Disney Epic Mickey marked the return of Walt Disney’s very first creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The character was introduced to a huge audience of Wii gamers three years ago in Junction Point’s game, which starred Mickey Mouse. With Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, Oswald is getting a much bigger audience (the game releases on all platforms) and a starring role (he’s playable in co-op alongside Mickey).
John Ford, lead animator at Junction Point, has been working with studio head Warren Spector and the Disney archives to bring forgotten Disney characters and worlds (from film, television and theme parks) to life again in the virtual Wasteland, an alternate universe where Disney’s past still resides. Ford talks about the new game and explains what it’s like to animate Mickey and Oswald in the new game in this exclusive interview.
What drives you creatively at your job?
The variety of challenges in creating a great game. Animation by itself is challenging, and putting great animation into a video game really ups the ante. Video games have a lot of moving parts, and every day is different. If we do it right, the end results are very rewarding.
What’s a typical day like in your life as a game developer?
A typical day starts out with emails and morning meetings where we discuss the day’s work, and tackle any issues or questions that need to be addressed. Usually, there a couple of issues that cropped up from the day before that need to be tended to immediately before the morning goes by. Afterwards, I meet individually with each member of my team, go over any notes, and make sure they have what they need in order to continue to make progress for the day. I usually also check in with other departments to make sure things are going smoothly, and that they have what they need from my team. In the afternoon, I work on animations, schedules, and emails, and usually have a project meeting or two. Near the end of the day, I check back in with everyone and see where they are at before I watch videos of the day’s animation and make notes, if necessary, for the following day. Before I leave, I wrap up any loose ends, and get a plan together for the next day.
How did you work together with your team to overcome challenges during the game development process?
We’d try to chunk problems down into manageable bits and try to come up with solutions that were as flexible as possible, because games in production are always in a constant state of change. I spent a lot of time planning, but I tried to keep the plan open enough to give us options when changes occurred. The team was really loose, and made it easy for me to switch people around and go with the flow as the project evolved. We always tried to take our work just far enough to keep progress going, without investing so much that we’d lose a lot of time when changes occurred.
Can you talk about how advances in technology and the tools you use have influenced what you’ve been able to accomplish with this new game?
Using Maya, we did a lot of work with our Character and Rigging departments to create an animation pipeline that allowed our characters evolve while minimizing any animation loss. This was a very complex project, so we developed a system that gave ourselves the control we needed to animate Disney characters, while keeping everything flexible. There were many characters in the Epic Mickey universe, and each one had a unique skeletal systems and set of performance requirements. Each animator had a lot of parts to keep track of, and having a solid pipeline was key. We used Havok Behavior as our character control system, and leveraged it with our own tools, utilizing a lot of layered animation to bring as much variety and life as possible while staying within the performance budget. Lastly, our crack technology team created cut scene tools that the animators used to script and time all of the cut scene animation, sound and effects. We could not have finished our work in time without all these wonderful tools.
What are you most proud of when it comes to the animation in your new game?
Our animation carefully followed and respected Disney history while making the characters feel right in a video game setting. It was tough at times to balance those two requirements, but the team worked really hard, and I think we managed to pull it off.
What advice would you give to aspiring animators interested in getting into the videogame business?
Focus on animation first, before getting into the game stuff. Start with working on a solid foundation in the principles of animation. Keep your ideas simple. Identify the most important part of an animation and make it shine. Try different workflows until you find what works best for you. When the process of animation becomes second nature, start exploring the technical part that is required by video games.
What’s it like working with classic Disney animated characters like Mickey and Oswald in this game franchise?
For an animator, it’s like going back to school, because Disney is where it all began. The early Disney animators paved the trail for animation. They discovered how it worked, and wrote the rulebook. Our team studied every Disney cartoon and took note of how characters moved, how they acted, and how the animation evolved over the years. We worked and reworked on our animations until we found a way to move the characters in the video game space that felt right and looked appropriate for how Disney characters should move.
John Gaudiosi has spent the past 20 years covering the $75 billion videogame industry for top international print, online and television outlets like The Washington Post, Wired, Playboy, AOL, Yahoo!, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today Weekend, The Hollywood Reporter, Reuters, Forbes, NBC, CBS and Geek Magazine. He specializes in the converge of games and Hollywood. He currently resides in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife and dogs and can be reached at JGaudiosi@aol.com.