Light is important. I don’t mean in the obvious way that light allows you to see while traveling down a dark highway. Light conveys mood—happiness, sadness, fear—and if used correctly, it can express an emotion all on its own. In film, directors rely on light as much as—or even more than—a particular setting or actor. That’s why you need to remember the name Hyperion.

Hyperion is Disney’s mind-blowing new rendering tool that gave life to Big Hero 6; it was also used for the charming animated short, Feast, which features an adorable food-driven dog that eats, and eats well. If you haven’t seen either, do so at your earliest convenience. You won’t be disappointed.

In a nutshell, Hyperion is a ground-breaking technology that allows animators to more naturally simulate the behavior of light. More precisely, it’s a new lighting system that supports global illumination and path tracing of a scene with a lot of geometry. Without it, the visual achievement of Disney’s new Marvel hit just wouldn’t be possible. For that matter, the city of San Fransokyo, a mashup between Tokyo and San Francisco, wouldn’t exist.


What’s immediately striking about the film is how detailed the dream-like futuristic city is. To give you an idea of scale, San Fransokyo consisted of 83,000 buildings (18.8 million building parts), 260,000 trees, 215,000 streetlights and 100,000 vehicles, with essentially the exact same number and location of elements found in the real city of San Francisco; it’s almost an exact representation, in fact, with the visual effects team recreating 23 separate districts, all lighted simultaneously by Hyperion. Onscreen, the end result is astonishing, with more geometry in some scenes than the last three animated Disney films combined; it’s a city that feels real, alive, rich, a place you’ll wish existed.

Hyperion is capable of harnessing light transport physics and calculating the full material response at every bounce. The scattered rays continue bouncing off objects, until finally they lose energy and dissipate, just as light would in the real world. What you get is a softer, more natural look. Before, animators would have to render the light bounces manually, which would have been next to impossible given the complexity of Disney’s vision for the obscure Marvel comic.

Hank Driskill, Technical Director of Big Hero 6, described the new technology in more detail in an interview with TechnoBuffalo.

Instead of letting the light bounce around randomly, Hyperion looks at all light traveling in more or less the same direction, and treats all that at the same time. So rather than randomly chasing rays around, it deals with the rays in these bundles based on where they were traveling. That gave us two things: it meant we didn’t need to have a whole scene accessible at any given moment, only the stuff that was in the path of that bundle of rays. The other thing it let us do is treat the bounces of those rays as a separate step.


Not only does Hyperion create a more natural look, but the technology has actually had a significant impact on production, giving artists a tool that allows them to focus more on how a scene looks, rather than having to constantly manage the immense amounts of data. It allows them to focus more on getting the small details right, like the translucent look of one of Big Hero 6’s main characters, Baymax. With the old tools, Baymax wound up taking on a look of shiny plastic. But because of Hyperion, Baymax has a softer, more gentle appearance, which is crucial to the character’s personality.

As Driskill notes, Hyperion makes rendering accessible earlier on in production, giving animators a better idea of the end product. That might not seem like a big deal to the average moviegoer, but it’s crucial for production in the long run. To put Hyperion’s performance into perspective, the technology is capable of rendering a film like 2010’s Tangled from scratch every 10 days with the help of a 55,000 core supercomputer spread across four rendering farms in California. Not bad for something Driskill and his team once considered a “science experiment.”

Although Disney Animation has been officially working on Hyperion for a few years, Driskill stresses that the technology is still very much in beta, and the best is yet to come. Given what we’ve seen this early on, we already know it’s capable of producing stunning results. It played a major part in bringing Big Hero 6, and the city of San Fransokyo, to life. The impact and scope just wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for Disney’s new technology. With time, Driskill says it’ll only get better, which means we can expect Disney Animation’s films to look even better in the future.

I, for one, can’t wait. If you haven’t already, I implore you to see Big Hero 6. Not only is the technology used to make the film impressive, but the entire thing is essentially one big celebration of science and technology, using real-world ideas (3D printing is the most obvious example) to create a truly amazing spectacle.