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Gamer Tuesday

April 3, 2012

Pap the Disney Gamer Presents A Year Long Celebration...

Ten Years of Hearts, Keyblades and Disney Magic: A Kingdom Hearts 10th Anniversary Celebration

Last time on the Kingdom Hearts retrospective...

'How is this going to play? Let's mix Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest with Ocarina of Time! THAT'S CRAZY ENOUGH TO WORK! Let's polish it and make it an official part of the series!'

And now...

Part 4: Artistry in motion

For over a hundred years, Disney has made itself known for its high quality artistry in many of its assets. Animated films, live action films, theme park attractions, television shows, merchandise, and many other things have been created with the most meticulous care possible. That's because the company has spent years trying to perfect the art of animation beyond just moving drawings on pieces of paper. Walt Disney and his team of animators went through great lengths to make sure that everything that they did was effective in inspiring the imaginations of people all over the world. Concepts like the Plausible Impossible defined the limitless potential of Disney animation while technology like the Multiplane Camera and the Xerox process helped them easily achieve those goals. Sure, Disney wasn't the first and only animation studio to play with various animation techniques in the early days of film, but the efforts they went through made them one of the most important in the industry. Add to this the timeless talents of people like Mary Blair, the Nine Old Men, Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, and hundreds more and it is understandable why whenever a video game adaptation of a Disney property is made there needs to be a lot of love put into it and to make sure that it captures the spirit and magic of the Disney production. Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts was no exception.

Mary Blair, for example, defined the look of many movies like Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland, making them iconic in their execution

From the get go, Square Enix knew that they wanted to pay tribute to the Disney legacy in every way possible. Luckily for us, the company was more than qualified for the task of bringing classic Disney animation into modern 3D gaming. Much like Disney, Square Enix have made themselves known as one of the primary innovators of visual fidelity in gaming. Whether it was the humble Nintendo Entertainment System or the powerful PlayStation 3, they would squeeze every drop out of the system's power in order to create worlds that were beyond our imagination. Their character animation, even when they were just tiny sprites, were always spirited and lively, helping them tell the often complex stories filled with a lot of human emotion. In the PlayStation 2 era, long before Kingdom Hearts was even released, Square Enix had released games like The Bouncer and Final Fantasy X, two games that pushed the system technologically early into its first year in the market. So the long story short of it all is that if there was one company that was more than ready to bring Disney animation into gaming it was Square

In 1997, Square Enix impressed the world with Final Fantasy VII. It's CG rendered cutscenes beautifully told the complex story.

Kingdom Hearts was going to look like a Disney production, but it also needed to be a Square Enix effort as well. With Tetsuya Nomura being established as game director, he was also appointed as the lead character designer. This presented a curious problem as Nomura's artistic influences wildly vary from the Disney aesthetic. His method of character design is highly influenced by Japanese fashion and other modern trends. If you look at his character designs, they are always wearing lots of jewelry, chains, belts and clothing combinations that were ripped straight out of a high class fashion show. His other influence lies in anime (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese comics). The hairstyles on his characters are very wacky, and the eyes tend to be very manga-esque and with high levels of emotional expression. The design of his original characters would have to perfectly fit with the defined look of the Disney universe but also be Nomura creations through and through.

Tetsuya Nomura's art has been attached to the Final Fantasy name for many years. This rendering of Tidus from Final Fantasy X shows how visually vivid his character designs tend to be

Luckily, Nomura was able to establish a balance with his designs in the Kingdom Hearts project. The characters still look like they came from his own mind and hand, but are presented in a way that they also fit the Disney universe without overtly standing out. The focus on big shoes on all main characters pay tribute to the whimsical nature of the Disney universe, and in Sora's case he is designed to closely resemble Mickey Mouse. Donald Duck and Goofy also received new costumes that looked just like their standard outfits but with a heavy dose of Nomura's artistic sensibilities.

On the top is an early version of Sora when he was conceived as a cartoon lion. On the bottom is the final version of Sora

Mickey and friends, however, had that luxury. These characters are known for being characters that have played different roles in different Disney stories. They could be wildly different characters, but not some of the other characters from the specific Disney stories. Alice couldn't wear a crazy dress with chains, nor Aladdin have crazy anime hair. Square Enix decided that while the original characters, Mickey and friends, and Final Fantasy characters would have a look unique to Kingdom Hearts, the Disney characters would have to appear as they did in their original films.

While plenty of Kingdom Hearts artwork depicted Donald and Goofy in their regular outfits, the picture on the right is how they would be rendered in the Kingdom Hearts world

This hit them with another challenge: presenting characters that were originally in 2D in 3D form. Early Disney games like Mickey Mania didn't have such a challenge because the 2D character sprites could still be animated by hand, thus minimizing the risk of ruining a character's essence when trying to present them in an interactive digital medium. In 3D, however, the character gains a dimension that does often alter their strictly 2D character design. This was a problem Disney themselves encountered on several of their productions, especially with Mickey's Philharmagic for the Disney theme parks. The attraction consists of Disney's famous characters and scenes presented in 3D. Even with the most renowned Disney animators working on the project, they had issues trying to make the characters look like their 2D counterparts but still resemble their original film designs. Ariel proved to be a big challenge for them for many reasons. Not only that, this was when Disney was trying to make the transition from 2D to 3D animation so a lot of experimentation was taking place during this era.

3D render of Ariel from The Little Mermaid

Square Enix was able to take on the challenge and be very successful at it. The characters looked just like their film counterparts but still feel comfortable and believable in a 3D setting. Lots of care went into designing the characters in 3D. Small details like the eyes, mouth and size were taken into consideration. The end result was a game that highly respected the animation legacy of the Disney company but presented itself as a high end digital production.

One technique that Square Enix employed in Kingdom Hearts is one that was used in previous games. The main characters would have two models: one model would have textures for facial expressions and another would be very detailed and highly expressive, with each part of the face individually rendered for a better performance. The highly detailed model would be used during scenes that required a high level of emotional resonance. So for example, if Sora was having a touching moment with Donald and Goofy his high quality 3D model would be able to perfectly convey it. The simple 3D model was used for gameplay segments and other scenes that didn't need the detailed model.

On this image we see a detailed version of Sora's character model, each one featuring a different facial expression

If you don't mind me getting technical for a bit, often game developers opt for character models that are simpler in terms of polygonal design, especially in the PSone and PlayStation 2 eras of gaming. Nowadays it is easy to make a structurally complex character with great level of detail, but in those eras the idea was to get better hardware performance while still keeping the ideal game concept. This means that the game had to run as smoothly as possible even when it is really busy. Kingdom Hearts is a very busy game. Not only do you have three characters on-screen you also have several smaller enemies, and at times the stage would end with a massive boss fight. As if all of that wasn't enough, the PlayStation 2 ranked behind the Nintendo GameCube and the Xbox in terms of technical prowess. Despite all those technicalities Square Enix was able to maintain the Disney sense of scope and detail while still making it capable of running on the still very young gaming hardware.

Still with me after all of that? Kingdom Hearts was a game that was meant to be large in scope, and it was daunting to preserve the legacy of Disney artistry while trying to prove that the PlayStation 2 was at the top of its game.

But just as important as rendering the characters in 3D was designing their worlds. The development of Kingdom Hearts was one bound with many rules regarding how the Disney characters and their worlds would be presented. The idea is that Sora, Donald, and Goofy would be entering these worlds that were unique and new to them. Going back to the Disney Animated Classics, each one of them feature an unique art style that is exclusive to them. The soft lines and round design of Beauty and the Beast stands out from the rough sketching looking 101 Dalmatians or the Mary Blair inspired Alice in Wonderland. When preserving the art style of the Disney film, Square Enix went through great lengths to make sure that in its digital form the world resembled the animated film that inspired it and be different from the other worlds players would visit.

Alice in Wonderland features a look that was heavily influenced by the great skills of Mary Blair. As the concept artwork shows above, Kingdom Hearts' Wonderland would have to reach a similar level of artistry

Last, and definitely not least, are the special effects. In Disney Animation, the animators behind the various animated shorts and feature films would study character animation in order to make sure the characters moved realistically on-screen. The same was true for the special effects. Despite being a very small component of the movie they added even more detail to a scene, bringing with them a small touch of realism that heightened the intensity of the scene in many creative ways. Things like pixie dust, the ripples of water in a lake, clouds in the sky and smoke would be animated alongside the characters for a far more dramatic effect that made the story that more interesting.

In Kingdom Hearts case, its special effects were over the top yet very efficient in its storytelling. In both gameplay and cutscenes, motion blur was used for a more intense experience. As an example, when Sora defeated a boss in battle motion blur was used to dictate a crushing defeat. In cutscenes, motion blur was used to put an element on-screen into and out of focus. Many are quick to dismiss these small effects, but ultimately complete the experience in terms of artistry and design.

This is just but a mere sampling of all the hard work that went into the creation of Kingdom Hearts. When the game was released in 2002, critics and gamers alike praised its ambitious production values, praising the fact that Square Enix had nearly emulated the brilliance of hand drawn Disney Animation but with a very modern twist that made it relevant in the demanding world of technology.

But there is one element that not only complements the animation but completes it in both of its incarnations: music. Come back next month as we discuss the musical influences of the Kingdom Hearts series.


I present to you a small gallery of some of the artwork created for Kingdom Hearts, which includes character sketches, world design and renders. Enjoy!


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