An In Depth Look at the Art and Animation

Disney Epic Mickey is months away from release, but the work involved in its creation began years ago. Anyone who has perused the November 2009 issue of Game Informer understands the project’s dramatic scope and ambition. However, we can only fit so much information in the magazine. In our first Inside the Game online feature, we follow the art and animation development from concept to implementation to get a better sense of how Mickey and his world came to life. Don’t miss your first-ever chance to see early animation tests of Mickey and his friends in action.

The World

Caption: Even a small section or level takes many steps to emerge into gameplay. In Epic Mickey, special 2D side-scrolling levels interconnect the larger 3D areas. Every one of these 2D images is based on an old Disney cartoon classic. This area was based on Clock Cleaners, a 1937 cartoon starring Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. Using scenes from the original as inspiration, the team creates a colored concept art piece to illustrate the idea of the level. Designers work together with the artists to shape the level, and indicate the motions of the many cogs, gears, and platforms in the scene. With those directions in hand, the team can implement a three-dimensional, functional version. Finally, Mickey can jump into action and the level can begin being tested and modified.

The process of level creation begins as a collaborative project; as the development team throws around ideas for game design and story the artists begin work on concept art in earnest.

“It starts on paper with the general idea of the storyline that Warren [Spector] is going for,” explains art director Lee Harker. “We read on paper the general gist of what the level or the area is supposed to be, and we just start firing off ideas all over the place. At that point Warren will come by and we’ll review the work and talk about general direction that we want to go for in each of these areas. Once we nail in on something, it’s just a matter of refining it and refining it until we have it just right.”

Caption: Concept art serves a far more important role than being inspirational imagery or fodder for magazine articles. Good concept art can help guide or inform the development of an entire stage of the game.

From early on, the game featured story elements that emerged from the history of Mickey Mouse, which the art needed to reflect. “You’ve got this wealth of subject matter out there that’s known all around the world and respected by so many people. It’s just an honor to be able to work with that, and it’s a big responsibility as well,” Harker admits. “You’ve got to continue on top of all these great artists that have come before you and build off of it.”

The Brave Little Tailor

Caption: Early tests like this one help to try out the model of the main character, and inspire actions and movements that may eventually emerge into gameplay. This one is based on a scene from the Mickey classic The Brave Little Tailor. If you cannot see the video, click here.[PageBreak]

Caption: The style of the cartoon and inert objects in the world shouldn’t be difficult to spot, thanks to clever visualization by Junction Point. Toon objects can be created and erased by the player; inert objects are permanent and real, and double as a way to put limits on the shape of the world.

While the concepts embraced the long history of a beloved character, Spector’s vision for the game took Mickey in a new direction. Much of that tonal shift was established under the eye of Rolf Mohr, the visual development director on the project in its early days.

“I look at our game even now a while out from shipping – I’m prejudiced obviously – but I think it looks fantastic,” Warren Spector tells us. “I gave Rolf a nearly impossible task. I said, ‘We’re creating a world where we have to have this painted, bright, cartoony, puffy marshmallow look side-by-side with this gray, blasted, dark, twisted, pointy, inert look.’” The resulting art style that Mohr and the rest of the team created was a mix of aesthetics, using familiar visual cues of colors and angles to help gamers immediately identify the different objects and creatures on screen.

Caption: Early in the game, Mickey finds himself under examination in the Mad Doctor’s lab. The original version of this lab was nearing completion when members of the art team became increasingly dissatisfied with their first attempt. Much of the lab level was scrapped, and a new version was developed over several weeks and put into place. “It just became apparent that we could really do a whole lot better,” art director Harker says. “So the team decided they wanted to take that on themselves, and they pretty much lived here for three weeks to get it right on their own.”

With the art style established, concept artists begin their work in earnest. In the case of Epic Mickey, the art team maintains a constant contact with the level design team. It’s an essential cooperation, since the central gameplay mechanic revolves around a paintbrush that can paint in and erase elements of the world as a player moves through the game. “If you look at the cartoon stuff in the world, all of that is supposed to be stuff players can affect,” Harker explains. “So that ties directly into the game’s design. You can’t have it be a complete free-for-all where we just put colorful cartoon stuff everywhere, and that mucks up the design where you’re able to access areas that the designers don’t want you to.”

Swinging into Action

Caption: Watch carefully as Mickey swings onto the vine. You can see the way his body stretches past its normal proportions to give the illusion of being pulled in one way and then another. Because he is a cartoon, his morphing shape isn’t jarring the way it might be with a more realistic human character. Interestingly, this animation technique was pioneered at least in part by Walt Disney and his studio when they created the early Mickey Mouse cartoons in the 1920s and ‘30s. If you cannot see the video, click here. [PageBreak]

Caption: These three simple images illustrate the central gameplay mechanic of Epic Mickey. Paint is used to fill in blank, glittering spaces, and thinner can erase objects. At times, players can erase sections of an object, utilizing the new shape of the object as a platform to ascend to a different location. In many ways, the game aims to let the player design his or her own path through a level. From an art perspective, objects like this bookshelf pose unique challenges. Not only must the object be interesting to look at, but also it also must be an integrated part of the level design.

Environment artists take the concept art and integrate it into a 3D framework through an imaging program called Maya. The environment team then changes size and shape of objects in a way that helps guide the players through the world. The level designers continue to contribute the necessary elements so the levels emerge as engaging and fun playgrounds. By this point, the designers and other parts of the development team can jump into a rough version of an environment and begin playtesting. But to do so, another major component has to be progressing at the same pace – characters.

Caption: Dozens of images from multiple artists help to establish the look, color, lighting, and overall vision for a given level. If you’ve spent any time at Disneyland, you’ll also notice how much the Gremlin Village has in common with the “It’s a Small World” attraction. 

Characters and Animation

By necessity, the character artists need to stay one step ahead of those working on the environments and levels. “They’ve got to have the characters done in time to get them to the animators. So we want those guys way out in front,” Harker says.

Caption: Character artists on Epic Mickey begin with numerous exploratory sketches that establish the overall style for a character. If they have an existing reference, they work off of that as a starting point. In the case of the Mad Doctor, the artists looked back to the 1933 cartoon in which he first appeared. After sketches, the team creates colored character images and passes them off to be rendered in 3D.

The character artists’ most important focus is obviously Mickey, as players constantly interact with him. Dozens of versions of Mickey Mouse are created and scrapped, exploring any number of ways to interpret the classic character. At times, these new versions are elongated and modern, and at other times they stay as close as possible to older interpretations of the character. As of now, the team has settled on a colorful version of Mickey that reflects how he appeared in the 1930s – mischievous and cartoony. However, Spector demands a character that alters in response to player actions, so the character art team must create three Mickeys – a dark scrapper, a middle-of-the road version, and a heroic version. Each one poses differently and looks different, and the distinction needs to be sharp enough for players to recognize at a glance.

Caption: “How you decide to play the game should make a difference. You get to determine what kind of hero you are. Everybody solves the problem. Everybody saves the day. Everybody gets to save the world and gets the girl,” Warren Spector tells us, in regards to the shifting spectrum of play styles that change the appearance of Mickey throughout the game. “But how you do it, and how you end up looking is up to you. What abilities you have is up to you. Who likes you is up to you. What missions you hear about or not is up to you.” Each version of Mickey has a distinct look crafted by the character artists at Mickey, from the crouching and feral scrapper to the stalwart hero.

Even after a nearly complete version of Mickey is ready to go, the character artists have plenty of work to do right through the end of the project. New characters are added all the time, but the goal is to give more complicated and important characters the attention early, as they will be the ones that have the most complex and involved animation sets to complete.


Caption: Junction Point has developed a brand new antagonist to fit into Disney lore. The beetleworx are built by the Mad Doctor, and they act as a maintenance crew to the game world. Unlike many potential enemies in the game, they can’t be fully erased by Mickey’s magic paintbrush, so the art team had an interesting challenge to overcome: shape a potential enemy formed of both sharp, inert objects and marshmallowy cartoon shapes. Their solution lay in pulling together elements from across the familiar Disney theme park landscape and combining them on top of a metallic framework. Careful viewers will see elements from across Disney fiction combined together on this figure.

Animators keep in close contact with the character artists long before they begin bringing them to life. “We don’t want to overcomplicate things, but we also want to make sure that when the animation finally gets to us, all our needs can be met, and that we’re not creating something that’s going to be a problem down the road,” explains lead animator Jorma Auburn. The goal is to keep the character artists in the loop on what requires time and energy to animate and compute. “If it is going to be an ambient creature, and you want to have a lot of them on the screen, then having a bug with 20 legs is not the way to go,” Auburn says. 

Caption: Warren Spector hopes to reinvigorate Mickey’s adventures by taking familiar characters and casting them in unfamiliar situations. In the wasteland world of Epic Mickey, many of Mickey’s best friends have been recreated as animatronic look-alikes. 

Character artists/modelers then work with rigging to shape a 3D version. A character rig is an essential component of the process, since it dictates the actual in-game form of a character. “It’s the infrastructure, all the joints and bones,” Auburn explains. “At some game studios that I’ve worked at in the past, the animators also did the rigging. Thank goodness we’re not doing that here. These rigs are way too complex for us to do that. I’ve found that when you separate the roles, you get better results on both ends.”

Caption: Many types of blotlings show up throughout the game, but the spatters shown here are the simplest and stupidest of the bunch. The artists have gone to great lengths to create numerous versions so they remain fresh whenever and wherever they show up in the game. Likewise, the animation team has built a wealth of short but amusing motions and actions for the little guys.

With a character like Mickey rigged up, the animators then have a “really cool puppet to play with,” as Auburn describes it. They can begin testing the character’s boundaries – how far can he stretch, what poses can he take, what emotions can he project given his facial structure, etc. With Epic Mickey, the animators have the advantage of decades of Disney animation to inspire and direct their choices. Mickey’s tradition also allows them to explore ideas that would be impossible in a more realistic setting. Many studios would have a hard time depicting a gritty space marine who can walk away from an anvil that drops on his head, but the animation team on Epic Mickey has the tools to pull it off, even if it mean days or even weeks of animation work to get the squashed and stretched version of the character to appear correctly after the anvil falls.

Always Two Round Ears

Caption: Almost every time you’ve ever seen Mickey Mouse in action, you’ve seen the silhouette of both his ears. It’s actually a directive for the use of the character straight from Disney. Even when moving through a 3D environment, the animation team has to account for both his ears, and make the familiar shape apparent whichever way Mickey runs and jumps. If you cannot see the video, click here.

Pulling Together

Modern development studios can ill afford having departments working in isolation, and Junction Point is no exception. Throughout our visit, we witnessed the iterative process that interconnects different sections. The animators keep in constant contact with those implementing, playing, and testing the game. The artists respond to needs for new environments and characters as they emerge, requiring a constant effort throughout the development cycle.

If this iterative process succeeds, Epic Mickey could put the mouse back on the map. Modern 3D techniques finally allow for the team at Junction Point to present a Mickey Mouse game with the cartoon sensibilities that have been present in his films for decades. Colorful, humorous characters fill the cast, and the environments pull inspiration from classic Disney iconography. Simultaneously, the game introduces a dark and twisted element to Mickey’s world that stands in sharp contrast to his normal environs. It’s a visual framework primed to catapult him back into stardom.

If the process behind the art and animation for Epic Mickey has captured your interest, you'll want to explore our two videos on the subject, Sketching Mickey: The Time Lapse Video, and our video montage of The Art of Epic Mickey. For more on the real-life story of Mickey Mouse, you might enjoy Rise of an Icon: A Pictorial History of Mickey Mouse. Or, for a menu of all our Epic Mickey coverage, visit our landing page for the game, and check out the November 2009 issue of Game Informer magazine.

Want to see everything in greater detail? Make sure and click on the images in the gallery below for full size versions of all the images from this article.

(Design and Layout By Meagan VanBurkleo)