When Disney’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” arrives in theaters next month, audiences will see an internet filled colorful characters like the Net Users, which are avatar versions of real people, and the Netizens, who are full-time citizens of the internet. In addition, we’ll meet KnowsMore (voiced by Alan Tudyk), the personification of a search engine with aggressive auto-fill, and Yesss (voiced by Taraji P. Henson), the heart of the trendy website BuzzTube.
Recently, Inside the Magic reporter Mike Celestino visited Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California, to learn how Renato dos Anjos (Head of Animation), Cory Loftis (Production Designer), Moe El-Ali (Crowds Supervisor), and Dave Komorowski (Production Designer) populated the vast internet with these unique characters.
Mike Celestino, Inside the Magic: “Wreck-It Ralph,” the original movie, wasn’t terribly long ago — about five years. I’m interested in how much the technology has changed in those five years and how your department adjusts to the current state of technology in bringing over existing characters to the sequel.
Dave Komorowski: It sounds like making sequels is pretty easy because, hey, we’ve already got all this stuff, let’s just bring it over and we’re going to make another one. This is really the first sequel that we’ve done here in CG. I think it’s the first sequel that we’ve consecutively done with the same directors if I’m not mistaken. The act of porting it over — we’re all artists, we’re very self-critical and I think we look at it and we’re like, “We can do better.” So it’s bringing it over, it’s putting more love into it, just trying to find those areas of “What was it about the first film, if we had the technology at the time, we would have done this.”
It’s actually a sizeable amount of work, we found out. I think when we opened up those characters we were looking at each other like, “What were we thinking?” It evolves at such a rapid pace. It wasn’t that long ago, but five years in technology is a huge amount of time. We create a lot of procedural systems that help us build these out because, human time, there’s not enough people in the studio to make all the things that we do, so we need to actually write new tech to keep up with the new tech if that makes any sense.
Renato dos Anjos: I think about the theme of the first movie as well. In the first movie, these characters were still in the arcade with so many machines they can visit. Here, we’re talking about a whole world. The internet is pretty vast and substantial, so there’s no limit to where you can go and what you can do. Our directors’ appetite for this film was much bigger than the first film. I don’t think, this movie that we’re making today, we would have been able to make five years ago.
Moe El-Ali: In five years, the technology is completely different. We didn’t envision what the technology was going to be five years ago for what we’re using in crowds right now. It’s ever-changing, and it’s really cool that we’re trying to stay on the cusp. The whole studio really has that driving force to keep that technology on the cusp, you know, on the edge. But absolutely, what Renato was saying, I don’t think we could have made this film last year, let alone five years ago, because of the technology advances we’ve made in the last couple of years.
ITM: I’m fascinated by the two separate categories of people, basically the extras we see populating the internet. Can you boil down, design-wise, the difference between the Netizens and the Net Users and how, from a visual perspective, you wanted to differentiate between those two types of characters?
Cory Loftis: Users are basically us, so we’re trying to give as many design options as we might like for ourselves. If we’re trying to make ourselves an avatar on some game system or something like that, we’re trying to give enough options to do that.
Netizens, on the other hand, are branded to the website. They are a species completely unto their own. We wanted them to feel unique, we wanted them to feel digital, so we really simplified their design down. We added lots of digital elements to their hair; they have gold connections inside their hair, they have circuitry running underneath their skin.
The main inspiration for that actually came from the first movie. If you remember Surge Protector [voiced by Phil Johnston], he is the closest thing in the first movie that there is to a Netizen because he belongs in the power strip, he doesn’t belong to a game. He is somebody that keeps that world in order and we thought that was the closest touchstone we had to what a Netizen was, so all the designs for the Netizens branched off him.
ITM: Can you go over the design and creation of KnowsMore as a character and where that inspiration came from?
Loftis: We were looking at a lot of Ward Kimball’s really stylized stuff, we looked at a lot of the really stylized things Marc Davis was doing there for a while [both Kimball and Davis were part of Disney’s Nine Old Men]. We dug deep into some of the old Disney animation, especially the shorts, the TV specials they did. It had a really fun style and what was odd about it is when Disney was doing that, it trickled out into the art world and it came full circle; the animators here were inspired by things that were going on in the art world as well. There’s this very unique point in time in the ‘60s where that look became fine-tuned and really dialed-in and you can see it all over the place. It’s one of the few times, as opposed to the ‘80s where there’s style all over the place, the ‘60s was extremely focused and very narrow, and that’s where we drew the inspiration from.
ITM: On the opposite end of that spectrum, you have the character of Yesss. As opposed to going back 50 years, she’s got a contemporary look. Can you give me an overview of the design of that character?
Loftis: We really started with Taraji herself. As soon as the directors knew who they wanted to do that voice, all of the design focused towards that. Before there was Taraji, we were just trying to get a general vibe and feel to the character, trying to keep her fun but serious, and trying to explore different ideas for costumes. When you took Taraji, and then you see what we’re doing for the Netizens, we knew that Yesss was also a Netizen, so it was an idea of blending this real person with this very stylized Netizen design that we’d already agreed on and just meshing the two. We did lots of interesting things with her hair; we wanted her to keep some of the fun 2D stylizations the Netizens have so when she flips her hair from side to side, it sort of maintains a silhouette. She has a very strong stylized silhouette when she moves her shoulders up and down or when she bends her arm or her hand shapes, they’re very graphic. We tried to carry that through all the way from design into animation.
dos Anjos: One thing in the animation that is fun to play with — with the design being so stylized the way she is — we also want to play against that and make sure the character felt very believable and genuine. Her animation is very playable, very fluid, but her personality is very real. There’s a lot of power to her persona and we want to convey that in animation. It’s an interesting thing for us and my team to get someone that has a very stylized design to feel like it’s a real person that’s going through a lot of real situations in their world.
ITM: You mentioned something called procedural animation. Can you give me an overview of why that’s necessary and how that helps accomplish something on this kind of scale?
El-Ali: There are shots with up to 500,000 characters in them, so to hand animate each and every one of those is just not possible in the time we have. All we’re doing really is using some good ideas of how to blend animations together, and how to move crowds around where we can apply it to a bunch of people instead of just work on one person, to make the internet come to life. It’s such a big place; those websites are huge, so it was very daunting at first. It still kind of is, we’re in the last couple of weeks of production.
dos Anjos: As early as possible, we generate a lot of different behaviors in cycles. They’re very small snippets of behaviors, so someone walks, someone stops, someone goes from a stop position to a walk, someone smiles, someone frowns. Procedurally, Moe’s team picks up all those pieces of hundreds of animations that we make and they put them into this system that picks and chooses those pieces and blends them together to create unique pieces of animation.
Komorowski: You could have a piece of animation walking straight, but the shot could be, “Hey, there’s a noise over here,” and each individual user has to turn their head, look at it, and walk towards that thing. That’s where Moe comes in. Each agent has a brain in it and it has a certain set of logic like if there’s a person in front of me, I walk around it. If I hear a sound, I walk towards it.
El-Ali: We solve one solution and apply it to the masses. You just keep solving all the solutions that might come up that’s necessary for a shot for each person and then apply it to everyone. That said, we do a lot of hand work as well, cleaning all that up and polishing it up to the level we need it to be for the film. We get animators on top of what we’ve done as well to clean up things so it’s still animation from Disney Animation. It’s an interesting field and since we did all this stuff five years ago, it’s changed so much in those five years as well.
Komorowski: It’s a nice blend of art and tech.
Meet the characters of Disney’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” when the film arrives in theaters on November 21, 2018.
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