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Kingdom Hearts III’s development team share details of what it was like working with Disney and Pixar

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IGN have recently published a feature and a video on talking with members of the Kingdom Hearts III development team about working with Disney in this project. Toru Yamazaki (art director), Kayoko Yajima (lead facial animator), Tai Yasue (co-director), Koji Inoue and Munenori Shinagawa (animation directors), and Tetsuya Nomura (series director) talked about the rewards and challenges working with Disney and Pixar for the game. The video also shows the Square Enix developers show off some of the work they used for the development. (For those who haven't player or finished Kingdom Hearts III yet, be aware that the video contains some cutscene and gameplay footage from the game.)


In the video, Yamazaki explained how in previous titles they would recreate the characters from scratch based off the properties, whereas for Kingdom Hearts III they asked Disney to share their resources with them. Disney have provided the original polygon shapes of characters with guidelines on how to add more detail, such as hair and clothes) on them. However, things didn't always go as planned as those resources were not originally made to be used in a video game. For example, models' joints weren't defined and so had to be added manually and physics-enabled objects like capes needed to be particularly revisited. 


Art director, Toru Yamazaki:

“This time around, because we were planning on making such a high-end game, we talked to Disney about sharing resources with us. Up until now, the way Kingdom Hearts have been made is that we would watch the movies and copy the costumes as we saw them. But this time around, because we wanted to be really accurate and wanted to have everything down to the last detail completely the same we decided to ask Disney to share their resources with us.

"Disney was very concerned with what Elsa’s hair looked like. Of course she’s got this beautiful golden-white hair that’s always flowing and beautiful, and when we got the data, her hair was just sticking straight backwards.

"So we used animation initially to bring it forward, but no matter how we did that it didn’t quite look right, it always kind of looked a little weird, and Disney wasn’t happy with that. Ultimately, what we had to do, we told them, ‘with the data you guys gave us, and what we’re working with, we can’t make it look any better than this’.

"What we ended up doing was remaking the hair, not from the model they gave to us. It was the one part that was like, ‘oh this doesn’t make sense, we’re not supposed to be changing anything, but we have to change it to make it looks like it looks in the movie itself’.”

Of course, making sure your game is as accurate to the film as possible means there needed to be lots of things to be approved over time. Both Disney and Square wanted to make sure that the team were doing an incredible job at recreating their magic and sometimes were there approving things every step of the way. It seemed that every single detail in the process had to get approved before even moving on to the next scene, and any change that they had made needed to be explained.


Lead facial animator, Kayoko Yajima:

“There was actually a lot of pressure to get even the smallest details that you wouldn’t even think would be that important to look like they do in the movie. We get requests from Disney and Pixar like, ‘we want them to be showing less teeth here,’ or ‘their eyelids need to move differently,’ or ‘their line of sight isn’t quite right’. Of course, cutscenes are where the soul of the character comes out, so it was something that we put a lot of effort into and adjusted down to the minutiae.”

Disney and Pixar not only required changes after things were made; Square needed their approval at almost every stage from concept to finished product. According to Yasue, cutscenes were the most inspected element in the game perhaps due to portraying the source material most intimately.

With things needing to be approved almost every minute, other things they had an easier chance with. As it turns out, the crazier the change to the original property the more likely it had a chance of being approved. This is because changing the character so it is not the same but still recognizable, Disney didn't make a fuss due to perceiving it as a new character altogether.


Co-director, Tai Yasue:

On making characters outlandish: [The Lion King’s Simba appears as a] fire entity. [We] didn’t have a lot of difficulty. He’s not Simba. So we showed Disney our drawings and everything, and shared that, and we got that approved. But at the same time, it wasn’t the real character. So I think, in that respect, it was easier.”

On cutscenes requiring approval: “There's a lot of different stages for each [team]. I guess it depends on what you're making. For cutscenes, for example, it’s like a waterfall. You have the plot, the story, the storyboards, we get checked each time, right?

For gameplay, they team brainstormed ideas that they thought Disney would be likely to approve for its world and characters before letting them see a walkthrough and accepting comments. Painstakingly, every single gameplay action was scrutinized to the smallest detail. However, Disney's role was not only to correct, but to collaborate as well as things had to have some sort of continuity. For instance, Inoue mentioned that when Square approached Disney with a story about a Wreck-It Ralph summon that pounds the ground, Disney recalled a scene from the movie where he did exactly that. Inoue also talked about how pleased Pixar animators were to see their IPs, such as Monsters, Inc., recreated with technology superior to what they had when those movies were first made.


Animation director, Koji Inoue:

“You know, we’ll program an action in and Disney or Pixar will say ‘that’s a bit too violent’, or ‘they wouldn’t do that sort of thing’. When it came to Remy from Ratatouille, they talked a lot about the precise movements of his tail."

In regards to recreating Pixar IPs with the latest technology: “It was a question of, 'even if they were made with older technology, what would they look like if they were appearing in higher quality now?' We wanted it to look like the original, but the original in its most modern, highest technology form.

“The feedback was always, ‘it looks so nice to have it in such high quality.’ It was actually to the extent where Pixar was saying that some people who'd seen it were saying, ‘wait are you guys making a new movie?’ Because it was exactly like it was supposed to look like.”

Along with making the Disney experience in Kingdom Hearts III more authentic, getting feedback for their project ended up helping the Square developers in the long run to become better animators and storytellers.


Animation director, Munenori Shinagawa:

“Pixar was actually quite specific about the things that they wanted us to change, and one of the things was line of sight. That was something that we had probably not paid as much attention to as we should have. Ultimately, we ended up doing a lot of Pixar scenes very early on in the process, and what they taught us about line of sight really helped up the quality of the animation throughout the game.”

Working with Disney was one thing, but also working with Pixar was very different. Pixar was in fact more attached to their property, approving more stages of production and participating in weekly conference calls with the animation teams to ensure the most accurate representation of their IPs. Both Disney and Pixar kept their teams of animators intact following the release of their IPs - and they all had a say in the reproduction of their work in Kingdom Hearts III. Nomura went on to explain how it was working with both companies, how they reacted differently to the same issue (even within the same studio) with how the plot of the world should go as well as how it should look. He also had some convincing to do for the studios to fall in like with his longtime vision of Sora and friends canonically arriving to the Disney worlds.


Series creator, Tetsuya Nomura:

"[Pixar cares more about the] technical, creative side of things, [while Disney focuses more on] the overall production. I would say that we, as a company and a team, are more like Pixar.

“For each different world we had to deal with a different team, and [creating a plot] was largely down to what their feelings were on what they wanted to happen. There were some teams that were like, ‘Ooh, if you make a new story, you’re going to kind of ruin the world that we created,’ whereas there were teams, like Toy Story, who said to us, ’Well, we can’t have it in that world, but if you want to make a new story, that’s fine.’

From team to team, the kind of color, or the way they did things, the feel was quite different. For example, Toy Story and Monsters, Inc., those two teams were completely different from each other."

On his vision to have Sora and friends canonically arriving in Disney’s worlds: “When I first brought this to Pixar and I asked about doing that, they were like, ‘Actually, no. The Toy Story story is complete. It’s a complete package the way it is, and we can’t really change that.’ I told them if I’m going to do this in the Kingdom Hearts way, then it’s going to become a case of, ’Actually, Sora and his friends did come into the world.’"

On Toy Box’s plot line happening between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3: “I said, ‘Okay, so is it fair to assume that Woody and Buzz, and friends, remember Sora and everybody coming? Is it part of the story now?’ and they were like, ‘yeah,’ and I was kind of like, ‘Oh! Okay.’”



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As much as I love attention to detail, I still feel like the increased involvement of Disney and Pixar is not a good thing and is hindering the development of the original parts.


An example would be how small the original worlds are this time around.

I enjoyed KH3 but in some instances one could clearly feel Disney's influence. I dare say having the entire song in may not have been a decision made by the development team but rather by Disney since the movie is so popular. Subjectively, the song didn't need to be in there. It was completely random.


Unlike the Flower Incantation in Tangled, which actually canonically serves the purpose of healing, Anna randomly starting to sing lines from 'Do you want to build a Snowman?' when Sora is sitting right beside her was immensely strange.

Of course I can't know if the Disney properties have something to do with it but it feels like both Disney and Pixar have been very demanding and were protective to have their own works look as best as they can which ended up in the original worlds not getting enough development time because they had to spent so much time on every little detail.

I love how it looks most of the time but sometimes the original characters fluctuate a lot in quality while the Disney/Pixar ones are relatively consistent. Especially the eyes for the original cast could have used more depth.

All in all, it felt like they spent way more time on appearances and adjusting that than making sure that the pacing of the story is good. I liked what we got but as always, I feel they could have added more content for the original plot. It doesn't help that both Disney and Pixar, from my point of view, demanded a lot without actually sharing much of their assets and knowledge.

Of course graphics, especially good models with lively expressions, are extremely important for Kingdom Hearts since that's what carries emotion across, but sometimes it felt like they had to cater more to Disney/Pixar's needs than what they wanted to do for the original plot.


While Sora and Co. did feel more included in some worlds, in others they didn't exactly feel necessary like Kingdom of Corona or Arendelle. I don't mind the out of context scenes as much as Sora & Co. not interacting much with the characters anymore toward the end of the worlds and just being there to defeat a Heartless/Nobody/Unversed while otherwise staying in the background and barely even talking to the other characters anymore.

Another point would be how utterly useless 100 Acre Wood is. It's not even cute but the same minigame 3 times in a row with differrent conditions just to show his connection to Pooh has weakened, which is never picked up again despite potential. I'd rather would have seen more rooms in original worlds for that.

Another instance of somehow forgetting the actual plot in favor of looks would be in the Pirates of the Carribean world. There's this continuous built up with Tia Dalma asking Sora to free her with the Keyblade. In the scene where she is usually freed they claim it didn't work (though there's still a storm) and she never appears again and Sora doesn't get to do anything. The world looks amazing and I love the details but doing a little less is always appreciated if it means the story makes sense.

All in all I was happy with this game and also the Disney/Pixar worlds but I'm a little afraid Kingdom Hearts will get burried by demands of companies which only care about the things they created themselves without caring for the overall plot. It feels like a lot of time was wasted to make things overly accurate to the source material. Which is fine if you have the time but KH3 clearly showed that they could have used some more toward the original plot in my opinion. Just to give the characters and their plot points the attention and time they need and deserve and make it feel less rushed.

I'm concerned this will continue into the future with how successful KH3 was and Disney suddenly realizing that it does have a rather large fanbase. Judging from interviews, they're not as lenient toward depiction of violence for example as with the other KH titles anymore. (Which is kinda ironic, considering their own movies have tons of violence and mature references.)

It isn't always bad to have more people look toward the game and make sure it turns out great but that only works if they're not solely looking out for their own works. Disney owns the franchise after all so they shouldn't only care to look visually appealing.

I enjoyed KH3 a lot more than others obviously, considering all the negative comments, but I can't ignore the flaws and also can't help to attribute some of the blame to Disney/Pixar for burying everything pertaining to Kingdom Hearts itself beneath their properties and making them feel rushed in return, no matter how good it looks. Disney may be a major part of KH but it's not good to be too much of a perfectionist with a game that has another focus beyond Disney movie representations.

I was satisfied with a lot of the Disney worlds. I truly did enjoy most of them and also the original story wasn't half as outrageous as I had feared based on the spoiler-free impressions and reviews. But I can't deny that I would have rather sacrificed some of their content and detail in favor of more original content and a more even pacing. It sometimes wasn't as directed as they clearly could have managed and then realized after all the Disney worlds that "whoops, we actually have to do the stuff we teased 10 hours ago."


Like Roxas. They searched for a way to bring him back early on. So far so good. A nice starting point for the story. Then that was forgotten, then picked up again and suddenly, he just appears seemingly out of thin air where it feels like Sora hasn't actually done anything to bring him back except being there.

Nomura said there are enough original characters so that FF characters aren't as needed anymore. (Something I couldn't disagree more with.) But the same could be said for the Disney properties then. Apart from a few plot points intertwining, I dare say a lot of us have stayed with KH due to its original plot. Not because it has Disney slapped onto it. I couldn't imagine Kingdom Hearts without Disney and neither without Final Fantasy, but at the same time it felt like the focus sometimes shifted too much away from the overarching plot that actually matters toward excessive visual Disney/Pixar representation for high quality copy and paste scenes from their movies which aren't always necessary.

It's entirely subjective of course and I can't say I can proof my claims since I don't know what's going on behind closed doors. I just know that KH3 was lacking in certain areas. Which is completely normal for a game and it was the same in all other KH titles, but especially when trying to connect this many characters and plot elements, they could have used more time toward that and the actual final confrontation instead of focusing on the tiniest visual details.

I still loved the game though. I just like to view the game from all perspectives, both negative and positive and for me, Disney's increased involvement does not appear positive. KH stands and falls with Disney of course but I couldb't help but feel that their trouble with the engine slowed down development which ended in other parts being rushed.

Edited by Merilly

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