Disney animator draws crowd for ‘Ralph’ talk
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Disney animators jaunted to Africa to research animal behavior for “Zootopia.” They jetted to Tahiti, Samoa and Hawaii to seek inspiration for “Moana.”
But for “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” the animation team found itself at the very unexotic One Wilshire Blvd. building in downtown Los Angeles.
“It’s not as gorgeous as the Pacific — or Africa. But the incredible thing about this building is it houses all of the internet connections for all the internet communication that takes place in North America,” said Michelle Robinson, Character Look Development Supervisor at Walt Disney Animation Studios. “Inside the building, there are miles and miles of wires and thousands of boxes and tubes.”
And so began the inspiration for the sequel to “Wreck it Ralph,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” which opens in theatres Nov. 21.
The animated film follows the heroes of the 2012 smash original — the galumphing, overall-wearing, building-smashing video game villain, Ralph (John C. Reilly), and his race car-driving, glitchy, irritating best friend, Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman). This time around, someone has broken the steering wheel on Sugar Rush, the video arcade game in which Vanellope is the star. So it’s off to find someplace called eBay for a replacement part.
Robinson gave Grand Canyon University students an inside look at the film and a peek into the life of a Disney animator in a talk on Tuesday at Ethington Theatre.
“The internet is millions of websites. You start to envision that the internet world is similar to a big city, like New York, Los Angeles or London — a place made up of different districts, like the Social Media District or the Shopping District or the Financial District,” she said.
Disney animators imagined the internet as a beehive of activity — highways and byways of it — zipping along in a shiny, glowing internet world. Animators envisioned it as vertical layer upon layer, with emerging, trendy sites piled atop legacy sites. It’s occupied by the Netizens, websites’ employees and the Net Users, who are “you and me,” Robinson said — the users of the internet. They’re represented as cute square-headed avatars.
“I think the idea is that their heads are shaped like computer monitors,” Robinson said, adding, “Our animation team thought about how we use the mouse. We wanted the characters to feel like they were being driven by the person on the other side of the computer screen. … And we love the contrast of the Net Users’ sort of robotic movement with the more naturalistic movement of Ralph and Vanellope.”
Disney animators imagined eBay as this sprawling megalopolis-type of auction house where bidders can vie for a “gently used artificial hip” or a potato chip that looks like Beyonce.
And movie-goers will meet new characters, such as Knowsmore, “that little egg guy!” as Ralph calls him, who mans the search bar. When Net Users search for something, he’s the guy who tells them how many results match their search.
“We were deeply inspired by the expressive but kind of limited animation style of the ’50s and ’60s (when creating Knowsmore),” Robinson said, referencing shows like “Gerald McBoing-Boing.”
There’s also Yesss, with three S’es, voiced by Taraji P. Henson. She’s an algorithm that predicts what’s fashionable.
“If it’s cool and trendy, she’s discovered it and shared it with the world,” Robinson said. “She is easily the trendiest character we’ve ever made, and the team has had a lot of fun bringing her to life.”
Robinson’s original career choice didn’t come to life. The Phoenix area native was into well into her environmental design degree at Texas A&M University when she started to suspect she didn’t like environmental design. “I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be an architect,” she said.
Then she heard about a new graduate program in visualization.
“This was before ‘Toy Story’ came out, before ‘Jurassic Park’ came out. It was mostly flying logos and stuff, but I thought that seemed cool.”
Robinson didn’t know anything about computer graphics, but she decided to give the program a try: “I guess it’s like the hubris of youth or something. ‘Sure! I can do that!’” she said.
About halfway through her graduate program, “Beauty and the Beast” hit theatres. When Robinson saw that ballroom scene, she zeroed in on what she wanted to do.
“That was the real turning point,” she said.
She would become one of only five computer graphic animators to work for Disney Animation Studios at the time.
The first film Robinson worked on was “Pocahontas,” and she recalled the painstaking creation of the character Grandmother Willow, a weeping willow tree that serves as an adviser to Pocahontas. Robinson and other animators built a model out of sculpey, a polymer clay, and each section of bark was pulled off and given to artists who painted on the texture. The sections then were scanned and put back on the tree.
“There were a few hundred of those patches we had to keep track of,” she said. “It was a really tedious process. All this was done because the tools just weren’t really advanced enough yet that you could paint directly into the computer.”
The process to create Grandmother Willow took four months. “These days, something like that would be considered super simple, and they would do that in a week or two.”
For Robinson, the most challenging scene in the “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is when Vanellope stumbles into a room full of Disney princesses — “doing all 14 of them … and trying to do them justice and trying to kind of live up to their really long and beloved history.”
All the living voice actors for all the princesses, from Kristen Bell as Anna to Mandy Moore as Rapunzel in “Tangled,” returned to reprise their roles.
Robinson wrapped up her talk by telling students about internship and apprenticeship opportunities (the next apprentices will work on “Frozen 2,” she said). Those opportunities can be found at www.disneyinterns.com.
GCU animation major Ariana Knox said she wants to be a character designer and concept artist. “Doing that at Disney would be amazing because it’s something I grew up with and watched a lot as a kid. I remember trying to make my own animations on PowerPoint,” she said, adding how she loved hearing about older animation technology.
Screenwriting major Jordan Sattler said he would love to work for Disney as a storywriter: “I’m just so inspired by them.”
Robinson said she’s had some amazing experiences at Disney, but what has stayed with her is realizing what these movies mean to people.
“I’m always amazed at the stories that people will tell me about what their favorite movie was and why it relates back to them. … All of the movies at one point or another have been mentioned to me as a movie that really moved someone …
“Recently I was talking with this young woman, about 25, which is as long as I’ve been at the studio. When she found out what I did, she said, ‘Oh my gosh! You created our childhood.’ Obviously, not me by myself, but still there’s that connection. In that moment, you realize that, yeah, what we do really impacts people.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at email@example.com o at 602-639-7901.