Badaladaladala: Characterization Through Mechanics


Below is a clip of the funniest scene and one of the most interesting moments of characterization in Big Hero 6.

In this early scene, we see Hiro interacting with Baymax. Baymax is a caretaker robot, so he is out of his element when it comes to learning kung fu and understanding the celebratory actions of modern youths. The scene plays out in a classic way: the robot can’t understand a well-understood human action and must be taught something basic despite having advanced AI.

Watch the first example in the video and then read below.

“Hiro: Yeaha fist bump.
Baymax: “fist bump” is not in my fighting database
Hiro: no, this isn’t a fighting thing. It’s what people do sometimes when they’re excited or pumped up.
[goes through step by step fist pump sequence ending in an “explosion” move]
Bamax: Badaladaladala”

The master animator and storyteller Hayao Miyazaki once described an effective method he uses to convey subtle differences between characters. He does this not with dialog, but with body language. By animating characters going through the same sequence of actions minor differences between each character are highlighted.

So here’s why Badaladaladala made me laugh out loud and sing its loopy refrain for weeks after watching Big Hero 6. This scene uses the Miyazaki mirror characterization and dialog together to give us a unique peek into the mind of Baymax. We can’t know for sure what’s going through Baymax’s robot mind, but here is my interpretation of his thought process:

  1. Mimic Hiro
  2. Hear sound
  3. Break down waveform to match syllables
  4. Recognize word(s)? If yes, repeat word(s). If no..
  5. Resequence response according to closest matching syllables.
  6. Imitate inflection.

Baymax assumes the explosion sound effect is actually a word. And after processing it, he attempts to respond in kind. The result isn’t exactly the “explosion” that Hiro does, but it’s comically close. Now the question is, does Baymax really understand what it means to do a fist bump? Without knowing what Baymax is actually thinking (thoughts, code, or otherwise) we’re left to interpret his actions and watch as he continues to interact with Hiro and his friends.

In two scenes late into the film (on top of the balloons, and back in Hiro’s workshop), Baymax’s inability to empathize and understand common human emotional states makes him oddly oblivious and uniquely insightful. Instead of understanding that Hiro might be motivated by revenge, he relies on his sci-fi bio-medical scanners to check Hiro’s well being. Since the beginning of the film, Hiro is a brilliant, independent inventor who mostly keeps to himself. When his talents are focused on seeking revenge and justice no one can keep up with Hiro’s pace except Baymax. In other words, Baymax is his only caretaker. And at the peak of Hiro’s emotional distress, Baymax’s even tempered care and  innocent obliviousness is what brings Hiro and the film back to their emotional core. The key is Baymax never does anything out of his narrowly defined, oblivious caretaking nature.

Characters defined by clear rules that are meticulously detailed and consistently applied is the essence of what I call characterization through mechanics. Sure, you could say this is basically keeping the narrative details straight, which applies to all kinds of stories and types of characterization. But characterization through mechanics is a bit more specific than that. In the same way we gain insight into the nature and character of real life players as we watch them struggle and puzzle through challenging gameplay scenarios, we gain a unique kind of insight when we watch characters work through consistent limitations in stories. The best part of engaging with “mechanical” or rule-based details in stories is we can extrapolate these rules and accurately theorize alternate possibilities, then be delighted all the more when the unexpected happens while still fitting into our mental framework for the character.