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

Instant Disney-esque animation

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Books can tell you about animation and video can show it to you, but an app can let you try it for yourself. It's here that Touch Press has been most ambitious, creating tools that impressed even Disney's animators.

Gray says: "If you want to learn how to do animation, you've got to do some hands-on work."

The app has several interactive tools that let you unleash your inner Walt Disney. The Workshop gives you a fully poseable model of Vanellope von Schweetz from Wreck-It Ralph that you can use to build animations, frame by frame, that you can send to friends. The 'Mood Shifter' tool demonstrates the many facial expressions of Max, the horse from Tangled, and 'Bouncing Ball' teaches the basics of animation by letting you try a test that was given to Disney's new artists in the company's earliest days.

The final tool demonstrates one of the effects from Frozen. In the film, Elsa the Snow Queen can shoot swirling, sparkling snow from her fingers. The 'Elsa's Snow' tool simulates the algorithm Disney uses to create the effect. For Disney, creating a new 'swirl' can be a day-long process so the animators were amazed that Touch Press's particle simulation software worked with just a swipe.

"I went and showed to the effects director and he immediately called his colleagues over and said 'you've got to see this'," says Gray. He adds: "The real thing has a couple of million particles, whereas this has about 100,000 particles and also the real thing is in 3D, whereas this is in 2D so it's not the same. But in terms of the dynamics of it and the feeling of what the effect looks like, this is a really good impression."

More after the break...

What is an ebook, anyway?

Throughout our conversation, Gray more often refers to what Touch Press makes as 'ebooks', rather than 'apps'. He's disappointed that, for many, an ebook has come to mean the text-based titles that you read on a Kindle. What Touch Press makes, he says, is the ebook of the future.

Disney Animated The Lion King layered clip

"You just can't do this on a Kindle and it's a fundamentally much better way of doing a book about animation. Anything that's a book about 'stuff', any sort of factual book, that 'stuff' should either be turning or moving or talking," he says.

Disney made a working marionette of Pinocchio, which animators used for reference as they worked on the character. In a printed book, the best that you can do is look at a still picture of it. In the Touch Press app, you can rotate it to study it from all angles and zoom in to see the work that went into the joints or inspect the points where the strings are attached.

Disney Animated is a big app for a variety of reasons. There's the wealth of material packed into it, for a start, and then there's the huge cultural significance of Disney itself. Like many people, you probably saw some of the movies when you were a child and, if you haven't already, you'll rediscover them with your own children, and again with your grandchildren.

"Apple needs to promote the future"

But beyond that, Gray believes that apps like this have tremendous significance for Apple itself. He says: "Anybody who's interested in ebooks as they are defined today buys a Kindle because it's a no-brainer. Apple is simply not going to win that. Their only hope to compete with Kindle is 'everything else except that'. Everything else, they do much better."

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He believes that Apple's focus on the iBookstore as a place for Kindle-style ebooks is a mis-step. The figures would appear to back him up: last month Open Air, an American publisher, said that it sells up to 30-times more books through the App Store than it does through the iBookstore.

"People don't buy ebooks on an iPad because they didn't get their iPad for that and there are so many people that have both [an iPad and a Kindle]," says Gray.

At £9.99, Disney Animated is cheap compared to a hardback book or a video game, but it's expensive in the world of apps, where we're already used to freebies and 69p disposables. For that reason some developers have suggested that high quality, high priced apps are unsustainable.

In July, when explaining his decision to revert his studio Agant back to a one-man operation, Dave Addey wrote: "Unfortunately, the iOS App Store's set-up just does not seem to support the discovery, trialling and long-term life of these kinds of high-value apps, making it difficult to justify the risk of their development."

But with the support of the world's most famous animation studio behind it, Disney Animated could go a long way towards showing that premium apps have a place. It displays all the usual Touch Press flair and intelligence but tackles the most mainstream topic they have dealt with yet. If it's the future of ebooks, it's a future worth buying into.

Says Gray, "Apple does really need to get back on track with promoting the future of ebooks rather than the past. It's a very interesting future indeed."

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