Puppet Theme Parks: Reimagining LittleBigPlanet
From video games to comics, many artists find themselves tasked with finding ways to evolve an established franchise, which can be particularly tricky when dealing with an iconic visual style.  

To find out how it’s done, we spoke to Greg Juby, Art Director at United Front Games to discover how the creative team behind LittleBigPlanet Karting picked up where Media Molecule began with hugely popular LittleBigPlanet series.

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The LittleBigPlanet series is renowned for having a striking visual style that looks deceptively simple. What are the tricks to creating art that effectively mixes simplicity with style?


It really is deceptive!  When I first approached the project as a huge LittleBigPlanet fan from day one, I was excited, but I wasn’t sure there would be enough challenge in it for me.  I mean, the LBP games have the most amazing art direction, but I felt like the hard work had already been done. I was wrong!

I think the beautiful simplicity of LBP comes from it’s very carefully selected reference points. Each theme in LBP takes just a couple of key ideas (sometimes seemingly opposite) and throws them in a blender. But not more than a couple, too much and it’s just a pile of stuff.  Kareem Ettouney, the art director at Media Molecule always said, ìMash up, not mish mash!î

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What kinds of challenges did you face with replicating LBP’s iconic 2D puppet aesthetic into a 3D space?

LittleBigPlanet Karting is made up of roughly half familiar LBP themes and half new ones we came up with for this game.  For the familiar ones, we knew the big ‘wow’ would be to see a familiar level style from one of the other games and then drive right through it in 3D.

But therein lies the problem. The whole LBP aesthetic is puppet theatre; everything hangs on that. It’s all based on telling a story on a shallow stage. So what happens when you try to have the same aesthetic in a wide open space? You fail a lot. First, we tried to use all 3D objects, but it just wasn’t LBP. We discovered that the 2D props were key to the look and feel.

Ultimately, we retuned the core visual statement for our new context: if LBP is a puppet theatre, then LBPK is a puppet theme park, because a theme park ride is really a stage show that you drive through. That ended up informing a lot of the decisions we made, especially around staging the levels.

How did you balance established LBP concepts with your own unique ideas?

When it came to creating our own themes, the challenge was even more daunting.  Our goal was to create something that was unmistakably LBPî, which is insane! When you play LBP 1 or 2, you find yourself saying, "How did they come up with this?!"At first glance it all seems so random, but at the same time it all fits together.  It’s coherent and it works.  I spent an incredible amount of time deconstructing the visual design of LBP, but fortunately I had some help. I had the immense pleasure of working with Kareem Ettouney, who broke down the elements of the LBP visual style for me.

Many of the themes in LBP go back to the core idea that a strong identity is created from clever juxtaposition.  Any more, and it turns to mush quickly. Our new themes followed that same idea; we started with a variety of environments that would provide interesting backdrops and expanded from there. We set one in a 1970’s night club and combined elements of graphic design and musical instruments from that era to create a space-funk theme called The Space Bass. Another theme, called The Progress Emporium, was set in a 1950’s kitchen and played with the mid-century vision of the future that never happened. We juxtaposed visuals from 50’s advertising and World’s Fair optimism with the reality of objects and materials found in a kitchen of the time. Once those themes are set, it becomes quickly clear if an idea works within the context or if it should be discarded.

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How did your team handle Sackboy’s transition from a user-defined character to a new driving role?

The biggest challenges were in working with Sackboy in his new role, as the driver of a kart.  We’re used to seeing him from the side or facing us, full bodied, with all of his charming expressions on full display. Driving in the kart, without lots of animation details where he’s looking around and gesturing, we’d only see the back of his head. We also ran into a lot of technical challenges with some of the more outlandish costume pieces from LBP.  Getting those to behave with all the different karts was a lot of work. Some of the headgear had long soft body flowing bits that would penetrate with the back of the kart, so we had to do a lot of trickery to minimize that.  

One of LBP’s key features is user customization. Why do you think people find the idea of being able to create their own experiences so appealing?

LittleBigPlanet is a wonderful vehicle for creativity. For the millions of creators out there, I think it’s about making something that didn’t exist before, something that can be cool in exactly the way they want it to be, not coming from someone who is trying to appeal to a mass audience. They can put something together just to make themselves smile. There’s a charge that comes from looking at a thing that you’ve created, a real sense of achievement, and then to upload it for the world to see and enjoyÖ that feeling can be addictive.

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LittleBigPlanet Karting is available now on Playstation 3. Visit www.littlebigplanet.com/en/karting for more.

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