With the holiday season upon us, we’ve got toys, games, and gift giving on the mind. What better time to conclude our in depth conversation with Disney Infinity Art Director Jeff Bunker and Lead Character Designer Jon Diesta of Avalanche Software about their work designing the all new set of collectible character figures that accompanies Disney Infinity.
If you didn’t catch the first half of our chat, Jeff and Jon told us all about the design philosophy behind Disney Infinity’s characters and the way in which that philosophy transformed over the course of the game’s invention. They also recalled their first pitch sessions with Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, and the way he helped guide them to the final designs that would ultimately land in homes all over the planet.
But it wasn’t simply a matter of dreaming up the look of each Disney character in the game and then handing them off to another team to carry over the finish line into production. Instead, Jeff, Jon, and the rest of their team were responsible for not only the toy concepts, but following them through to their final physical destination. That meant that throughout the development of each figure, considerations had to be made with a final high-quality collectible figure in mind. They also had to learn a whole lot about how toys get made, which they shared with us. “I’ve been making video games for a very long time–almost 20 years,” Jeff told us, “and always just making a virtual character. Making something that you can actually hold in your hand was a brand new experience for all of us here.”
“Since we’d never really done anything like this before, we just had to give it our best shot,” added Jon. “It’s kind of amazing, because we assumed somebody might tell us to stop running, but nobody really did. So we just kept going for it, and I think that’s why the quality of these characters is so good.”
Jon described the lengthy journey from sketch to shelf for a Disney Infinity figure, and how a team that started by working on a video game ended up overseeing the production of such an impressive line of toys. The process is no small matter, and incorporated a lot of creativity, but also powerful tools, software, and–most importantly–attention to detail. You can tell that it’s a process this team now knows very, very well.
“We use the major 2D programs to paint and draw, like Photoshop and Corel Painter,” Jon told us. Then they need to turn their drawings into models that will work both in the game and in real life. “For working in 3D, we use programs called Maya and ZBrush, and we have a lot of custom tools for those. After we finish the ZBrush phase, we have the prototyping phase. We use a local company in Salt Lake City to do 3D prints using an object printer, which is a printer that lays down material in thin layers of powder, and then it hardens and we have our first 3D print. There’s a fair amount of cleanup work that has to go with it, but it gives us a rough idea of which parts are too small, does the face read, do the shapes need to be bigger or smaller. The prototype phase is pretty imperative to the whole process. After we get something that’s pretty good, we send it over to our factory to do the final, very, very clean 3D print, and that’s when it stops being digital. Once they do those prints, they start making a mold out of that, and every step after that–and there are five really big steps–that’s all analog. So, the copy that you see on the shelf is kind of the fifth copy—as if from a Xerox machine—of what the original actually looked like. So for each step we had to re-sculpt after the pour, because sometimes the definition of the face or the hair is a little lost in each copy. So we have a sculptor with us who is sculpting on this polyurethane resin based pour. They’re sculpting, making a copy, making a copy, and then we finally get our toy in the end. It’s been a huge growing process for us, and we never knew making toys or making figures was as complicated as it is, but… wow! It makes me appreciate pretty much all toys.”
It was a lot of work, but the team wanted to be absolutely sure that the experience of playing the game was consistent with the figures you collect while playing it. “We cared about it from the conceptual phase, where somebody is drawing it, to the creation in 3D, then all the way to the factory, where we’re overseeing the first pour—the first prototype out of the first tool before they polish it—to make sure we’re getting everything that we care about, and we’re sculpting and re-sculpting right there at the factory. We are part of the process all the way through the first passes of the manufacturable toys, to the packaging, to the drop tests, to the puncture tests, and all the while you’ll find me at the factory calling guys back at Avalanche, asking guys to revise the 3d files and send another one over on the spot. There is only so much you can foresee until you’re actually there and you realize it could be a problem. Like the physics tests: we wanted to make sure that these characters could stand on their own. They don’t really need the base they’re connected to. We wanted to be sure that there is enough weight that they don’t sag over time or become deformed. We wanted to make sure that we were growing as we were producing all of these physical toys. We’re a video game company and we work in polygons, but polygons don’t exist in real life. It’s definitely been an adventure, but an exciting one. Super challenging, but very exciting!”
Jeff also noted the immense challenge of a project of Disney Infinity’s scale, but was happy to have taken it on with all of Disney cheering him on and helping along the way. “I have to say that it’s been on the verge of terrifying throughout,” he told us. “From the very first challenge from John to find something that was wicked awesome, to have never had experience with making toys and then to being in charge of such a large line of toys has been very intimidating and scary starting out. But throughout the whole process we’ve worked with so many incredible individuals that have helped us, from Disney Consumer Products to Pixar to the Walt Disney Animation Studios, everybody has been so giving within the company that it has really helped to grease the skids and make this smoother. At every point there was a bump or an obstacle that we didn’t expect, and we’ve had challenges that we’ve had to solve, but the products are on the shelf so obviously we were able to find solutions when we needed them and it’s been an amazing, amazing process.”
There is a lot more of Disney Infinity to be released over the coming months, but Jon and Jeff have already had a chance to see their products in stores and next to game consoles and reflect on the part they now play in Disney history. “When I was going to art school, one of my classmates asked me what my ending goal was, and I said something like ‘It would be great to see somebody walking across the street with my character on their sweatshirt,” said Jon. “They wouldn’t know that I created it, but that character has touched this person in one way or another so much so that they would wear a sweatshirt or buy some merchandise that’s related to that character. When I pick up these figures, I can’t help but think about that moment because—oh man—this has definitely been one of those life milestones. It sounds cheesy, but I never knew that I was working toward this. And every time I pick one of these toys up, I’m holding a bit of my dream coming to life. And when I think about it a little bit harder I realize that these characters are in the houses, homes, and living rooms of hundreds of thousands of people across the world. It’s kind of amazing, when I think about it. This process has been super challenging, and every day we’ve been working a lot, and caring about the smallest of details, like each bit of their face or whether or not they’re standing right, or the weighting of the figures. It’s all worth it. This whole thing was totally worth it. And the exciting thing is that it’s only going to get better. What we’ve got coming in the future is going to be amazing!”
“It’s been so satisfying,” added Jeff. “It’s especially gratifying to hear the experience of fathers or mothers playing with their kids and having experience together. To me, that’s what Disney is. When I think of going to the Parks or going to a feature film, or anything that Disney has done, it’s almost always for a family memory. I feel like we are touching on something there with Disney Infinity, that we’re what Disney ought to be in the interactive space.”