Disney Infinity 3.0 and the Art of Character Design

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Disney Infinity 3.0 is finally out on Sunday, bringing characters from the Star Wars universe into a game that has already cornered the market on childhood nostalgia. Leia, Han, Ahsoka Tano and the like can now sidle up alongside Captain America and Donald Duck in a weird fever dream of a videogame that lets you create your own tiny worlds from pieces of all these different beloved stories. And of course it’s not content to just be a game, manifesting its characters in the real world in the form of small but intricately sculpted figures that unlock the characters in the game when they’re place upon a base attached to your console. The interaction between these figures and the in-game characters is the core of Disney Infinity, as the stylized statues come to life as playable avatars. Somehow the artists at Avalanche Software, the studio behind Disney Infinity, designed an aesthetic that is unique to the game and yet somehow easily applied to such visually diverse entities as Star Wars, Marvel Comics, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. Paste recently talked to Jeff Bunker, the VP of Art Development for Avalanche and Disney Interactive Studios, about the process behind creating a Disney Infinity character and the importance of the game’s distinctive aesthetic.

Paste: What do you look for when you’re picking characters for the game?

Jeff Bunker: The very first thing we look for is what the community is asking for. We really try to keep our ear to the ground and be aware of what their requests are, and then beyond that we go to the different filmmakers, whether it be at Lucas, Pixar or Disney Animation, we understand what they have to offer, whether it’s upcoming films or even past characters that we’re interested in bringing from the vault. And then the third variable is our personal favorites, inside of our studio. We all have our pet projects, the characters that we’d love to get in. We take all those different requests and weigh that against whether or not that character will bring in good mechanics that would be playable. If all that comes together that becomes a character we do.

Paste: Have the filmmakers said no to you before?

JB: When we were first pitching Infinity, I won’t say it was an impossible sale, but it was more difficult back then. Now there’s no issue with that at all. Everybody’s eager to get into Infinity. That’s a non-issue now.

Paste: Do the decisions over characters ever get testy? Like arguments over what characters to make?

JB: It does get testy, in the best way, if that makes sense. I’m kind of maybe strange in that I like a good debate, so there’s a lot of people who have a lot of passions for their different characters, whether it’s internally or even with the different brand owners and filmmakers. I think that that debate is healthy, and it gets us to making the right answers.

Paste: What makes for a good character for the game?

JB: The best character design is when we’re working very closely with the creator of that character. There’s just this kind of fun negotiation that happens. I’m trying to do what’s best for the Infinity brand, they’re trying to do what’s best for their particular brand, and there’s this give and take that goes back and forth over time and eventually we get to some place where we’re both happy, and generally end up at a really good place that is appropriate for both brands.

Paste: Have you ever had a character that was planned to be in the game, everybody was on board and excited, and then during the process you realized that, either from a design or mechanical perspective, it just didn’t really fit?

JB: I don’t think we’ve had get really far. A character like C-3PO, such a popular character and critical to the storyline, but on the other hand you just couldn’t imagine him running around and doing ledge hangs and being a very mobile avatar. There are short discussions about characters like that but I can’t off-hand think of any that went too far.

Paste: Is that why there hasn’t been an R2-D2 figure announced yet? You’d think he’d be one of the very first ones, being the mascot of Star Wars, but I could see him not fitting the game world.

JB: That’s exactly right.

Paste: So what’s been the hardest character to design a figure for, and why?

JB: Each one of them has its own challenges that are hard and fun at the same time. Certainly, characters like Yoda and Darth Vader and Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, they’re the most popular characters in the world, so there’s an extra scrutiny and responsibility that we feel as we’re working on those. They’re challenging in that way. But even the lesser known characters, characters that are from films you haven’t seen yet, those are films that we haven’t seen yet. So that’s challenging in its own way, that we’re trying to capture the essence of that character without having very much material to ever discover what that character is about.

Paste: How far in advance do you work? Are you already working on the Pixar and Disney Animation characters from, like, 2017?

JB: We try to get information as early as we possibly can. I’d say more times than not it’s always less time than we need. Many times they’re still trying to dial the character in while we’re needing to have a final character. They’re still massaging it and trying to make it better. The animation films, the studios like Pixar and Disney Animation, they are slightly easier to work with, because they do get their characters nailed down earlier than the live action does.

Paste: Many have noted there’s something of a lack of classic Disney characters in the game, with only a few that really predate the 1990s. Why is that?

JB: You know, that’s primarily because we have such an amazing amount of new characters that are coming out every year, whether it be Frozen or Big Hero 6. Inside Out. There are always these new films we’re seeing coming down the road with such fantastic characters. We can’t not do them, and then we have limited resources. Once again, as an art director, I approach these things as little pieces of art. You have a limited number of artists capable of creating the type of art we’re creating, so it comes down to resources and all the great characters that we have that are current. Believe me, there is a strong desire internally to do more of these characters, and that’s why we always squeeze out a couple every year. [The new characters] will never run out. There are great movies—Pixar and the studio just announced the slate at D23 for the next couple of years, and there’s an amazing slate coming. So we’re just going to have to balance it by always paying attention to what’s current and trying to keep the fans happy by squeezing a couple of the vault characters into the mix.

Paste: One of the things that impresses me about the game is how you’ve translated all these very different properties into a cohesive visual style. How hard was it to crack that?

JB: When John Blackburn and myself first pitched this to John Lasseter, that was the criteria he gave, that this would only work if we came up with an aesthetic that would be receptive to any type of property that we’d eventually put into Infinity, and that’d be appealing to the fans. Gratefully, I have amazing talent at my studio that I was able to draw in, and I feel like we found something that was great at making a statement of being Infinity but still accessible and good for making each of the different characters and stories that Disney and the different divisions are doing, making it able for us to express their properties well.

Paste: If you personally could pick any character from any Disney property to add to the game, who would it be?

JB: It’s a little nuts, but I would pick Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove. I love that character and his design. And as far as character design goes and just creating a fun sculpture, I’d love to do Shere Khan.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections.

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