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Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film: 'Big Hero 6'

by Charles Solomon with John Rabe | Off-Ramp®

In the lobby of Disney's Burbank headquarters, "Big Hero 6" production designer Paul Felix; Scott Watanabe, art director environments, and Off-Ramp animation expert Charles Solomon gaze at a really big hero. John Rabe

UPDATE 1/15/2015: Disney's "Big Hero 6" is nominated for Best Animated Film Oscar. Here's our Off-Ramp interview with two of the people who helped make it a hit.

Off-Ramp animation expert Charles Solomon goes to Disney to talk about the look of the Disney animated blockbuster "Big Hero 6" with production designer Paul Felix and Scott Watanabe, art director, environments.

"John (Lasseter) believes your story's going to change over the course of the years it takes to do these movies. But your world is something you're going to live with the whole time." — Director Don Hall, LA Times

Virtually every review of Disney’s animated hit "Big Hero 6" — which has brought in $112 million domestic and $148 million worldwide through this weekend — praises the imaginary city where the story unfolds: San Fransokyo, which blends famous San Francisco landmarks with elements of Tokyo's iconic skyline into a metropolis that feels both familiar and alien:

(Image: Disney)

Two of the artists most responsible for that look are production designer Paul Felix and Scott Watanabe, art director, environments. Felix was production designer on "Lilo & Stitch" and "The Emperor's New Groove," but his credits go back to the 1980s, when he did storyboard cleanup on "ALF." "Big Hero 6" is Watanabe's first film as art director.

RELATED: Meet Disney and "Fat Albert" animator Floyd Norman

First, why combine Tokyo and San Francisco?

"Initially," Watanabe says, " we wanted to have the freedom to create a new environment (not) tied down to reality, plus I think everybody just thinks it's cool."

"I think, too," Felix says, "Marvel (which originated the characters) wanted to make sure that this film was distinct from the Marvel Universe, so you wouldn't expect Iron Man to drop in, so it had to become our own story."

The team blended two very different cities. Says Solomon, "I wouldn't say Tokyo is oppressive, but it's kind of omnipresent, whereas in San Francisco you can look up at the sky." Felix says they had a graphic designer working for two years just to capture the signage needed. To get the quality of light right, Felix says they photographed from atop a skyscraper from dawn to dusk. And Watanabe recounts how, during the production, he'd joke "put a roof on it," when they tried to make a San Francisco icon look more Japanese, referring to iconic Japanese-style roofs.

(Image: Disney)

For the interiors, the two say it was essential to get the clutter right. It was a real challenge," says Felix, "to try to populate those sets with enough detail to conform with some of the research we saw." They took trips to robotics labs at Carnegie-Mellon and MIT, "and that clutter is there." Watanabe says he took inspiration from his Disney colleagues, many of whom have accumulated layers of mementos in their work spaces, and from home: "Just visiting my Japanese grandparents' homes, and they have clutter everywhere!"

Watanabe says one of the concepts animators developed was to let the clutter grow throughout the film, like plants, "Which worked out well for some things," Felix interjects, but in some scenes, "it started looking very much like cat or rat poop, so we had to dial back on where you actually see it."

WATCH: "Big Hero 6" trailer

Felix says their job is to create environments that give context to the characters, to make the experience richer and more immersive. "You're world-building from scratch," says Watanabe, "and that could come off as really cheap if you don't a true-to-life job."

Easter Egg for KPCC junkies: Did Rabe find a Lasseter/Miyazaki Easter egg in some early "Big Hero 6" art? Check out our photo slideshow.

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