How Disney creates a whole new internet in Ralph Breaks the Internet
Ralph returns this November, and he has a bigger target than the Fix-It Felix video game: the internet.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is the follow up to Disney’s 2012 animated feature Wreck-It Ralph, in which Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), a video game “bad guy” tries to overcome his persona and become a hero. In Ralph Breaks the Internet, Ralph becomes a hero to his friend, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), when the steering wheel on her game cabinet breaks. Without it, Sugar Rush will be retired, Vanellope along with it. Ralph finds a steering wheel on eBay, but realizes he doesn’t have the money to pay for it, so the two head into the internet to seek their fortunes – or at least enough to pay for the steering wheel.
Ralph Breaks the Internet marks the 57th animated film from Walt Disney Studios. You want some more numbers? Ralph Breaks the Internet has broken a lot of numbers. There were over 150 master sets; 5,736 unique assets; and 1.9 million render hours – per day. Ralph Breaks the Internet ended up using 434 characters with 6,752 variants. By comparison, Wreck-It Ralph had 23 characters and 421 variants.
One of the most important new characters is Yesss (spelled with three S’s). Voiced by Taraji P. Henson, Yesss is an algorithm, and the “heart and soul” of a trend making site called BuzzTube. The filmmakers almost made Yesss Vanellope’s sister, but decided against it. “If it’s cool, if it’s trendy, if it’s now, Yesss has discovered it,” says co-director Rich Moore. “She is going to be really important to Ralph and Vanellope on their journey through the internet.”
The internet. A vast, occasionally dark place that everyone is familiar with. How do you create a family-friendly version that is also the internet that we all know and love (and hate)? “We asked our animation team to explore the majesty and grandeur of the internet,” said co-director Phil Johnston. “We told them they could do whatever they wanted. They brought us cat videos.” Sounds like the animators know what’s up.
“It’s a tricky balance,” Johnston continued. “To some extent, we were emboldened, knowing that audiences are actually eager for a more sophisticated approach in family-friendly films. In this one, we are dealing with online bullying and trolling, but on a more emotional level with Ralph.” Johnston assures us that they aren’t dealing with the really heavy stuff, like fascism. “But we are dealing with those emotions kids and parents feel when they are trolled, and how having a true friend can get you through.”
“We kept our vision pretty broad when we began,” Moore says. “The internet has become more hostile. We felt like we can’t do a movie about the internet and paint it as all roses and sunshine. We have to give due to the darker side of it.”
“The dark web is actually quite boring: it’s archives, software, things behind paywalls, stuff you can’t just reach from your browser,” explains Matthias Lechner, art director of environments. “We imagine all the outdated and discarded stuff collects at the bottom. If you take an encrypted elevator underground, there is the seedy underbelly of the internet. This is where the users are all anonymous, where you can meet a lot of tricksters and viruses.”
“Ralph can encounter these things and embody them and fall prey to them, but ultimately what we want is him not to solve it, because I think that would be disingenuous,” says Moore. “The last thing we want to do is lecture the audience, but we can show a character who encounters what we encounter on the internet, and how he goes about rising above it.”
The internet changes on a minute-by-minute basis. Animated movies take years to develop. How will the film feel modern? Can it feel modern? “We knew when we started working on the movie, the tropes of the internet would not be the same as when the movie came out,” says Moore. “People would come up to us and say, like, ‘You gotta put Ken Bone in there, this guy is huge on the internet.’ But no one remembers Ken Bone today.” For those of you who don’t remember, Ken Bone asked a question during one of the 2016 presidential debates. He wore a red sweater and became an internet sensation for all of a week. “We decided we needed to concentrate on the pillars of the internet: social media, shopping, entertainment, online gaming.” Johnston promised that online gaming would be a huge part of the film, but declined to go into detail.
Another issue the animators had to address: how do you represent the internet as a living creature, in a way that is relatable to audiences? They divided up the denizens of the internet into two major categories: net users and netizens. Production designer Cory Loftis walks us through the differences. “Internet users are basically us when we log into in the internet. What do we look like when we are running around on the streets of the internet? We started by looking at iOS icons. That was a major inspiration, and you can see that reflected in the head shapes.
“Netizens are the ‘ghosts in the machine.’ If you send an email, one of the Netizens is going to deliver it in a mail truck. If you put something in your shopping cart, one of these Netizens is going to push that cart to the checkout line and check you out. They are fulfilling all of the actions that you are performing on a website. They are the worker bees of the internet.”
Ralph Breaks the Internet opens in theaters November 21st.