Today, Disney Infinity’s Toy Story Play Set and figures hit store shelves, expanding that game’s offerings to include a new adventure set around the Toy Story franchise. Based on hero Buzz Lightyear’s Star Command station, the new in-game world brings with it the option to play as Buzz, Woody, and Jessie in the popular adventure action game. We took this opportunity to sit down with Art Director Jeff Bunker and Lead Character Designer Jon Diesta of Avalanche Software and chat about what it means to design a brand new set of Disney toys, and how a video game company goes about bringing their game to life in the real world.
“Maybe there’s something here.”
One of the most exciting parts of the new Disney Infinity video game is the way in which the characters you play as in the game are also physical figures that you can own and display in real life. Even after your gaming console has been powered down and the controllers have been set aside, the characters themselves—including favorites like Mr. Incredible, Jack Skellington, Rapunzel, and more—are still with you. Each figure is set in a signature pose that captures what makes that character memorable, and they’re sculpted and painted with an incredible attention to detail, down to the expressions on their faces and the texture of their hair and clothes. Each toy is a high-tech device that carries hours of gameplay and virtual interaction within it — but Disney Infinity’s figures are also high-quality items that represent some of the most stylish collectibles a Disney fan can hope to have.
Disney Infinity’s origin can be traced back to very specific group of toys, namely the cast of Pixar’s Toy Story films. For their Toy Story 3 game, Avalanche Software had designed a special mode called the Toybox that let players interact with the characters in much the same way Andy played with his toys in the original film, mixing and matching toys and objects however they wanted with total creative freedom. The game was a great success, and called for a sequel. While they were working on their follow-up effort, the team had a wild idea. “We found ourselves saying, ‘It’d be so much fun to keep on doing these toy boxes for different properties’,” recalls Jeff. “With Toy Story, we realized that it was OK for an old ragdoll cowboy to be in the same world as a modern plastic space ranger, because they were toys, and it’s OK when you mix toys on the bedroom floor. We thought ‘Maybe there’s something here.’” They started thinking about a game in which characters from across Disney and Pixar were all represented as toys of their own and tossed together into one giant virtual toy box.
The team pitched their vision to Disney’s Chief Creative Officer, John Lasseter. However, the idea wasn’t an instant hit. “We knew it would be a challenge because the idea of mixing properties never goes over very well with the creators of those properties,” Jeff told us. “The problem was, in the image that we showed John for our initial pitch, each one of the characters were their own type of toy. So, Simba would be a plush toy, or Jack Sparrow would be an action hero type figure, and each one made up a vast array of different toys.” But that didn’t mean the characters fit any easier into each other’s universes just by their designation as toys. They were close to something magical, and they had John’s support to build upon that initial vision. “As we started to talk about the idea, John said ‘You know, this could work, but only if they’re not their own toy lines–they’re part of the same toy line.’ And if you don’t know John, he’s a huge toy collector, and he said ‘If you were to make an aesthetic that all of these different properties could live inside of, then I think I could imagine all of those characters together as toys on the shelf and I could also imagine them all playing together in the game.’ And that was the tipping point for us. It was awesome. It was funny, because as we were leaving that meeting he said ‘And you know, if you’re going to do this, and you’re going to make all of the creators and the fans happy, this style has got to be wicked awesome.’
“Getting that challenge from John was a little bit intimidating but the good news was that as I went out looking for designers, both internally and externally, we had some amazing designers here at Avalanche. We had three different artists internally that had three distinct styles, but each one was interesting. It was fun having those three different directions that could feed off of each other and then eventually we started to narrow it down and I felt like Jon Diesta’s style was more directly what we wanted, which was just a little less childlike and a little more sophisticated.”
“This is my character, just … different.”
Jon and his fellow artists went down a lot of different paths before landing on the signature Disney Infinity style. “In the beginning, we tried a number of different style wrappers. We tried making them plush, making them like bath toys, making them like bobble-heads. At one point we even tried making them all like paper cutouts.” The key, according to Jon, was to think in terms of the toys they themselves wanted to own. “It wasn’t until we decided that this is an opportunity to make designer collectible figures that it really came together. What we all liked and we already had on our desks at the time were these urban vinyl toys.” This was a chance to work with some of popular culture’s most famous characters, and the team accepted the responsibility that came with such well known and regarded personalities.
“We wanted most people to recognize the character first and then notice the style second. And we wanted to be very authentic to the individualism of each character, so that each film’s director can feel like ‘Yes, this is my character, just … different.’ We realized that if you mix in the urban vinyl feel with this animated flavor, it resulted in these bold clean shapes.”
“It’s a very chiseled, simplified look,” adds Jeff. “It’s trying not to be a toy in a childlike way, but it’s still trying to remind you of all the toy aesthetics. We add the joint articulation in and we make the base of the characters—their feet—bigger than they might otherwise be in the real character so that they could stand up if they had to stand up on their own. We make toy decisions, but the actual execution of the toy is more sophisticated than a typically toy is.”
Because Disney Infinity incorporates so many different Disney franchises, from Cars to Princesses to Mickey and Friends, the team at Avalanche had to take their designs on the road and see how they would be received throughout the company.
Some initially shared skepticism similar to John Lasseter’s. “Before we had actually found the final style, there was a real concern, and there was a sense that people did not want us to be too close to the real characters, but to actually be further away than we were going,” says Jeff. The idea was that if the Disney Infinity designs were too close to the characters they were based on, the differences that still remained would be so glaring as to cause something akin to a toy ‘uncanny valley.’ For months, the art team honed their vision and then finally took it on the road. The reactions they got were just what they had hoped for. “As we got more defined into exactly what the style was going to be, the filmmakers we were working with started to see how their characters could be incorporated into our aesthetic and without exception it has been really received well. A good example of that is Tim Burton. We’re almost the antithesis of his style—his characters are typically very thin and tall and lanky, and ours are thick and squat and chunky—so we were concerned when we initially pitched the Jack Skellington figure to Tim.” It turned out, however, that any fears the team had were unfounded. “He was very fond of what we were doing and it was amazingly smooth.”
It’s hard to believe, but re-imagining all of Disney and Pixar was just the beginning of the process for the team at Avalanche Software. They still had to turn their designs into a blockbuster video game, and then produce an entire line of toys to go with it. Check back for future articles when we’ll talk more with Jeff and Jon about the process of turning those first sketches into 3d models and finally into the physical toys that would find their way into homes and playrooms across the world.