"How often does a company offer up the most recognizable icon in the world to be developed as a character?" That's the question Warren Spector contemplated after the Walt Disney Company approached him to create a dark and mysterious video game featuring Mickey Mouse.
After years of work, including time digging through Disney's coveted archives, Spector is nearly ready to release his new spin on Mickey to the world. It's called "Epic Mickey," and through the Nintendo Wii, it will re-introduce Walt Disney's beloved creation as a leading hero, a role Mickey hasn't tackled on screen in some time.
Sepector, a renowned video game designer, grew up with dreams of working for Disney, from his applying to be an Imagineer in 1988 to teaching animation at the University of Texas. Not only has he finally been welcomed into the Disney family, but also his first project involves the company's enduring icon -- author Neal Gabler noted in his biography of Walt that some considered the 1930s the age of Mickey Mouse. It's a duty he didn't take lightly.
"When you are dealing with a character that everyone in the world recognizes and knows, there's certainly a sense of responsibility. I don't want to be the guy that screws that up," Spector told me shortly before he took the stage at this year's Comic-Con in New York. "At worst, you're a foot note in history."
And it's history that inspired the entire "Epic Mickey" project. Not only has Mickey been designed with a physical resemblance to his earlier days -- Mickey's physical look has evolved since his creation in 1928 -- but Disney urged Spector to bring its long-forgotten character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, back to life in this new video game.
Walt Disney had originally dreamed up a world in which a mischievous rabbit, Oswald, was the star of his yet-to-be-built animation empire. But in 1928, his dreams were shattered when a series of business mishaps left Walt without the rights to his rabbit, but in 2006 Disney got back those rights from NBC/Universal.
"Oswald is such an incredibly cool character. He is a force or anarchy. Crazy. Chaotic. Almost Warner Bros. in style. He can pluck his ears off and use them as oars," Spector said with a child-like passion in his voice. The video game designer sees Oswald as an older brother to Mickey, and that premise gets played out in "Epic Mickey."
As if pitching a movie script, Spector broke down the dynamic between Oswald and Mickey. Older brother, Oswald, is rejected by his father, Walt, and resents his younger brother, Mickey, for stealing the life that should have been his. The video game player gets to control Mickey as he maneuvers through "Wasteland," a world filled with forgotten Disney characters, Disneyland attractions and other artifacts sure to pique the interest of all Disneyphiles.
Beyond the technological aspects of creating a gaming world, Spector and his team of designers were given the seemingly daunting task of digitally drawing many of Walt's iconic characters. With Mickey, they moved away from the softer and rounder design he ultimately evolved into following animator Ub Iwerks first drawings in the late '20s. "Epic Mickey" employs a three-heads tall design with a rubber hose like limb structure, much like Mickey had in the earliest cartoons.
In researching Mickey's look, and every other aspect of the video game, Spector's team was granted access to the archives as well as given a copy of the ground rules for drawing Disney creations. "There used to be rumors and legends of a Disney standards character guide," Spector said. "These are standards, but the thing that surprised me was how much freedom Disney actually gave us."
Taking advantage of that freedom can lead down a risky path, especially when Walt's presence is still felt around the Disney world. When Jeffrey Katzenberg took over Disney's animation department, he claimed that Walt was guiding him from above. And Spector doesn't feel immune to the pressures of Walt's lasting memory.
"I think a lot about what [Walt] would think," Spector said. "Putting things in Walt's head is a dangerous thing to do... but I think he would appreciate that we are keeping his characters alive and relevant in a new age." He paused before adding, "at least I certainly hope so."