will be helpbots.

In Japan right now, they’re manufacturing companion robots. So that was one of the things we felt we wanted to do. We also knew that we were telling a story about a kid [plot detail redacted to stay on the safe side]. It made sense to us that Baymax would come into it in the way that he does.

Baymax is almost as good as the robot in Rocky IV. That’s the highest praise I can give him.

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[Laughs] You do know your robots.

I spoke to you when you produced Tangled a few years ago, and on that one, it was a very bumpy production, and you ended up with two directors that you didn’t start with. But you said that the mechanic with the eventual two directors of Tangled – Nathan Greno and Byron Howard – that you left them to it as much as you could. It contrasted with one or two things that Peter Del Vecho, the producer of Frozen, said about that film last year. He said that he’s an active participant, and that an animation producer almost veers slightly towards director as well, such is the relationship between producer and directors with animation. So how did it work for you on Big Hero 6, and how is working with a completely different directorial partnership?

Each directing team is different. You infuse yourself as much as you need to infuse yourself. I have the wrap of being a creative producer.

Theatre’s your background, isn’t it?

Theatre, exactly. And at the same time, my definition of that is that if I see something that I don’t agree with, I’ll say something. But fundamentally it is the director’s vision that should be on the screen. Sometimes I will help as a devil’s advocate, but when all is said and done, I’m there to support the director, and ensure their vision makes it to the screen.

Going back to Tangled again, behind the scenes on that one was a marriage of an old guard of Disney royalty, and an emerging generation. A match-up we’d perhaps not seen that pronounced since the early 90s with Beauty And The Beast. This one, is it different? Because it seems to be rooted in talent that’s come through Disney in more recent times? The last 10-15 years, as opposed to the last 30-40 years? Is that true? What’s the mix?

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It’s amazing when you think that Chris and Don [directors] have been around for 20 years. It’s not like they’re puppies!

Nathan Greno and Byron Howard have probably been around the studio the same amount of time too. Definitely, this is, I can’t call it a new generation, because they’ve been around, and they were influenced. Whereas Glen Keane was being influenced by Frank and Ollie, these guys have been influenced by that generation! Mark Henn and Glen and whatnot. That kind of DNA follows through.

I think that was the brilliance of John [Lasseter] when he came to the studio. One of John’s immediate concerns was he didn’t want to make another Pixar. What he wanted to do was allow the DNA of Disney to thrive. And that’s what he did. Basically, I would have to say that there is to a certain degree though processes that are inherently Disney. Glen Keane said it really well. That Pixar is ‘wouldn’t it be cool, if?’ and Disney is a little bit ‘once upon a time’. And I think that’s a neat differentiation. And I kind of follow up.

In a weird way, it fits with Big Hero 6, that ‘once upon a time’. But you know, I don’t quite know when that time is!

You’ve mentioned before about the lighting technique breakthroughs you’ve had on Big Hero 6. I think Rango, appreciating it’s not a Disney film, was one of the most glorious animated movies in recent times for lighting. How do you stop, though, the constant evolution of technology from seducing your team?

Why would you? Technology has driven storytelling from day one in films.

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But shouldn’t technology be a slave to storytelling?

No, no. I don’t think it’s a slave to storytelling at all. I think it expands your ability. It’s just more tools. Just as the computer is nothing but a tool. We started with pencils, then paint, and we’re doing the same thing. It gives you sometimes more iterative power. Initially technology, a lot of times people say ‘this’ll save you money’. It doesn’t save you money! What it does is give you is more bites at the apple to make something more visually stunning.

So just reassure us. You’ve got server farms processing 50 trillions hours of footage every night – give or take – but is your company email system as cranky as everyone else’s?

It’s as ropey as them all! [Laughs] But we do have good tech support!

I’m reading Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity Inc, at the moment. And he talks about the project that Pixar lost, Newt. That it got so far into production, and they missed it was going wrong. It went through the same system, but was uncharacteristically very far down the line before it got pulled. Big Hero 6, appreciating the core is rooted in what Disney does, is still wildly off track in some senses. It doesn’t look like anybody looked back and declared ‘that’s the heritage of Disney, we have to make a film like that’. How do you keep it on track, then? Newt, after all, was regularly screened too. So how do you and your directors keep on top of a big film like this?

It’s interesting because I don’t equate this with anything else. I think each story rests of its own laurels, and on its own ethos. I find this story to be phenomenally Disney in the sense that it deals with values that are very heartfelt, and at the same time very accessible.

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It’s funny. I think as you build a film, and look at each screening, you’re always keenly aware of, is this affecting me? We are Disney, in a sense. When you’ve been there for 20 years, there’s a certain heart and soul to one of those films, and you inhabit that to a certain degree. So if it feels true to you, then your audience will hopefully go for it.

One last thing – do you have a favourite Jason Statham film?

The Transporter!

You didn’t even flinch! Roy Conli, thank you very much.

Big Hero 6 lands in the UK on January 30th 2015.

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