Disney Animated: the inside story of the most ambitious app in history

Touch Press' new app spans 53 movies and over 90 years of Disney history. We took an exclusive look at how the London-based company tackled the project

"How much time did it take to make this image?" asks Theodore Gray, co-founder of app developer Touch Press, gesturing to the multi-coloured pattern of tiny lines shining from the iPad that sits between us. "The answer is, at this resolution, about eight hours per pixel."

Given that this iPad's Retina display measures 2,048 x 1,536 pixels, that means it would take one person more than two-and-a-half thousand years to create the picture in question.

The image is the 'colour map' from Disney Animated, the latest Touch Press iPad app, which is released today. The London-based company is known for obsessively detailed titles such as The Elements, The Solar System and Barefoot World Atlas. Its team has dangled priceless musical instruments from the ceiling to photograph them for The Orchestra app and shot 154 high-resolution videos of top actors reading Shakespeare for The Sonnets, but even they haven't spent two millennia making a graphic.

25 million hours on one iPad screen

In fact, it isn't the image itself that took so long to make, but what it symbolises: each slim sliver of colour represents a scene from a movie. The entire image shows every scene from every movie made by Walt Disney Animation Studios [WDAS]. Altogether, it is 25 million hours of Disney film making squashed onto one iPad screen.

Disney Animated Theodore Gray

 "About eight hours of human effort over the last 90 years to get to the colour of each of those pixels," says Gray. "There are billions and billions of dollars and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people all condensed down into one image."

At first glance it might look like the iPad's graphics core is having a silicon seizure but it quickly becomes possible to examine the colour map and pick out the palettes of individual movies. The fire at the end of The Lion King stands out, for example, as does the period in the 1980s when the movies got darker and, perhaps coincidentally, less successful.

More after the break...

Every Disney animated movie, in detail

Only WDAS movies are included, which covers films such as Cinderella and Aladdin but not Pixar's titles or Disney's live action movies. You won't find Toy Story or Mary Poppins here. For each film that is covered, there is information on the plot, characters and the trailer as well as some trivia. The app even has exclusive features on Frozen, the new Disney movie, which is released in November. But the app is not really about the films; it's about the techniques involved in making them.

In the many books written about animation, and about Disney in particular, none were able to actually demonstrate the thing they were talking about. The Illusion of Life, the seminal 1981 book written by two legendary Disney animators, has a series of illustrations in the corner of its pages that can be viewed as a flickbook. "You can just feel interactive, electronic books trapped inside paper here, trying to get out," says Gray.

In contrast, Disney Animated even has animated text, driven by a custom-built electrostatic physics engine. Drag something across the page and the text will bulge and bounce around it. Touch Press has retrospectively brought that treatment to The Illusion of Life too - re-publishing parts of the book with animated images and text.

From The Waste Land to Mickey Mouse

Disney Animated: the inside story of the most ambitious app in history - From The Waste Land to Mickey Mouse 2Disney Animated: the inside story of the most ambitious app in history - From The Waste Land to Mickey Mouse 3

Disney Animated began after Disney Interactive executive Mark Walker spent a long flight with Touch Press' The Waste Land. Impressed by what the company had done with TS Eliot's modernist poem, he thought they might be just the people to bring to life the altogether more accessible Mickey Mouse and friends.

Disney began discussions with Touch Press and a prototype app was made last year. Then, Gray says, "the project snowballed within Disney and became more and more high profile". He adds: "Once John Lassetter (chief creative officer at WDAS) said 'this is a really important project' we ended up getting an extraordinary level of access and cooperation."

That meant Disney throwing open the doors of its extensive archive, granting access to top animators and delivering more than 28,000 assets, such as posters, trailers, concept drawings and other, previously unseen, material. Touch Press were able to photograph Disney's collection of maquettes - scale character models used by animators to guide their artwork.

"They are locked up in this vault in the animation research laboratory, climate controlled, by paranoid curators and more or less nobody is allowed to touch these things except the museum staff," says Gray. Touch Press took 360-degree photographs of the figures, which are so rarely seen that Disney staff have asked for an app that collects the photos together.

The original data sent from Disney filled two terabytes, and that expanded to more than 5TB over the 10,000 hours that Touch Press spent building the app. Many of the images were so massive that the company had to upgrade its computers.

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