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Twice Upon a Mickey: Transitioning from 2D to 3D

Bill Desowitz gets any early look at Disneys transition of Mickey Mouse into CG.

Will traditional fans accept the more dimensional versions of Disneys classic characters? All images © Disney.

You knew eventually that Mickey Mouse would take the computer-generated plunge into the world of 3D animation. But it couldnt be timelier, what with the celebration of Mickeys 75th anniversary currently in full swing.

It began last year with the opening of Mickeys PhilharMagic at Walt Disney World in Orlando, providing a 3D glimpse of things to come. But the full 3D transformation occurs this holiday season with Twice Upon a Christmas, the DVD-premiere produced by DisneyToon Studios featuring five all-new episodes starring Mickey and his Disney pals.

In fact, the first all-CG Mickey movie might never have happened at this particular moment without the anniversary marketing push, since Twice Upon a Christmas was totally put together in 2D until one fateful moment in December 2002.

We had a screening and it was a good screening, recalled producer Pam Marsden (Dinosaur). We were just getting ready to send it off to the 2D studios, and at that meeting, we said, You know what, lets make it in CG. And so we got together with some sub-contractors [Blur Studio and Sparx], who were very industrious, and we all agreed to jump into CG at the last minute.

Mind you, this was after Marsden and supervising director Matt OCallaghan (the visual effects supervisor on Snow Dogs and 102 Dalmatians), who previously worked together in special projects at Disney, lobbied for just one CG segment as an experiment, since there was definite corporate curiosity about Mickey in CG. They even made a brief Mickey walking test that was circulated throughout Disney. However, they didnt get the total CG greenlight until that December screening, upping the budget and significance of Twice Upon a Christmas.

Twice Upon a Christmas could be on a lot of kids holiday wish lists.

As a result, this historic CG adventure was split in half between Blur in Venice, California, and Sparx in Paris, France, in order to make the release date.

We went crazy fast, just crazy fast, Marsden added. And what the studios have used is primarily off-the-shelf, but they all have special rigs and special software that have helped get this bigger project through the studio fast. And there are some new looks. I think that theres some stuff thats pretty fun. Donald loses his temper in a display window in a department store and its great looking because its all 3D backlit.

As expected, the transition from 2D to 3D was quite a challenge, given the sensibility of the characters and the intuitive process that goes into line drawing that has to be dissected and translated scientifically into the 3D model. For example, you would never draw Mickey when he turns his head, Marsden continued. His nose drops down and when you look at him sideways, hes got his nose up. But if you looked at him like this, then his nose would be in front of his eyes. So when you draw him, you draw his nose coming down because his face is going to look more pleasing when youre looking straight at him. That kind of software has to be rigged into a model and then it becomes sort of not intuitive but another step in making Mickey look on model.

The transition to 3D hasnt changed any of the characters qualities. Goofy is still goofy.

The same thing is true to some extent with Goofy. Hes been a real challenge just because hes got this huge amount of flesh in CG that just sort of hangs out in front his face, and to keep his mouth united with his eyes and not be distracted by the great big glob thats at the end of his nose requires a lot of rigging, whereas if youre just drawing it you can correct it so intuitively. And if you dont have the big distance between the muzzle and the eyes, its all on the same plane. Plus you have special lighting concerns that are additional steps not part of the 2D process.

One of the great benefits of 3D is the fact that for the first time we can actually see the sides of Mickeys ears, since in 2D they shift to the sides of his head. And we can see hair, texture, fabric little bits of fuzz and the tiny bump in the surfaces of Mickey and his beloved pals that we know so well.

We did traditional [prep work] just as any other show thats going to be sent out of this division, she said. So we did all kinds of backgrounds and we painted flat art. Fortunately, wed done a lot of work with Photoshop so we had indicated textures, which was just fluky lucky with just a little bit more detail than a traditionally painted movie. But when we went CG, we had to work out their fabrics and skin. So it was like, you work on this while we buy fabrics and try and look at what eggshells, marshmallows and bologna look like. Everybodys done a great job and had a super sense of humor while going on this adventure of translating. But I think that if we were going to do it again, we could be a little more efficient.

Meanwhile, veteran Disney animator and Mickey expert Andreas Deja was on hand to give guidance. Theres a lot of drawing thats gone on and its funny how there are many traditional skills that go into making this type of CG movie, Marsden explained. And when scenes come back to us, Andreas helps draw notesto make sure that Mickeys eyes are following Donald or his posture needs to be more depressed or his body should be in a certain pose, and the best way to do that is always to draw. So Andreas has been trying to make sure that things are the way we know Mickey.

For his part, OCallaghan maintains that 3D is merely another tool and that you still have to draw the characters first. I dont think Im the first person to say this but its the difference between watercolor and oil painting. I mean, you still need the artist; were still coming from the same place, still designing everything before we design it in the computer. So I dont think were taking anything away. I think the roots are still there and certainly the sensibilities of being an artist and a storyteller come from the 2D background.

However, the 3D challenges and expectations were still enormous for OCallaghan and his colleagues. You know, squash-and-stretch is always associated with these characters [along with] the genuine warmth and great expressions, and to be able to look at a short and try to solve all the questions about how [they are going] to look in 3D, you have to keep the tradition and still look as fresh and exciting as the old shorts.

As treasured character and corporate symbol, Mickey Mouses leap to CG could be a defining moment in the direction at the company that Walt built.

So we came up with a little situation where Mickey would go in and out of camera and would turn around. There was a shot where hes got an umbrella and flies up and goes to a window reflection where he can see the front and the back, which we staged just to showcase the ears and how it looked so natural. So it was really designed to show a range of what he would be put through in a much larger scope of the picture.

Not only that but there are all the other characters and environments to animated in 3D. You have hundreds of elves and thousands of crowd people and so we had a lot to deal with and the overwhelming volume of work that you do when sitting down to design a 3D movie. The difference was we had to suddenly switch gears. We really didnt plan for a 3D movie, so you have to try and simplify things. You werent just designing backgrounds now youre designing three-dimensional sets that have to work in real space. And it just becomes a different challenge.

Mickey is always challenging because he went from a wonderful little character to a sort of corporate icon, and its always difficult dealing with him because true characters always have tremendous range or they go through a great growth pattern. But I dealt with him in his [segment] like a [parental] figure. He gets mad because Plutos trying to help decorate and ends up destroying the place. It has a nice range of emotion for him, which I think works quite well and still retains his character. So hes still Mickey despite the eruption.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.