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Bits, Bytes and Best Friends: Producer Clark Spencer on Making ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’

November 19, 2018Ben MK

Video game movies have long been a hit-and-miss proposition in Hollywood, but in 2012 Disney found itself with a bona fide hit on their hands — and his name was Wreck-It Ralph.

A former 8-bit bad guy turned genuine good guy, Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) found his true calling when he made the acquaintance of fellow misfit Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a racer from the game Sugar Rush. Now, these two best friends from Mr. Litwack's Arcade are back for the highly-anticipated followup, Ralph Breaks the Internet, which sees the pair venturing into the vast unknown of bits and bytes in search of a valuable item that could save Sugar Rush from certain doom. The question is — will their friendship survive?

In the first of our two-part interview series for Ralph Breaks the Internet, I sat down with producer Clark Spencer to talk about the sequel, including the new characters, the synergy with the other properties under the Disney banner, and how advancements in CG animation have made the movie possible.

First of all, can you tell me more about your background and the journey that's led you to this movie?

Spencer: Crazily, when I came out of university, I worked on Wall Street. So I was a finance person, first and foremost. But about four years into it, I realized that it really wasn't my passion — that I wanted something different.

When I was a kid, my grandparents owned a movie theatre in Seattle, Washington, so I saw lots of movies. And I thought, "You love entertainment, move to L.A. and see if there's some place for you in L.A. to be a part of the entertainment industry." I got a job at Disney, and at the time I didn't know specifically that animation was where I would end up. But at that moment in time The Little Mermaid came out, and it awakened something in me. I loved animation as a kid — The Jungle Book was one of my favorite films — and I thought to myself, "Wow, this world of animation is still here." Even though I'm no longer 5 or 7 or 10, I'm still impacted by it. And so I worked my way in the company, kinda quietly. I was like, "I'm gonna get myself into animation somehow."

And I got myself into animation, and I realized it was this incredible, creative environment. It awakened me in a way that I hadn't been before, and through a series of events [I] eventually got to start producing films. And it's been such a joy and such an incredible experience, really.

With Ralph Breaks the Internet, was the idea for the sequel planted while making the first movie? Where did the concept for this sequel come from, and how did it evolve?

Spencer: Interestingly, it wasn't actually thought about while we were making the movie. When we make our films, we really try to figure out how to tell a whole story that feels like it's the end of a story. And in this case, it felt like these two misfits from different games found each other and they became inseparable best friends, so we thought we'd nicely wrapped up that story and we're done. It's hard to let go of characters that you spend years creating, but that is kind of what we do.

And it was about eight months later, where the two directors were talking about new ideas for stories they wanted to tell, and they started to talk about the world of the Internet. Because we always try to think in animation, "What is the world we want to take the audience to?" Cuz we can take you anywhere. We're creating a world that doesn't actually, technically exist. We're creating it in a computer. So they started talking about the Internet. And we said, "What if we took Ralph and Vanellope there? What if Mr. Litwack, the owner of the arcade, plugged in a modem, and they suddenly had the ability to go into the Internet? Wouldn't that be an incredible world to take them to?"

And that's where we started to say, "Ok, maybe there's the opportunity to tell a sequel." Because I think it's hard to do a second or a third or a fourth story with the characters you've created. What people love about the first film is the originality of it. So, inherently, a sequel can feel non-original. But when you take somebody to a completely new world — and that's what we had the ability to — it feels like, "Ok, now there's originality back in that." So that's what got us excited.

The scene where Vanellope meets the princesses is a real crowd-pleaser. How did that scene come about?

Spencer: It's a great question. We were brainstorming different ideas in the story process. Like, "Where could these characters go? What place would be fun for Ralph and Vanellope to go to?" And someone said, "Well, Vanellope technically is a princess from the first film, so what if she met the other Disney princesses?" And the room starts to kind of laugh at that idea, and they start to riff on ideas as to what would happen in that scene.

The writers went off and wrote this incredible scene that is kind of still that same scene today. And we realized there's a really great opportunity here to let the audience be taken to a place where there are characters that they know and they love from other films — but more importantly, as the story evolved, let it be organic to the storytelling. I think in and of itself, it feels like, "Oh, it's Disney poking fun at itself." But it's not. In the storytelling itself, those princesses are actually giving Vanellope an important piece of information, which is asking her what is her destiny.

It's the first time Vanellope actually takes a step back and says, "Maybe Sugar Rush is not where I'm supposed to be. Maybe Ralph isn't going to be my best friend forever." And so that idea really comes from them. That's where we knew, full-on, this was going to be an important scene in the film.

Can you tell me about some of the other new characters, like Shank (who’s voiced by Gal Gadot), that audiences are going to meet in Ralph Breaks the Internet?

Spencer: Yeah, so we have tons of great new characters, cuz we're going onto the internet, but [there are] a couple really big ones, in terms of the roles. There's a character named Yesss, and she is the head algorithm of a website called BuzzTube — think BuzzFeed meets YouTube. She is all about what's trending, what's cool, what's hip. And she's an important part of the journey for Ralph and Vanellope, cuz at a certain moment they need a way to earn some money. And she talks to them about what viral videos are — just taking that same idea about YouTube stars that create content — and that becomes and important part of the storytelling. Taraji P. Henson plays that role, and she's fantastic.

There's another new character called Shank, and she comes from an online game that we call Slaughter Race — it's a game we created, sort of a Grand Theft Auto, apocalyptic, Mad Max kind of a world. And Shank's played by the incredible Gal Gadot. She's the leader of a band of misfits, and she and Vanellope ultimately are gonna have a race early in the film, where it opens Vanellope's eyes to the fact that there is a world outside of Sugar Rush.

Because in this online game, there are no tracks and there's no rules. In Sugar Rush, there's one track, there's one set of rules. So for her, it allows her to see the world can be so much bigger — it's what the Internet actually is, it opens our eyes to a world that we didn't know existed. And so Shank will play an important role for Vanellope.

One of the major elements of the film is all the crossover between the various Disney properties, like Marvel and Star Wars. What kind of fun references and maybe even Easter Eggs can viewers expect?

Spencer: The Oh My Disney website that we go to in the film [gives us] this opportunity to mix all the Disney properties together. So we have Star Wars, we have Marvel, we have Disney, we have Pixar. I think one of the things that people will want to do is either see the movie over and over again or freeze-frame the DVD. There are so many Easter Eggs in that one website, cuz we had the opportunity to bring all of these characters together.

Then, on the other side of it, for the actual internet itself, we had a lot of fun. There are 93 roles, which is huge for an animated film. As a result, we actually went out to a lot of people who are very important and popular on the Internet, and had them voice characters. They may be one line here, two lines there, three lines there, but we had them come in and do that because we though we want the Internet to feel like the Internet world that you and I use every day. We brought in people who actually are part of the Internet to voice those roles, so I think the audience just can have fun trying to place those voices with the characters themselves.

Now one of the exciting things about working on CG animated films is what the technology allows you to do. And in the six years since the first film, I'm sure the technology has come a long way. How did you guys leverage that and how much more of an ambitious production is this sequel compared to the original?

Spencer: There are a couple things that happened. One is that we actually created a whole new pipeline that we call Hyperion — it's a new lighting pipeline that allows us to have much more realistic lighting, so the world itself can feel more real than it could have six years ago. But more importantly, technology has advanced to a place where we can have so many more things in it. There's hundreds of thousands of buildings in the shots that we're doing, there are hundreds of thousands of characters in those shots. Cuz that's the only way the internet can feel like the internet.

The story I always tell is I worked on a movie called Bolt that came out in 2008, and there's a moment in that film where the dog, Bolt, lands in New York City. At that time we could not create enough characters to make New York feel like New York, so we said, "Ok, he's gonna land in New York at 4:30 in the morning. And at 5, when he walks out onto the street there's gonna be nobody there. And we're gonna rationalize that there's practically nobody on the streets of New York because it's too early in the morning. It doesn't really feel like New York, but that's what we had to do.

We could not have created the Internet back in 2008. We can today. If we created that Internet and said, "Well, it's just a slow day on the Internet," people wouldn't believe it. It needs to feel huge, it needs to feel constantly active, it needs to feel almost overwhelming in a way, cuz that's what the Internet is. So we're lucky that technology has developed to a place where we can create that much information and have it be able to be rendered and have it look that realistic.

It sounds like quite an undertaking. So how big was the whole production?

Spencer: The directors started developing the idea basically about eight months after the first Wreck-It Ralph came out, so that was in 2013. We did step off for a moment in time, cuz we worked on Zootopia. Then that came out in 2016 and we came back to this, so it was about four years of developing the story and getting to its finish point. And there are 800 artists who came together to create these films. It's pretty crazy.

And are there any plans for a third film in the series?

Spencer: When we finished the first film, we thought we had wrapped it up. This one feels like we wrapped up this world too. I think instinctively you might say to yourself, "If you have a property that's done well, why not go off and tell a second story?" But I think you shouldn't do that unless you have the right idea. So I think it would be the same thing here, which is you gotta have the right idea before you wanna dive in and do it. Or it's just retreading water and the audience will see that and feel that immediately.

I think that was actually the biggest challenge, is that there were moments in developing the story where we said, "Are we treading too close to the original film,?" Cuz the story has to feel different too. So we worked very hard to make sure that the story is different and that the world feels completely different, so that the audience will think that it's as original as the first one.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is in theatres November 21st.

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