Disney Animation Embraces Science

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Big Hero 6 marks several firsts for Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS). It’s their first action animation with six action sequences. Previous animated movies had two or three. It’s the first WDAS movie to use the new Hyperion system that makes light much more real than ever before. The computer has 55,000 cores and resides in four separate locations.

It’s the first WDAS movie to have six major characters, actually twelve if you count their super alter-egos. It’s the first time WDAS has teamed with the XPRIZE Foundation to create a prize for students. If they win, they will be at the premier in Los Angeles on November 7 and walk the red carpet.

However, these are not the breakthroughs that excite me. This is the first time that the producer, Roy Conli, and the directors, Don Hall and Chris Williams, decided at the outset that this movie would be grounded in reality, that the science would be right. If the story group came to them during the four years that elapsed since the idea first was considered with a story idea that broke the rules of nature, they said no.

However, they did not hesitate in pushing the limits of technology. In some scenes, the g forces would have caused blackouts for real people. If you’re willing to overlook these small violations of the laws of nature and enjoy the ways in which the boundaries of technology are tested, you’re in for a treat. My day at WDAS provided me with only a few short sequences, the longest being 16 minutes, but it showed enough to convince me that this movie is breaking new ground.

Teachers, ask your students what they think about soft (and inflatable) robots? Can anyone create microbots in the real world? How can you do that? What about mental control over robots? Could you have plasma gloves or magnesium fire spitting costumes? Can robotics someday make anyone into a super hero? Explore the science.

Of course, there’s a story here and lots of heart. It’s Disney, after all. And, if you love action adventure as well as animated feature movies, this may be your lucky day.

I really like that science overrides fantasy in this movie. I only wish I had been there to point out places where the boundaries were pushed a bit far and make sure that they did so for good reasons.

The technology behind this movie is another story in itself. Never have so many extras appeared in scenes in an animated movie. It has over 500 different types of extra characters who can appear in the thousands when necessary with each doing its own thing. The city of San Fransokyo was modeled on San Francisco using the assessor records for the city so that you can find the plot where any real house sits, although that house may not look exactly like the real one but will look like homes in the neighborhood. Altogether, about 83,000 individual buildings were created in their external entirety for this movie. The underwater sequence that I saw was amazingly realistic. And so it goes. It took a large team, including 90 animators, two years to make this movie.

For me, a former chemistry professor, seeing one character be a chemist (Honey Lemon) with a sort-of Periodic Table emblazoned on her purse was cool. But, the Table is active, and she presses the element buttons to make incredible compounds really quickly that help to conquer the bad guy or save the good guys. While this purse is not very likely, the stuff it makes is very well animated and looks very real.

Once I’ve seen the movie, I hope to return to these pages with a deeper review of the science and technology that we all can discuss.

2 Responses

  1. There were scenes with thousands of computer-generated characters in them. The microbot scenes typically had 20 million microbots, all animated. Hyperion calculated 10.5 billion light rays per scene.

    The directors visited MIT, Harvard, and CMU when researching this movie. They also visited Tokyo University.

    The original Big Hero 6 was completely set in Tokyo with entirely Japanese characters. The primary character, Hiro Hamada, still is Japanese, but the others are various.

    You have to see the Golden Gate Bridge done over in Japanese style!

  2. You may ask why 55,000 CPU cores have to be located in four separate places. I have a server with twelve cores on two chips, each about the size of a quarter. Putting 55,000 quarters into rolls would give you a bit fewer than 1,600 rolls. Assuming that you could fit 100 rolls into a shoe box, you’d have to stack up 16 shoe boxes to contain 55,000 quarters. No big deal in space. Why so much space then?

    CPU stands for central processing unit. What does that mean? In the old days of computers, a computer had a central processing unit that was, for the more powerful ones, the size of a refrigerator. The input and output of data to and from the computer required peripherals such as magnetic tape, printers, and card punches. CPUs, even huge ones, were not very efficient and could hardly do their computations and also run these peripherals. Computers also had peripheral processing units or PPUs. Different processing units, different purposes. From thence came the name.

    Part of the reason for such a large volume dedicated to the CPU (and random-access memory, known as “core” memory then), was the heat they generated. These units were often cooled by circulating oil because oil does not conduct electricity and does not corrode wires.

    Although the amount of heat generated by a CPU has declined enormously since those early days, the heat per cubic centimeter has not. All of those “quarters” must be kept cool. You cannot just lump them together. They’d melt.

    They also have an amazing number of connections to carry the information in and out of them. Each connection requires a wire. Wires take space. It’s not as much as before because multiple CPUs no reside in a single chip, saving lots of wiring.

    These wires include the power supply wiring. Power supplies take space too, as do the random-access memory (RAM) chips.

    By the time you connect the CPU chips, add in local RAM, power supplies, cooling fans, heat sinks, and enough space to provide access for repairs, and you have a modern computer. They are not tiny, even though they are not the size of a refrigerator.

    However, these computers are stacked up in racks. These racks do loosely resemble refrigerators in size. The racks also contain such items as ethernet switches and power distribution panels. One rack might contain twenty servers, each with a dozen, possibly more, CPU cores. Roughly, a rack may have 250-300 CPU cores. Even with the most expensive servers, a rack may only have around 500 cores (number chosen for easy arithmetic).

    That makes 110 racks or, in the 250 core per rack case, up to 220 racks. You could have a huge room with this much stuff in it. This room must also have reliable power with battery backup and generators for power failure. It must have air conditioning adequate for the heat generation. It must leave space between racks for human access.

    The space available in a single location was not capable of holding this quantity of servers. Disney decided to break it up into four locations. The wonderful part of all of this is that the communication speed between the locations, even hundreds of miles apart, is sufficiently fast to allow the work to be divided among the CPUs as though they were all in the same location.

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