Hero 6" has been a critical and commercial hit for
Walt Disney Animation Studios, winning an Oscar and
taking in more than $500 million at the box office.
the more important number may be the 39,000 hours Disney
Animation spent developing the computer program that
made the movie possible.
software, called Hyperion, simulates the physics of
light, which can make animated films more lifelike or
give them an otherworldly look.
the latest salvo in a technological arms race among
animation houses. One of Disney’s rivals, DreamWorks
Animation, had a research and development group of about
120 people as of last year — among them nearly a dozen
former employees of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Animation’s sister company, Pixar, has long been a
trailblazer, producing the first feature-length
computer-animated film, 1995’s "Toy Story."
Hyperion could transform animation.
a major step for them," said Dan Sarto, co-founder
and publisher of Animation World Network. "They are
only as good as the tools they allow their artists to
films are big business: In most years, a handful rank
among the top 10 U.S. box-office hits. They can also
generate toys, clothes and other products that can
produce big profits.
Animation’s "Frozen" grossed more than $1
billion and has bolstered profits for several business
units of the studio’s parent, Burbank-based Walt
huge hits are rare. But in Hyperion, Disney Animation
has a powerful new tool.
software — named for the Silver Lake street that was
home to the first headquarters of Walt Disney Studios
— was created to solve a problem. Disney Animation
executives felt that none of the existing programs
available to the company was advanced enough to create
the world that the "Big Hero 6" filmmakers had
movie, released in November and directed by Don Hall and
Chris Williams, centers on a robot (Baymax) and a
robotics prodigy (Hiro) who form a superhero group and
take on a masked villain in the futuristic city of San
Fransokyo. The metropolis, a mash-up of San Francisco
and Tokyo, is situated on a shimmering bay and teems
with towering skyscrapers and pulsing neon lights.
wanted to make sure we could get the air and light of
San Francisco," said "Big Hero 6"
producer Roy Conli. "I lived there years ago as a
student, and I just remember the skies."
film’s animation drew praise from reviewers, and
several aerial sequences — including a memorable
twilight flying scene — are filled with eye-catchingly
realistic uses of light. Without Hyperion, the movie
would not have looked as lush and could not have
delivered on the vision of the directors, said Disney
Animation’s chief technology officer, Andy
software is now being used by Disney Animation for its
forthcoming movie "Zootopia," which will be
released in March 2016. It also was deployed for
"Frozen Fever," a short that features the
characters of "Frozen" and debuts in March;
and "Feast," the Oscar-nominated short that
premiered alongside "Big Hero 6."
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Hyperion, the process of rendering light was tedious
because each ray of light’s trajectory had to be
individually tracked. A single frame of animation could
contain several light sources, and each ray of light
could bounce off multiple surfaces, making the
calculation of those individual pathways a computational
you shoot (lights) into scenes, they can split into
thousands of rays," Hendrickson said. "Does it
reflect right back if it came off a mirror? Does it
scatter? Does it pick up the color of the object? You
end up running out of computing power."
of Hyperion, which took about 2 1/2 ears, was
jump-started by an idea from software engineer Brent
posited that organizing large groups of light rays into
bundles would allow a computer system to more
efficiently handle calculations of their trajectories.
By doing this, a film could feature more lighting
sources and add nuance to their depiction. He presented
his theory to Disney Animation executives in November
2011, and they were encouraged.
company decided to put Burley’s ideas to work. An
initial team of four developers working on the project
eventually swelled to 12 people. Disney Animation did
not bring in outside programmers to work on Hyperion,
instead handling the job completely in house. (Disney
Animation would not say how much it cost to develop the
decision to create Hyperion was not without risk.
Programmers were still coding it when "Big Hero
6" went into production, and they completed it only
in July 2014, a few months before the movie went into
postproduction. Had the software not performed as Disney
Animation hoped, production of "Big Hero 6"
could have been imperiled.
was a big risk," Sarto said. "But it will pay
off for them. A tool like this allows them to spend more
time art directing how the film is going to look."