Feature

Casting a wide net: Building Disney Animation's biggest world yet

In November, the video game hero of Disney‘s “Wreck-It Ralph” is headed to the place you are right now: the internet! Last week, Moviebill brought you the first part of a special behind the scenes look inside Walt Disney Animation Studio‘s latest big screen adventure, “Ralph Breaks the Internet”. Today, we’re pleased to introduce a few of the talented artists responsible for transforming the world wide web into Disney’s biggest animated environment to date.

“I thought ‘Zootopia’ was a challenge, building that world,” says Matthias Lechner, Art Director of Environments, “but this world is actually much, much bigger.”

(Pictured) Matthias Lechner. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2018 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Lechner joined Disney in 2012, initially working as a freelance visual development artist for “Zootopia”. On “Ralph,” he’s responsible for helping translate the internet we know from daily use into something that can serve the narrative of the film.

“Being asked to design the internet world was fascinating,” Lechner continues, “but also a little daunting. We start with research. We went to Downtown Los Angeles to visit this place called Wilshire One, which is the internet hub for Southern California. It’s a high rise filled to the brim with miles and miles of cables. It’s incredible to see how tangible the internet actually is.”

Early on in the process, director of photography Nathan Warner gathered together computer hardware and photographed it from above, transforming computer parts into aerial shots of a city.

“We knew that these building represent the websites,” explains Larry Wu, Head of Environments and Disney animation veteran since 2004. “When you go into these websites, though, they’re not the actual space that these buildings represent. Much like the video games, when you go inside, it’s a little bit abstract.”

In the film, there are two important types within the internet: Users and Netizens. Users are regular people who, by logging on, travel online as simplified avatars of themselves.

Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope travel inside the internet.

“So how do we get from the Arcade into the internet? Litwak, the owner of the arcade, has bought a WiFi router and has plugged it into the same power strip that he uses for the games in the arcade,” Lechner explains. “As you can see at the bottom, an avatar of him forms. As in the real world, the information gets packaged and then sent off in the telephone wire. Our characters get encapsulated and sent off. Again, after that, our research informed what happened next. You enter an optical terminal and get transferred into fiber optics. This is where we sort of break the light speed barrier and enter the world of the abstract, actually going into the internet.”

(Pictured) Larry Wu. Photo by Alex Kang/Disney. ©2018 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Netizens, meanwhile, are the algorithms that live and work inside net, performing various tasks for the users. One scene in the film involves Ralph and Vanellope entering eBay where various Netizens are depicted as auctioneers.

“We had lots of debate and, early on, we thought we’d go down the path of not actually having the actual names in the film,” says Phil Johnston, who co-directs with Rich Moore. “Google was an example of that. Early imagery we put out there did have plays on names but, through the course of making the film, we realized that we’re creating an internet that all of use every day. We should populate it with the actual websites we go to. Because of copyright, we can put them in the film without having to go the companies. We didn’t approach companies.”

“We wanted the web to look like something that people would recognize so that they’re full immersed,” adds Wu. “We combined our original websites with real world websites. The BuzzzTube shape is inspired by a volcano. It’s like a video trend site. The more hearts you give it, the higher it goes up until it erupts.”

Just as the internet has thousands upon thousands of websites, the internet city of the film is so big that it initially broke Disney’s renderer.

(Pictured) Ernie Petti. Photo by Alex Kang/Disney. ©2018 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

“When we put all our buildings through the Hyperion renderer, it wasn’t very happy and the render never came back,” says Technical Supervisor Ernie Petti. “We had to work out a new process to be able to handle this much data efficiently so that every department would still be able to build on the art direction… The sheer amount of signage took us to a point where we had the entire art department in the studio helping to design them all. That’s not just people on the project, but everyone in the entire building. We take that for the signs here to get all these designs.”

And that’s just the surface web, representing everything that someone could access through a standard web browser. Because the web is constantly rebuilding on top of itself, Ralph has to travel down at one point for a different kind of online experience.

“Then there’s the Deep Web,” says Lechner. “The Deep Web is quite boring, actually. It’s a lot of archives. Software. Things behind paywalls. Things that you can’t just reach through a simple click on your browser. So we imagined that he’s floating above this huge abyss, which is the deep web. At the very bottom of it, we imagine that all the discarded and outdated stuff sort of collects at the bottom. You’ve got the dialogue express, for example, can only move as fast as the loading bars. If you take an encrypted elevator underground, there’s a small area that’s the seedy underbelly of the internet. This is where the users are all anonymous. There are a lot of tricksters and viruses and Ralph really shouldn’t be there.”

Technical Supervisor Ernie Petti, Art Director, Environments Matthias Lechner and Head of Environments Larry Wu as seen at the Long Lead Press Day for RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET at Walt Disney Animation Studios on August 1, 2018. Photo by Alex Kang/Disney. ©2018 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Because the internet is so vast and constantly changing, part of the trick in bringing it to life was figuring out what not to include.

“We knew when we started working on the movie that the tropes of the internet would not be the same as the day the movie came out,” smiles Rich Moore, who also directed the original. “There were moments where people would come up and say, ‘You know what you’ve got to put in the movie? Ken Bone. Man, he’s huge on the internet. This guy is big!’ No one remembers Ken Bone today. It’s fleeting… So we knew we had to concentrate on the pillars of the internet. Social media, shopping, entertainment… We kept our vision pretty broad.”

When it comes to “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” Moviebill is just getting started. Check back next week for even more behind the scenes coverage of the November 21 release. If you missed it, be sure to check out our gallery of “Ralph” production art.


Silas Lesnick is the Senior Editor of Moviebill. He has been covering entertainment news out of Los Angeles for more than a decade. You can reach him via e-mail or on Twitter.

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