In his 16 years as a video game art director, Jeff Bunker had designed many original characters. He had copied many more from movies, especially after Disney acquired his studio, Avalanche, in 2005. But for Disney’s upcoming video game Infinity, he needed to design something that was neither original nor replicated: Characters that were recognizable from their movies, but as toy versions of themselves.
By turning them all into toys, characters from different movies could then play together in the same space without looking out of place. The move reflects how kids already play, mixing G.I. Joes with Barbies on the living room floor all the time. Infinity would simply do the same with Disney toys in a virtual world.
Creating “something different, but still the same,” as Bunker puts it, would have been difficult enough, but he also had to give characters from wildly different movie settings a consistent look. The support of Disney’s Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, and the future of the product, depended on it. “I think that’s about the last thing I heard in that meeting,” says Bunker of Lasseter’s request for uniform backdrops at an early pitch meeting, “because I kind of checked out. I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that ‘yes’ for him is contingent on finding this style.’”
Tapping into as much talent as he could, Bunker soon commissioned more than 100 ideas from artists. Results fell somewhere along a spectrum between making characters true to a consistent form factor–the way both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings Legos have the same shape–and true to their movie counterparts. Some artists accidentally created an uncanny valley, making the characters just different enough from their originals to come off as creepy. Others distorted them into geometric shapes that looked too much like toys for toddlers (Infinity targets ages six and up).
Ultimately, Bunker and Lasseter chose a style that conveys toy characteristics through subtle details. Characters’ feet appear larger than normal, for instance, in order to mimic action figures, which need a large base in order to stand on their own. Designers also added seams to the characters’ bodies and programmed them to emphasize movements at joints like toys during resting points in the game. “It’s just a matter of simplification and attention to detail,” Bunker says.
Making Disney’s characters all look like toys was just the beginning of the design challenge. Every character’s creator has say in its portrayal outside the movie (a brand management team plays gatekeeper when the creator is no longer with the company), and the Avalanche team had to get approval and input from each character’s creative guard before they could put it in the game. That meant a lot of changes as the artwork developed. Johnny Depp, for instance, requested that all rings on his Pirates of the Caribbean character Jack Sparrow be true to those in the movie. Some characters in Infinity were from movies that hadn’t been released yet, and Avalanche had to adapt as their hairstyles and outfits changed during filming.
Complicating matters further, Disney decided mid-project to incorporate physical game components. The company wanted a set of physical toy figurines to match Infinity’s digital art style that, when placed on a console-connected platform, added content to the game. Lasseter, an avid toy collector, was insistent on action-figure quality. ”I said, I don’t want little things, like green army kind of figures,” he remembers, “I want something substantial that you look at and would love to collect them all. You could just get the figures and put them on your shelf. They’ve got to be that gorgeous.”
Bunker, meanwhile, had little experience designing physical objects. Suddenly he was traveling to China to meet with art directors at the manufacturer and supervising designs as they went from sketches to clay models to factory samples. He’s pleased with the results.
“I really like the style we ended up on,” Bunker says. “It’s very clean and chiseled.” At Avalanche’s office in Salt Lake City, a couple months before Infinity is set to ship, he lays three versions of Infinity’s Rapunzel figurine on the table. Picking up the last, hand-painted version to show off the details in her elaborate hairstyle, he says, “It’s nuts…I’ve spent my career making virtual goods, something that you put on a disc. So to have something I can hold in my hand, it’s a lot of fun.”