Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph looks like it was tailor-made for us: it’s about video game characters (and features cameos from fan-favorites like Bowser, Zangief and Dr. Robotnik), stars comedic talents like John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, and Jack McBrayer, and is directed by a guy who cut his teeth on shows like The Simpsons, Futurama and The Critic. If they give out free burritos at each screening, then I think we may have found a new favorite film. Last week, I got to spend the day at Walt Disney Animation Studios to get a sneak peek at Wreck-It Ralph, to play Fix-It Felix Jr. in all its fabricated 8-bit glory, and the chance to sit down with director Rich Moore.
According to the handy-dandy visual aid of Fix-It Felix scaling a building in the layout department, the film is at 92% completion, which is an impressive feat considering the size and scale of the project. Whereas normal animated features need to contend with creating one believable world filled with interesting, relatable characters, the animators have the unenviable task of creating 5 separate, distinct animated worlds, each with their own quirks and animation styles. That being said, the 25 minutes of advance footage I saw looked fantastic, and places where effects weren’t yet finished or temp dialogue/music was used were easily forgiven. I’ll admit; I was a bit skeptical going into this because, as a gamer, I wasn’t sure how Wreck-It Ralph was going to portray video games (and if it would make proper use of its robust cameo catalogue), and, as a fan of animated films, I worried if setting it in the hyperkinetic world of video games would make for an interesting feature. I am happy to report that my fears were quickly assuaged by the clever dialogue, crisp animation and undeniable talents of the voice cast. For those in the know, there are countless nods, cameos and in-jokes from a slew of classic and current games, but the story has enough heart and wit to keep non-gamers invested in Ralph’s adventures too. In other words, shut up and take my quarters!
Nerdist: You have a very impressive comedy resume – The Simpsons, Futurama, The Critic. How does the experience of directing a giant animated feature like this compare to working on an animated television series?
RM: It comes with its own set of challenges. It’s different, but it is similar. It’s storytelling at it’s heart, you know? Giving the audience a compelling story with characters that they care about in a world that is interesting. That’s what The Simpsons was all about at the beginning. The original concern was, could we take something that was supposed to just be an interstitial and turn it into a half-hour sitcom? And it’s animated? Are people going to watch that? There wasn’t anything like it at that time. Stuff like The Flintstones… it was 20 years before that, so I think that it was a feat of really engaging an audience that’s not used to this kind of medium and holding them. And ultimately, you had the audience feeling like, “Wow, I care about what happens to these guys.” That came with effort. It’s all part of the challenge of making an animated show – making the audience feel like they weren’t necessarily watching a cartoon. It was all part of that basic storytelling and engaging the audience, which is what I think we do here.
N: By nature, television is on a much faster schedule, so that must come with its own set of challenges in comparison to working on a feature like Wreck-It Ralph.
RM: TV is obviously faster, it’s a faster schedule. You’re always kind of behind. You are always trying to catch up. There were some years that I did five half-hours on The Simpsons. That’s two-and-a-half hours of animation. And that’s in one year. This is a ninety-minute feature film that we’ve been working on for almost four years, so when we make a movie like this we remake the movie over and over. We start with an idea, a script, some character designs and a crew of story artists and we storyboard it. Over a twelve week-long period of time, we put up a rough cut of the movie. It’s an animatic, it’s all the storyboards kind of shot and married to a soundtrack with temp dialogue and sound effects. We then watch it with a group of peers – directors, story people, people from Pixar – and afterwards, for about fifteen seconds, they’ll go, “Oh, it was great! Really good! Awesome…but, here’s a couple things.” [laughs] Then, it’s about two hours of having your child dissected in front of you. And then, you jump back in and do the whole process over again for another ten-to-twelve weeks. We do that seven times, so we really, on a movie like this, get an opportunity to really work the material. And that’s not the case on television. [laughs] So, you’d better know what’s right the first time! Television sharpens your chops – to tell jokes, to tell stories, to know how to play an emotion, which I think translated almost 1:1. The machinery’s a lot bigger here, but there was never a point where I felt really overwhelmed. It’s like learning an accent or a colloquialism.
N: Sort of like a chips vs. crisps debate?
N: Given that you’re constantly reworking parts of the movie, the incredible comedic talents of stars like John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch and Jack McBrayer, and the fact that they all recorded together, did that allow for more improvisation in the booth? How much did you folks play around with that?
RM: I absolutely encourage it because I knew there were facets of the characters that these guys were going to know better than myself or the writer. You can only put so much down on the page. And we’re talking about John C. Reilly. That’s why you go to John, to really kind of mine that stuff. I wanted him to do that. What was on the page was great, but John has the ability to transcend the written word. He can really create a fully realized character within his head and act it out – and that’s amazing. It was important to me because I think a lot of his magic happens within improvising, being in the moment. He’ll be the first to say, “I don’t want to get in front of a mic and just read words off a piece of paper. I can’t do that.” And I was like, “That’s fine. I want you to be your best and we’ll figure out how to make that work.” And they’re all in the room recording together, which almost never happens, so I thought this was how we were going to get them to do their best.
N: That’s true – I imagine the energy in the room definitely makes it easier for them to play off each other.
RM: It was a great group. It’d be myself, Phil Johnston, the writer, Jen Lee, our co-writer, Jim Reardon, our head of story, and our actors – whomever we were working with that day – and we’d record it a few times as-written, just to get everyone warmed up, then we’d go off the page a little bit. It was always about making the material the best it could be. It wasn’t just about fitting in more jokes on the page, but finding out where we could take this. There were sessions with John and Sarah that were really powerful – not even just the funny stuff, but the dramatic stuff. These guys took it to a level that was just amazing. It comes across in the movie; there are these real Disney film moments where my heart is just breaking for these guys.
N: This seems like such a smart time to release this movie given where we are in the history of video games. It feels like we’re standing on this precipice of next-gen technology and the classic games with which many of us grew up. Why do you think this is the right time for Wreck-It Ralph?
RM: I think this is a good time for the movie because, like you said, for the first time it feels like there is history in video games. It doesn’t feel like something that’s just a fad or a phenomenon that a certain generation is into.
N: So it won’t just be a two-hour commercial like The Wizard?
RM: [laughs] Oh god, no. It’s more cross-generational. I think enough people in their sixties and seventies know what a video game is. Ten years ago, it might have been a different story. Now, older people know what it is and feel some degree of connection, and younger people obviously know them. People like my son, who was fifteen when I started on this movie, I asked him if he knew about the old 8-bit games, trying to test the waters. I had to make sure if I was going so far out of the realm of what was registering with people and if this would just be some sort of treacly love letter to games in the Eighties. He said, “Oh god, yeah, I know Dig Dug. I know Space Invaders, Asteroids, I grew up with that.” So, here’s a fifteen year-old who’s being nostalgic for the Eighties. I said, “You know arcades, right?” He said, “Yeah, like Dave & Buster’s? Like the pizza place in town?” There was a thought that no one would know what this stuff is. Like game cabinets? No one’s going to know what that stuff is, but once you make them connected through the central hub of a power strip acting as a Grand Central Station surrogate, it becomes easier to tell that story, visually speaking. If they were on a hard drive? That just feels cold to me. I understand the power strip; maybe I am being nostalgic, but I feel like these games have touched people’s lives in some way that maybe it’s more than nostalgia. Maybe it’s real for people.
N: One last question – what’s your favorite game of all time?
RM: My favorite game? Of all-time? I will say, there used to be a tabletop Pac-Man at a pizza place near my high school.
N: The one with the controller on either side?
RM: Where you could sit face-to-face and eat pizza with your friend? Yeah! I loved that game. I spent most of my seventeenth year of life playing tabletop Pac-Man. It gave me Pac-Man Elbow.
N: Better than Pac-Man Fever.
RM: Yeah, well, most things are better than that.
Wreck-It Ralph starts his adventure in theaters on November 2, 2012. Are you excited for the film? Which video game character do you hope makes a cameo? Quemment below and let us know!