– Ankit Ojha
Sometimes the most memorable events are best left unprecedented.
The interview you’re about to read right now was this close to not happening at all. But when events do come to fore, they’ve got to stay and do their part. This interview was bound to happen; only not in the way our team expected it to. But that’s life, isn’t it?
Roy Conli, producer of such Disney animation extravaganzas as Tangled and Treasure Planet, besides donning the role of co-producer on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was a presence at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year, pushing forward his upcoming production Big Hero 6 – a futuristic sci-fi-superhero fantasy animation film based off the characters of a six-part Marvel comic book series of the same name.
Now, only the hardcore comic-book geeks would know of this interestingly varied set of characters – of which Hiro and Baymax are the apparent protagonists in the film – but for those who don’t as much in comparison to the more attractive Avengers initiative, the adaptation of which to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now the big-ticket box-office draw, this move will definitely have raised a bunch of eyeballs; myself particularly on a slightly technical level.
The absolutely warm personality that he had sounded himself to be, Conli and I had quite the king of small talk before jumping into the core of it all. His incredibly affable and accommodating way of handling conversational situations allowed me to get into the more hardball questions more quickly and easily than mechanically. Here’s the slightly polished version of the actual interview:
This has been making me very curious: as a producer of films that have been – you know – fantastic or epic in concept – I just wanted to know: why something as postmodern or futuristic as Big Hero 6 this time round?
Well it’s interesting, ‘cause I do think; when all’s said-and-done, what we do at Disney is kind of a once-upon-a-time element, and in this particular case the once-upon-a-time is a slightly futuristic and slightly – perhaps – in a parallel universe, so I think it fits within the storytelling of today. Disney’s storytelling always needs to evolve, if you wanna stay on top of it.
One of the things you don’t want to do is ever repeat yourself. One of the great aspects of our leadership, particularly – you know – since 2006 when John Lasseter came into the studio and took over as Chief Creative Officer, he’s really made sure that we mature as studio; as storytellers, and never repeat ourselves.
Never repeat ourselves?
Yeah. You don’t want to tell the same story the same way each time. That would be the death of storytelling.
That actually leads me to a question that I was about to ask a bit later, but I’m going to ask it right now. Now, we’ve seen animation evolve. We’ve seen Disney do movies like The Lion King and right now it’s tackling stuff like Wreck-it-Ralph. How difficult – or easy – is it to make an animation film in these times, considering the tastes of animation lovers have changed drastically?
I think what’s interesting about storytelling in general is that it changes throughout the years; I mean – you know – if you look at films from the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s – about every decade – you’re seeing major stylistic changes in how you tell a story. And I think that’s true as well for Disney animation. if you look at what was going on in the ‘40s with Bambi and Dumbo; and you go into the ‘50s with Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland; then you go into the ‘60s with – you know – the great 101 Dalmations and The Jungle Book. You see, specifically, [that with] each decade, the storytelling is changing. So as we move now into this era, we are telling stories differently than we did 20 years ago. By the way I span 20 years; I’ve been with this studio for 21 years, so I was there when The Lion King was made. But, I think that the one thing we’re all very conscious of is the legacy of Walt Disney and the Walt Disney Company and the stories that we tell. So we’re always interested in making sure that we’re reaching the audiences of today; but even more importantly that we’ll be reaching audiences in the future, and that the stories that we’re telling today will have a certain quality that attracts people in the future. These will outlive us by years, and I’m very excited about that. There’s a major legacy element to what we do.
You’ve just mentioned that you’re very conscious of the whole Disney brand per se. Following up to that, how difficult is it really to hold on to the Disney soul?
It’s interesting, ‘cause I think we all are very conversant of our first experiences with Disney. You know, the very first film I can remember is Pinocchio. I went to a re-release in a little theatre and I can remember exactly what I felt as a kid in terms of laughs and loving Jiminy Cricket and – you know – getting terrified when swallowed by the whale and – you know – you’re feeling like you’re on this massive adventure. It’s just that my colleague Don Hall loves Peter Pan and remembers that as his first film. And Chris Williams loving Bambi – we all kind of have that root that is essentially a part of our history in an interesting way. So I think it’s really about finding your way in storytelling and making sure that what you’re telling in terms of a story is really cerebrating that spirit from our past.
That makes sense, because I remember the first Disney animation film I watched was The Lion King, and I – it’s – yeah. It’s a transcendent experience, if I may.
Oh absolutely. Absolutely. I mean I think that’s what’s great about Disney animation, that it can be a transcending experience. This may sound funny but I would say that my moral structure is based on Pinocchio, you know. I try not to lie, I try not to make a fool of myself, and I try to be a good boy. That’s essentially what Pinocchio taught me!
That probably goes to show Pinocchio’s made his point in cinema then!
Oh yeah! For me, to this day, I probably watch that particular film every few years, not only because I love to revisit that feeling I had when I was a kid, but also it is the most beautiful hand-animation in my mind. I mean, it’s just stunning animation.
Let’s change tracks here: there’s another completely curiosity-driven thing that I really wanted to ask. Now from what little I know, Disney acquired Marvel in 2009.
And since then i’ve seen it been extensively involved in the distribution of all it’s Marvel Studios films. But with this film, the twist here is that the film has a Disney brand featuring Marvel characters. Was this a deliberate move (in terms of branding) or is this something completely different and business driven?
I’ll give you an answer as to how this project came about. The way a project comes to be – and I think it’s a testament to John Lasseter and his leadership – it’s important to John that the story is led by the director. There’s really never any kind of business aspect that is brought into the early process of storytelling; it’s really about a director going a way and coming up with a concept that he wants to pursue. And in this particular sense, Don Hall was finishing his work in 2010 on Winnie the Pooh. [Now] he loves Disney animation and he loves Marvel comic books; he’s a big comic book geek.
And he went to John, and said, “John, I’d really love to approach Marvel and see if they would let me do something with their characters.” And John said, “Great.” And we went to Marvel, and Marvel essentially got very excited about it, and said, “Look at our archives; and [if there’s] anything that you wanna do, come back and we’ll talk about it. So he combed through the archives and he found this very obscure Marvel comic book called Big Hero 6. There were six episodes that were published in 1996 and then I think six in 2004. It really was – I think – a very smart move to find something so obscure. Because it was always going to be a Disney animated film, and we were going to remove it from the Marvel universe and place it in our own universe.
And Marvel was very excited with this, and through the process, Joe Quesada – who’s the Chief Creative Officer of Marvel – and Jeff Lowell – who is the head of entertainment in Los Angeles – became part of story trust, and we would screen everything we did for John; for our own story trust -which is the group of our directors – and for Joe and Jeff. And that was kind of the core of how we started telling the story. The idea that we had to take it out of the Marvel universe menat that we had to take it out of Tokyo, because it was a Tokyo crime fighting team. That’s how we created San Fransokyo, which is a mashup of San Fransisco and Tokyo and it’s a marvelous world. I gotta say, the thing that’s been so wonderful is that the filmmakers – both Chris and Don and the team behind it – are so bright and such master storytellers that – you know – the worlds, the characters and the stories [are] engaging, funny and action packed. And it plays not only to kids but also to adults and parents and grandparents. It’s been such a delightful film!
I gotta say, the teaser got me absolutely curious.
Well, that’s great, ‘cause I think if you look at the last four films that we’ve done, there is a type of storytelling that is taking place right now that always wants people surprised [sic]. What I love about this film is people going in with one notion and walking out with something completely different. They have no idea what this film is going to be and they are so blown away when they walk out of the theatre.
You’ve been a producer for quite a while now. I’m pretty sure you must have a particular vision of how you want animation films to be in the future. I’d really love to know what that would be.
Well, you know, it’s interesting, because [with] every animated film I’ve done, the technology just keeps evolving. And the great thing is, when technology evolves, the way we can tell stories evolves. And that’s – I think – one of the things that is so great about this medium. I’ve never felt constrained in any way using animation to tell a story. Where’s animation going? I think the key will always be about telling great stories and finding stories that really effect people. The style of storytelling will chance, but the falling-in-love with the characters and making worlds that are really incredible – that’s what we always have to stick with.
Considering you’ve been involved with Disney for a while, this is going to be an absolutely weird question to ask. We’ve had a lot of animated television shows that have popped up and they’re not necessarily for kids, whereas a lot of the audience are very constricted to the notion that animation is strictly for kids. What would be your take on this?
I find in America we’ve kind of transcended that aspect of viewership. I think when an animated film comes out, the general audience is as excited as kids. We did a big premiere at the Tokyo film festival, and it’s so cool to see that the animation in Japan is for the entire populous. You’ve got men, women, kids – everyone – coming up to see it. I think that the best storytelling right now is happening in animation. I think everybody just needs to go out and enjoy that child in them. There is nothing better than a great animated film. Whether you’re 4 or 84, you’ll find your youth, you’ll find your happiness; you’ll find your childhood and you’ll also enjoy the story.
But what with niche animation genres coming about? Do you think animation is for universal people or is there a scope for animation to build into better features for adults?
Yeah, I suppose you could tell a story in that format, but that would essentially be for another company, ‘cause I think what we do at Disney is tell stories for the whole family. I think the type of animation that we do is probably the most labor intensive, incredibly beautiful animation that is done in the world. It’s a a very expensive proposition so you have to bring broad audiences.
What would you like to tell budding animators breaking into the animation industry? If there’s one thing you’d like to tell them, what would it be?
Study film. One of the things about animation is filmmaking, and the more an animator understands acting, the cinematography, the script, how to light something, how to stage something; [basically] how to bring an image alive – that’s what makes great animators. You’re filmmakers. Don’t limit yourself to just moving that character. Inhabit the character.
Here’s the team of Cinema Elite wishing the warm and absolutely amazing Roy Conli all the best of luck for the commercial worldwide release of his upcoming Big Hero 6 on the 7th of November!
The film marks its release on the 6th of November all over the United Arab Emirates.