Beyond the Arcade: 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' in new Disney animated comedy-adventure

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Opening Nov. 21, the Disney Animation release Ralph Breaks the Internet continues the stories of the characters in Wreck-It Ralph. John C. Reilly returns as the voice of Ralph, this time helping his friend Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) save her Sugar Rush arcade game.

In fact the whole arcade where Ralph, Vanellope and their friends live is in jeopardy, losing customers to streaming and online gaming. Ralph believes their troubles all stem from the Internet, and going there is the only way he thinks he can solve their problems.

Directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston met with Film Journal International in Disney's New York offices. Johnston also wrote the screenplay with Pamela Ribon. Joining Moore and Johnston was Josie Trinidad, head of story.

Film Journal International: I was going to ask how you expanded the story and world from the original movie, but one look at the footage and it's very apparent that this is a much larger project.

Phil Johnston: It was really complicated when we first started talking about it. "They're going to go to the Internet? That's a great idea!"

Josie Trinidad: But what is the Internet?

Johnston: What does it look like? How does it work? How will they function? How do people get around? What does a website look like? What is the Internet, really?

This is the biggest film in the history of Disney Animation in terms of the number of characters, locations, and us three knuckleheads never did intend for that to happen.

Rich Moore: It's one of those things you see on the page, "They go to the Internet." That's like the old screenwriting joke, "The Indians take the fortress." What does that look like?

FJI: Your vision of the Internet is filled with brand names, just as your cast is filled with characters from other movies and studios. Were there copyright issues?

Johnston: Copyright law says we don't have to ask permission to use a sign or brand name. So in our Internet, you see the Google building, you see Amazon and all kinds of other things. There are probably 80,000 brands in the movie in the background. The reason we chose to do that, and it was a fairly contentious debate, was because we wanted it to feel like the real Internet. We think of it like if you're riding a taxi in a movie in New York City and you see a Starbucks in the background, you're not changing the sign to Steerback, or suddenly start calling it the Umpire State Building. It's just part of the fabric of the city.

But most of our story takes place in BuzzzTube, which we created, Slaughter Race, which we created, KnowsMore.com, which we created. We debated using eBay but we felt it was the best representation for what our story needed. But we didn't ask their permission, we just did it, which is totally legal under copyright law.

Moore: When it gets into characters, you can show McDonald’s, but you can't show Ronald McDonald. That's trademark infringement. Another studio could show Disney, but if they have Mickey Mouse as a character, that's where you need to ask permission.

Johnston: But we did have to talk to Pixar and Lucasfilm and all those entities, even though they're owned by Disney, and make sure however we were portraying them, they were okay with that.

Moore: And they would do the same with us if they were using our characters.

FJI: It's not much of a spoiler alert, because there are hints in the trailers, but Ralph Breaks the Internetcombines for the first time everything in the Disney movie empire, including Marvel and The Muppets. How big does the movie get?

Moore: There's a big vista shot that actually has a million characters and buildings and netizens.

FJI: Can you talk about the writing process?

Johnston: I wrote a draft of this about three and a half years ago. Then Josie was working on Zootopia, and I joined that for the last year or so. Then I re-read my draft and thought, "This kind of sucks," threw it out, started a new draft, and we did a table read of that in 2015.

FJI: In projects like these there always seem to be dead ends and false starts.

Moore: Oh, they always do. This was not one that kind of went for a while and then hit a point, okay, reset. This was more, let's try that, no let's try that, no let's try this one, no. It was more kind of feeling our way through the ideas.

We make the film internally. Each of those screenings is a very simple version of the movie, hand-drawn animatics married to a temp soundtrack. No actors, it's us playing all of the parts. The reason is we can put it up and actually see it and take the best of what's there and move on to the next version. For this film, it felt like several different versions of the movie were made. When we got to about the fifth one, that's around the time we really started to hone the story.

FJI: What wasn't working?

Trinidad: Thankfully, we were able to learn from each of those versions. For example, here's the Vanellope version, she's more the protagonist. The next one maybe it's Ralph's journey, or maybe it's a two-hander. So by that fifth screening, we were able to, not combine them so much, but learn which path to take.

Moore: I would say it was a way to test the thematics of the film. There are so many different ways you can come at the Internet. Like what are we saying about it? What are our characters taking from it? It was a chance to try these different themes. Does Ralph think that the Internet is his enemy? There was an early version where he wanted to destroy it because he thought it was threatening his way of life in the arcade.

But we realized, nope, that's not right. Our process lets us make a version of the movie, watch it in real time, kind of dissect it—see what's working and what's not working. Or do we even like it?

FJI: Is the Internet good or bad?

Johnston: I think it's a little of both, and I think that's the most interesting thing about the movie. Similar to Zootopia, that city, we're not judging one way or the other. It's beautiful on one hand, but then when you get in close you find dirty spots and places where things are a little bit ugly.

The Internet is a place where right this minute you could go take a course at MIT, or you could go to 4Chan and find some troll selling viruses. You have beauty and hideous ugliness existing in the same plane. We're interested in exploring the grey area in between.

This is a place where Vanellope goes and finds this online racing game that for her is a dream, it's everything she ever could have hoped for. Ralph, on the other hand, is trolled and bullied in an online comment room, and will end up going to the Dark Net to get a virus.

So we're really trying to shade it grey and not judge it one way or another. It's a place of great beauty and ugliness. That's our world today, I think.

FJI: So for the story to work, your characters have to encounter that ugliness, they have to be disillusioned.

Moore: As we said with Zootopia, the goal of that movie was not to say the character Judy Hopps is solving racism. Because it's a little more complicated than that.

Johnston: Just a little.

Moore: She's experiencing racism herself, and she's committing it herself. Then we get to see how does this individual rise above it. It's kind of the same with Ralph in his journey through the Internet. For us, that's much better than trying to preach to an audience: "Do not troll people! Do not be racist!" Nobody likes to hear that. As a kid, I did not like those movies that spoke down to me and tried to kind of teach me a life lesson by preaching.

FJI: I'm fascinated by an animation process where nothing is actually finished until the very last moment.

Moore: It's never done.

Trinidad: What we always say in animation is the story's never finished, you just run out of time. Because I'm so familiar with the boarding part of it, I can never see beyond that. I always have that vision where, oh, I wish we could fix that, I get swept into that temp track from before. Little things, the minutiae, rather than seeing the overall picture. That's the beauty of working with these guys, they're seeing the whole thing.

Johnston: The other day we were listening to the full score from start to finish, and I mean I love it, I'm really proud of it. But I'm watching it, and suddenly we get to the third act, and I'm like, "Guys, I think there's a part in the third act that doesn't make sense." And they're like, "Shut up, you're having story PTSD." But I can't stop looking for problems.

Trinidad: That's how you've been for two years.

Moore: Who said that to you?

Johnston: Henry Jackman, our composer, came up with story PTSD.

Moore: We've been working with Henry for the past six or eight months. So the score's pretty late. Before then we used a temp score for those early versions of the movie. The actual recording of that score wasn't until six weeks ago, and it's being mixed literally as we speak.

FJI: Doesn't that freak you out?

Johnston: Two days ago, we watched reel two, the second reel of the movie, for the mix. There had been some challenges before, because it's when we introduce the Internet. The blend of score with the beautiful, crazy sound design—the first time we heard it, the mix was all over the place. I was like, "Well, the movie's ruined. We can't release this."

Moore: That was PTSD.

Johnston: Before we got on the plane Monday, we looked at the mix and I was like: Oh, okay, I'm very happy.

Moore: Only four reels to go.

FJI: How does the voice cast affect the animation?

Johnston: John C. Reilly is a masterful improviser, as is Sarah Silverman. Taraji P. Henson turned out to be a fantastic improviser, really quick on her feet. And Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch are awesome.

What we try to do, obviously there's a script, there's a story, there are scenes that need to be very focused. But we try to allow them room to play. We never say no, stick to what's on the page. We get what's on the page, but if they find something, we'll use that. Often they find magic if they're riffing off one another.

As Rich often says, animation is the least spontaneous process, it's frame-by-frame, one at a time.

Moore: But you need it to look spontaneous.

Johnston: You need it to look and feel and sound that way. I think allowing improvisation when the actors are together is a great way of bringing spontaneity, to make the film feel more like life.

FJI: So you're not really sure what the movie looks like until the very end.

Moore: You're absolutely right. We live with it in a state of kind of "in progress." It doesn't start to congeal until the last six months of the production process. You are taking things on blind faith, believing this is going to look great when it's finished and put together, the lighting is right and the effects are put in, when it's the production soundtrack and not something temporary.

But somehow it always does get done. And I'm always surprised. It's exactly what Josie was describing, we live with it as these kind of very rough drawings, these storyboards, and I start to forget it's going to be animated, it's going to be lit, it's going to have all these effects. And then when you see that all coming together, you're like this is the part I love, I'm falling in love with this movie.

FJI: How did advances in technology affect this? What could you do that you couldn't do before?

Johnston: Let me just throw this out, a statistic we learned a couple of weeks ago. In one weekend, 50 million render hours were accomplished on our film. In other words, if one computer were rendering these shots, it would take 50 million hours. That's a weekend of our material.

Moore: So the whole life of the film...

Johnston: The complexity, the level of detail, this is the biggest animated film ever made. There are literally millions of characters and buildings, and netizens, and hair moving, none of which could have been accomplished six years ago. This movie could not have been done six years ago.

Moore: Not at this level. And I think that can be attributed to the Hyperion rendering software they developed right before Big Hero 6. Here, we wanted the Internet to feel like the biggest city that's ever been realized in animation. Hyperion made that possible.

Very little of it is mapping. We still do mapping in animated films. Very few of the shots have any set extensions or mappings because we are capable now of building a set of immense proportions. So if you zoom in to any area of the set, it would be crystal-clear, you can see the expressions on the extras' faces, you can see the texture on their clothing. This was something that we couldn't have done when we were doing Zootopia. Or even when we started this film.

Johnston: We did hear, by the way, they kept this from us but apparently there were a lot of daggers being thrown at us. "There's no way this movie's getting done, this is not possible, you have a scene with 400,000 extras, you want what? Who are these horrible people who are trying to do this?"

There's about a month when the crew becomes surly, and you are the most hated man in the building. It must have been like that for the early explorers going out and saying, "We're going to hit land soon, we're going to hit land," and the crew's like, "When are we going to hit the goddam land?"

Moore: It was more than a month, it was about three months. But then when people start to see it, like that period we were talking about, [when] the images are being generated, it's funny how that feeling goes away.