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Creating the city of San Fransokyo for Disney/Marvel's new animated movie Big Hero 6

Updated on November 1, 2014
The beautiful city of San Fransokyo, created for Disney's animated movie Big Hero 6
The beautiful city of San Fransokyo, created for Disney's animated movie Big Hero 6

Creating a new city

Making animated movies must be the coolest thing to do in the world. You get to create amazing stories, draw up memorable characters and you can see all your visions come to life on the big screen. For the people making the Disney/Marvel animated movie Big Hero 6, however, there was the added bonus of creating one of the most fantastic, detailed cities in the history of animated movies: San Fransokyo.

Big Hero 6 is an animated movie based on an obscure comic book Marvel released back in the 90's. The story centers on a young robotics prodigy named Hiro, who, together with his robot Beymax, as well as a rag tag band of friends, fights evil and tries to save the world. In the comic, this all takes place in Japan's capital,Tokyo. For the movie, the creators wanted to come up with their own city. They relocated the movie to San Francisco, but in an alternative reality version of it. In Disney's alternative version, The San Franciso earthquake of 1901 still happened, but after the quake it was Japan that helped the people of San Francisco rebuild the city. This changed the cityscape dramatically. In the movie, you still see the rolling hills (even steeper than before) and victorian houses, but downtown San Fransisco is filled to the brim with high tech skyscrapers of the kind you find in Tokyo. It's a stunning look, enhanced by the unbelievable attention to detail the animators at Disney gave to their new city.

First steps: concept art

Early concept art for San Fransokyo
Early concept art for San Fransokyo | Source

The proces of animating a movie starts with concept art. This has been the case since the days of Walt Disney himself, and even in the day of making animated movies with computer, that's still how they do it. Concept art can give the animators a feeling of what the movie should look like, and also gives them a good idea of the style and feeling. Visual development artist Lorelay Bove created posters for San Fransokyo, blending signature pieces of both cities together. This gave the designers a good idea of what route to take in designing the city.

After this, a group of animators headed over to Tokyo to take thousands of photos of the city, making sure to get not just an overal view, but also as many details as possible. Back in America they headed on over to San Francisco, snapping the hills and the many victorian houses the city is known for. But they also went one further. They acquired accurate data of the whole city and all the 83.000 buildings in it, using it as the groundwork to build their own city on top of. Almost every house or streetlight that you see in real life San Fransokyo is there in Disney model of the city. As technical supervisor Hank Driscoll told Gizmodo: "We don't claim you can find your house, but if you go to where your house is, you'll find the right building of the right size."

From San Fransico to San Fransokyo

First, the animators took a photo of a characteristic Victorian house in San Francisco
First, the animators took a photo of a characteristic Victorian house in San Francisco | Source
Next, they added some Japanese elements to it, like the panda bear above the door
Next, they added some Japanese elements to it, like the panda bear above the door | Source
And there you have the way it will look in the movie
And there you have the way it will look in the movie | Source

Building the future

While creating their movie, the creators visited robotics labs at MIT and Carnegie, to have a look at what researchers expect for the future. They did not want the city and it's inhabitants to look too unrealistically futuristic. They wanted to see which consumer products the researchers expected to be on sale within five to ten years. "It has to be grounded in a believable world, and that led to all the cool technology that the team in the movie has to their disposal," Hall told Gizmodo. This is most visible when it comes to one of the lead characters in the movie, the robot Beymax. He doesn't look like your typical robot, all hard steel and flashing lights, instead he is built with the material of the future, a sort of bendable, flexible material that makes Beymax one of the most huggable robots you have ever seen.

San Fransokyo is so big, DIsney needed a new supercomputer to build it

The filmmakers created 23 distinct districts for the movie, each a cool blend of eastern and western style. Some of these districts you will hardly see in the finished film. Still, they are there, not just a background painting like you would normally see in movies of this size, but fully realized. As one of the movie's directors, Don Hall, told Hero Complex: "We want this world to be very lived in, very rich, very detailed.’ … The idea is to pack the frame full of a visual wealth so you feel like people have been living here for a long time."

To populate the city, Disney created a new piece of software called Denizen, which can be used to quickly create unique character models. And create it did, as San Fransokyo is populated by 850.000 distinct people, an insane amount if you take into consideration the fact that normally, animators would limit the amount of people for a scene as to not have to animate them all. The amount of data processing power this demanded, as well as that for new lightning software called Hyperion, urged Disney to build themselves a new rendering farm. This farm, actually spread over four different cities, took two years to build and is in the top 100 biggest supercomputers in the world. No details on how much this cost Disney to produce, but you can bet Disney needs to sell a lot of Big Hero 6 toys to earn back the cost.

It almost seems like a waste to create such a detailed city and then not use all of it. The world created for Big Hero 6 is as big as the worlds created for Tangled, Frozen and Wreck It Ralph put together. The thing is, however, the movie will feel so much more alive thanks to all the details. Or, as art director of environments Scott Watanabe told Hero Complex: "“The audience isn’t necessarily conscious of why they’re enjoying being in a place. Sometimes the best environment is the one you don’t notice.”

The Big Hero 6 trailer

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    • casquid profile image

      casquid 2 years ago

      This is perfect for some people I know.