Story Cache: How 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' broke its narrative
Things are looking grim for our 8-bit hero. John C. Reilly’s Ralph has traveled inside the internet with his best friend, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), but the adventure now threatens to destroy their friendship. Vanellope has become obsessed with being an internet celebrity and poor Ralph has mistaken going viral with being an actual virus. Now, he’s locked up in an online prison cell and his only hope is a jailbreak with a malfunctioning search engine, Knowsmore.org (Alan Tudyk).
Those aren’t spoilers for November’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” although they easily could have been. Instead, that’s a glimpse one of the narrative paths that ultimately went untraveled during Walt Disney Animation Studios’ story breaking process. The artists at the studio believe wholeheartedly in “plussing” their work. Every single story beat is constantly reexamined in the effort to make it better. Then, once it’s better, they go back and make it better again.
At one point, the new movie had Ralph becoming the celebrity and Vanellope the virus. There was even, for a time, a central villain: an internet security officer who was ultimately dropped in favor of a narrative where Ralph can serve as his own antagonist.
“This is the story of two friends who come from a small town and go to the big city,” explains Josie Trinidad, Co-Head of Story. “One of them loves it and the other is like, ‘I could go home.’ They realize that they have two different journeys ahead and can they reconcile that? Will their friendship last or will it be torn asunder?”
Trinidad started at Disney in 2004 as a story apprentice. Among her many credits is the first “Wreck-It Ralph” in 2012.
“Story starts, obviously, very early on,” she explains. “We start when there’s just a script and maybe a little bit of [visual development]. Thankfully, because this is a sequel, we knew the characters, but they’re heading to a new world and new environments.”
There are 45 distinct sequences in the final cut of “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” which is less than a third of the 153 that made it to the storyboard process. Between those 153 sequences there are 7,883 different versions with a total of 283,839 storyboards altogether. As you can imagine, creating something that big takes a team of highly skilled artists.
“The Disney story department here is about 30 artists,” says Story Supervisor Jason Hand. “At one time or another, those 30 artists are spread among the difference productions we’re working on.”
Hand has been with Disney almost as long as Trinidad, but their story together goes back even further. Both artists have been friends since attending CalArts together.
“Through discussions about character, structure, theme, dialogue, entertainment, we start to craft the story, building different acts and different sequences,” Hand continues. “We have a lot of discussions about it early on and we’ll all jump in and change it until we can all agree that it’s ready to go.”
After meeting with directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston and Head of Story Jim Reardon, Hand, Trinidad and their team get to work planning out sequences.
“What I do, usually, is start out with thumbnail drawings,” Hand continues, “which allows me to very quickly test out different ideas about acting, staging, camera work, visual storytelling. I can try things and throw them out without having to worry too much about it… When I finally get it together a few days later, I pitch it to writer and directors and the heads of the story team in a dark room where it’s projected up. I’ll do the dialogue and the sound effects and anything else that helps to make it fun and interesting as we’re going through the sequence.”
“Once we get it working right, we send it to our editorial team,” What they do is time our drawings with sound effects and temporary sound effects and scratch recording.”
“Ralph Breaks the Internet” is the first Disney film for Story artist Nathalie Nourigat and, like most of the creative team, she couldn’t be more thrilled to work on a film that is not only a sequel to one of her favorites, but that also includes every single Disney Princess. The tricky part, though, was representing something as enormous as the internet in forms to which audiences could instantly relate.
“One of the first ideas that we started with was ‘Two Kinds of People,’” Nourigat says, “which is a real world meme. It would be a splitscreen image of, say, ketchup and mustard. Are you a ketchup person or a mustard person? Do you eat your sandwhich with a crust or with no crust? Do you squeeze your toothpaste tube at the bottom or in the middle, like a psychopath?”
Because part of the story involves Ralph going viral, the story team had to find a way to represent narratively. One early idea had Ralph working in a sort of meme factory where he gets hurt over and over, much to the delight of online viewers.
“It made the internet look like a really dark and mean place with everyone laughing at Ralph getting hurt,” admits Nourigat.
Fortunately, everyone at Disney Animation is highly skilled at turning bad ideas into good ones.
“The great thing about our story department is that we all work in one area and we share ideas,” says Hand. “It’s a really fun and collaborative way to work that’s really helpful.”
For example, there’s no need to worry about Alan Tudyk’s Knowsmore. Originally a poor malfunctioning search engine who got every third query wrong, Knowsmore was reimagined as a functioning search bar. His role in the story may not be quite as big, but his presence is a testament to Disney’s ability to plus its work.
You’ll be able to see what other story elements made the final cut of “Ralph Breaks the Internet” when the film hits theaters on November 21st. Be sure to check back with Moviebill between now and then, though, as we will be going even deeper into the creative process and introducing more of the talented men and women whose collaboration makes films like this possible.