Movie News & Reviews

Tacoma animator brings authenticity to ‘Big Hero 6’

Design by committee is rarely a good idea — unless you’re making an animated Disney movie.

Tacoma-based animator Benson Shum is one of hundreds of talented people who have spent the past year creating what will likely be Disney’s next big hit: “Big Hero 6.” The movie opens Friday (Nov. 7).

Vancouver, B.C., born and raised, the 35-year-old Shum splits his time working at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California, and in Tacoma with partner Justin Leighton.

Shum previously worked on Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” Sony’s “The Smurfs” and “Hotel Transylvania,” and Disney’s “Wreck-it Ralph” and “Frozen.”

“Big Hero 6” takes place in the city of San Fransokyo — a futuristic melding of San Francisco and Tokyo. Even the Golden Gate Bridge has been reimagined into torii gates. The detail is so multilayered that it would take multiple viewings to absorb it all.

It’s in San Fransokyo where the apathetic boy genius Hiro Hamada is on the verge of creating a new form of robot. Then, tragedy strikes.

“It’s pretty heavy. It’s a lot heavier than I thought it was going to be,” Shum said during a recent visit to Tacoma.

Shum is responsible for some of Hiro’s heaviness — or at least bringing it to life. One of 95 animators working on the film, Shum’s job was to animate Hiro’s face when he goes through heartbreaking loss.

“You try to get in the character’s head,” Shum said. To get authentic facial emotions, Shum filmed himself. “I thought of the character and how he’d be feeling. I wanted to make it more personal.”

The smartly written “Big Hero 6” is a 21st century movie in tech and tone. Hiro is half Japanese and half Caucasian like the teen actor who voices the character, Ryan Potter. The group of wanna-be super heroes Hiro aligns himself with are a variety of ethnicities. The film touches on loss, anger and revenge, with male puberty and female empowerment thrown in.

But “Big Hero 6” isn’t all pathos. There’s plenty of light moments and manic adventure. Some of the biggest laughs come from Baymax, the health care robot turned super hero — particularly when it tries to master a fist bump.

“It has a lot of heart and a lot of action. That’s what’s great about this movie,” Shum said.

Disney hired Shum in 2012 to work on the King Candy character in “Wreck-it Ralph.” He then went on to work on the character Hans in the Academy Award-winning “Frozen” — Shum’s first musical. The director of that film was a stickler for authentic breathing, Shum said.

The days of a lone animator creating a character from start to finish are long gone in Hollywood. Now, big budget films employ hundreds of artists who work on specific aspects of each character. First, modelers make a puppet. Then, the rigging department adds virtual bones. Finally, along comes Shum and his fellow artists to animate the character — all on computers. Some animators work on faces, others are dedicated just to hair or clothing. Other artists are dedicated just to backgrounds and scenery.

“It’s too hard to be good at everything,” Shum said. “You can have people who are great modelers but they may not be great animators.”

Shum says the main differences between today’s animated features and the early days of animation are the subtlety of acting conveyed by the characters and the background detail in the films.

But that’s not to say Hiro and his pals with their extra large heads and eyes will be mistaken for real people.

“I don’t think the general audience wants that. I’d rather see a stylized, animated character than a character made like a real person,” Shum said.

Shum said working at Disney, with people he read about as a kid, is a dream come true. Next up he’ll be working on Disney’s “Zootopia” — a comedic adventure film about a fast-talking fox that will be released in March 2016.