The new Disney movie Ralph Breaks the Internet has been the top film at the box office for a few weeks in a row, not a particular surprise in a holiday season where people are looking for films that will entertain kids without boring adults. The original 2012 Wreck-It Ralph was a revelation for Disney films — a fleet, funny, but emotional movie that took its audience inside the world of video games, and focused on a game villain, Ralph, who wanted to be seen as a hero. He finds his best friend in Vanellope von Schweetz, a candy-themed racing-game star who’s been ousted from her own game.
In the sequel, Ralph inadvertently breaks Vanellope’s game console, and the two characters go to the internet together, hoping to find a replacement console part on eBay. It’s a giddy film, lighter than the first, and crammed with visual gags and riffs on Disney history. I recently talked to directors Rich Moore (who also directed the first film) and Phil Johnston (who co-scripted both Ralph films) about the challenges they faced on the new film: programming 300,000 Ralphs for the film’s climax, designing a musical sequence that was funny and serious at the same time, and dealing with real brands and trademarks in bringing the internet into Ralph’s world.
This interview has been condensed for clarity and brevity. General spoilers for Ralph Breaks the Internet ahead.
It seems like the internet in this film is designed to be overwhelming, but it also has to be parseable to the eye. How did you approach the art to make it something people could visually understand?
Rich Moore: We wanted it to feel like a personified internet, which meant we wanted to use websites everybody knows, but make them feel as if they could be places you could walk into. So to that end, we said, “This needs to feel like a gigantic city-planet.” When you see eBay, it looks like a giant place you could go in and jump into an auction. Making it feel as if it’s relatable, like a big city everyone kind of knows, but then just packing it full of existing websites, and either when you go into them or see them in the distance, it feels fantastic and familiar at the same time.
I’ve been reading how the Hyperion lighting system made a big difference on the film. Why was it important?
Phil Johnston: That’s a software program that came around when Big Hero 6 was made that just allows for the rendering of our films to be done at a speed and with a level of detail that was unprecedented. We couldn’t have made this movie even two or three years ago, without the upgrade to that system. As an example, there are shots in this movie that have over a million characters in one single shot, in a million of those little internet vehicles. We couldn’t have conceived of that two years ago. It couldn’t have been done. So it allowed us to really use our imaginations without limits. And that’s always the way Disney has worked where the technology and the creativity are two parts of the same brain.
RM: The lighting with Hyperion is way more intuitive than the old system we had. In the old system, the lighters had to hide rigs all throughout each scene, and light every shot uniquely. Whereas with the new software, light is coming from the actual light sources. I know it sounds crazy that it wasn’t that way before, but now there is like a sun in the sky of the virtual set, that light is spilling off of. There are street lamps and other light sources. That didn’t used to be the case before. It would take much longer to light a scene, because you’d have to almost start at zero with every shot. Now, the lighters can actually light a scene as if it’s a live-action set, and that information carries from shot to shot now, rather than it being square one every time.
I’ve seen early concept designs for your internet, and they don’t feature real companies or websites. At what point did you decide you wanted this to reflect the real world?
PJ: It was pretty early. Those initial designs that were put out into the world were done at a point where we weren’t sure what the legal situation was, like could we use Google, or did it have to be G-ü-g-l-e, with an umlaut?
RM: We were still studying the laws.
PJ: So it was sort of a two-part thing. One is that we learned that copyright law and fair use says we can use those names in our film without getting permission. And the reason we wanted to do that is because we wanted it to feel like the real internet that we use every day. And so we followed the first film, where we used Pac-Man and Street Fighter and stuff like that, while also spending most of the movie in games we made up. So it’s a similar kind of composition in this one, where there’s Google and Amazon and YouTube, but we go to BuzzTube and Slaughter Race and KnowsMore and other sites we’ve created ourselves.
Did you have to get permission to use the logos, or talk to the companies about how you were portraying them?
RM: Actually? No. It’s kind of the equivalent of a live-action movie. Say they’re shooting a movie in Chicago, and a car is driving around, and we’re seeing in the background things we know, like Starbucks or McDonald’s. You don’t have to go through and paint that stuff out, because it’s just part of the tapestry of the environment. Now, if we were making comments about those companies, or using their mascots, then you get into legal ramifications. But if it’s just the signage in the background, then that’s fine.
Speaking of working with companies about portrayals, what was the conversation like with Disney about how you could use the princesses, about how far you could go with the humor?
RM: Well, when we first imagined that scene, we made a very rough version of it, just to be able to show people, “This is what we’re thinking, how we would like to use some of our character in a way that’s kind of satirical. We’re taking a little air out of ourselves.” We wrote the scene and built a very crude version of it using storyboards, just black-and-white drawings, a scratch soundtrack. It was none of the actresses who did the parts originally. And we made that so we could show it to our colleagues at our studio, and say, “What do you think?” And it got a great reaction.
So we said, “Well, okay, let’s go show it to the powers that be, our bosses, and see what they think.” Everyone thought it was as funny as we did. They said, “This is great. You know, this is a way we can have fun with ourselves while being respectful to the legacy of the princesses and all the other Disney characters.” And the feeling was, “You know, lots of people have fun at Disney’s expense. Why shouldn’t we get in on the fun? What makes us any different? We can satirize ourselves better than anyone could ever do.”
Part of that is your Vanellope musical sequence. It’s set up by all of Disney animated history, but it also feels like it has specific nods to musicals like La La Land. What went into creating the musical sequence?
PJ: I think La La Land was probably inspired by a lot of the same stuff we were inspired by, like Busby Berkeley musicals and Singing in the Rain, and the iconic Disney musicals of the 1990s and earlier. But the main thing we wanted to do, both visually and from a songwriting standpoint, was to treat it like, maybe people think it’s comedic, but we don’t think of it as a comedic setpiece. We think of it as an instrumental part of Vanellope’s story. And so even though, yes, there’s a shark in the sewer, and there’s a fog of Mace she goes through, visually we wanted it to be seen through Vanellope’s wide eyes as this place that yes, to the casual observer, might be rough and gritty and a little gross, but to her is this beautiful wonderland. That, visually and musically, is what we were doing. Vanellope certainly doesn’t think of it as a comedic song, and we chose not to treat it that way as well.
That giant Ralph avatar at the end of the movie is one of the most complicated things I’ve seen in CG animation.
RM: Oh yeah. That almost didn’t happen, it’s so complex.
How did you approach that thing visually?
RM: From the beginning of developing the story, we had this idea that if this is a story about a guy who’s holding onto his friend too tightly, the visual climax of the movie, the climax we want to represent, is him letting go, releasing his friend, loosening his grip. Ralph’s insecurity really is the villain of the story. There is no traditional villain. It’s just Ralph wanting to hang on to Vanellope because he’s afraid of being alone again. That went through lots of different iterations before we came to the idea of the clones and the monster-Ralph. That giant Ralph is made up of 300,000 individual little Ralphs. When we described it to our tech department, and to our effects animation group, they were like, “Oh! That’s… interesting!”
PJ: “Uh, great idea, guys!”
RM: “Great idea! Well, we’re going to have to make some adjustments to our pipeline to make this thing a reality! We’re not going to be able to approach this in the usual way we do this type of thing, because it’s so complex.” But everyone was very game. It wasn’t until about two months ago, as the movie was wrapping up, that our team said, “You know, that giant Ralph at the end, we didn’t know how we were going to do it when you guys initially pitched this idea.” It really speaks to the credo of the studio that you have one group of people dreaming up these crazy ideas, and then you have a group of technicians that dive in head-first to try and make those images come to life. From day one of Disney Animation 95 years ago, that has been what’s pushing the studio forward every year.
What’s up with Gord? Everything in the film seems inspired by a real-world reference, or tied into something, but that weird little bug-eyed worm guy really threw me. Where did he originate?
PJ: I’m reluctant to admit this to you, but I’m going to do it. There was a script moment at one point where Spamley said to Ralph and Vanellope, “Go with Gord,” and Ralph thought he was saying “Go with God.” It was just a joke about that, where Spamley finally said “No, no, I mean go with Gord.” That’s why Gord was born. It was one dumb joke, and then the joke left, but Gord remains. We did want a character that had one foot in Virus-land and one foot in legit internet sites, so that became Gord. But the original idea for it was just a dumb word joke. [Both laugh]
RM: Spamley having this creepy little assistant that kept popping up behind Ralph and Vanellope and scaring them every time, this little silent bizarre character that Spamley kind of loves, as a complement to him.
PJ: We were there the day they were doing foley for Gord’s stretchy arm, and it’s two balloons rubbing together to create that creakily little arm of his.
RM: So no, you’re not missing a reference at all. [Both laugh hysterically]
PJ: You know as much as we do. You are the first person to ask that question, and I’m very glad you did. I’m just glad to get that off my chest.