When children and families invade movie theaters this weekend to see “Big Hero 6,” they’ll be seeing the work of hundreds of filmmakers, including former Baton Rougean Ronald Johnson. He worked as technology manager for “Big Hero 6,” the new film from Walt Disney Animation Studios.
In the computer-animated, action-adventure-comedy, robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada and his best friend, Baymax the robot, seek to solve the mystery behind a devastating event that strikes their city of the not-so-distant future, San Fransokyo.
Johnson’s previous Disney projects include last year’s megahit “Frozen,” “Wreck-it Ralph,” “Tangled,” the New Orleans-set “The Princess and the Frog” and, his first film with Disney Animation Studios, 2008’s “Bolt.”
Johnson joined Disney in 2007 as a senior systems engineer. He’s been a technology manager since 2010.
Even though Johnson graduated from LSU with a degree in English literature, he’d found computer technology fascinating since childhood. But when Johnson was an undergrad in the late ’80s, degrees in systems engineering, the area of computer technology that interested him most, weren’t so accessible.
While Johnson studied English at LSU, he spent a lot of time in the computational writing lab in Allen Hall’s basement. He kept computers and printers running and helped people with their systems. The experience further spurred his interest in systems engineering.
Johnson later worked in computing technology in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. His experience at Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories in Cambridge led directly to Disney.
At Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California, Johnson oversees the animation studio’s system engineering teams. The teams provide all of the facility’s computational and network infrastructure.
“When we make a movie like ‘Big Hero 6,’ a huge amount of technology goes into creating the complex images you see on the screen,” Johnson said last week. “ ‘Big Hero 6’ is by far the most complex movie we have ever created.”
The movie utilized a new computer-animation rendering system developed by Disney’s software team. Called Hyperion, the system provided for a more realistic, physics-based lighting system for the film’s settings.
“It makes it much convenient for the artists to see a lighting environment earlier,” Johnson explained. “So it provided greater flexibility and far more detail for our images.”
The Hyperion rendering system as well as a super computer housed at four separate locations helped give “Big Hero 6” more detail than any previous Disney computer-animated film, Johnson said.
“This film has things that we’ve never done before,” he said. “The art direction for the film went for a much more realistic environment. We rendered San Fransokyo as a very high-tech, multicultural city. It contains elements from Victorian San Francisco and Asian influences from Tokyo.”
The fully rendered San Fransokyo environment contains 83,000 buildings, 260,00 trees, 215,000 street lights, 100,000 vehicles and thousands of computer-animated extras.
“So the city is a living, breathing thing,” Johnson said.
From his production standpoint, Johnson and his teams worked on “Big Hero 6” for about year.
“It’s a lot of time, people, effort and innovation,” he said. “At Walt Disney Studios, particularly on the technology side, every film we create has that image that you haven’t seen before, that environment that makes you say, ‘Hey, I want to be there.’ I’d love to visit San Fransokyo.”
Because of a string of recent Disney hits that have proven popular with audience and critics, especially the hugely successful “Frozen,” the studio is in a new golden age of animation.
“We’re very excited about ‘Big Hero 6,’ ” Johnson said. “We have a terrific, long legacy of great films and we’re proud of each new one we make.”
Johnson and his family visit Baton Rouge annually to see family and attend the nearby New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. He couldn’t be happier, though, with his job at Disney in California.
“It was longtime dream of mine to be here,” he said. “I’m so pleased to be in this vibrant, creative environment.”