Producer Clark Spencer on Academy Award nominated film Wreck-it Ralph
Among this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature was the 3D animation Wreck-it Ralph, a children’s tale depicting a world with characters from a variety of video games, both fictional and real. Though losing to another Disney production Brave at the Oscars, the film scored a box office victory and was celebrated by many viewers, including both Disney fans and gamers with a retro game nostalgia.
The initial idea of the story emerged in the 1980s when Disney had been unsuccessfully developing two related versions of film, High Score and Joe Jump, both of which were set in a world of video games.
The project remained in limbo until 2008 when the gamer-turned-director Rich Moore came on board. John Lasseter, the Chief Creative Officer of Disney Animation Studios said to Moore at the time, “What if we think about the world of video games as a place to set the animation itself? I don’t know what the story should be, but I want you to think about this world as a great world for animation.” These words inspired Rich Moore to revisit the story idea.
“So it was really four years ago that Rich started thinking about the story,” producer Clark Spencer recalls. “When speaking of video games, Rich said to himself, ‘I think one of the greatest things to explore would be, what if you are a video game character from the 1980s, and you have been doing the same job for 30 years? You may wake up one day and wonder if there’s something more in life.’ And that really was the spark of the story.”
Wreck-it Ralph tells the story of “villain” Ralph from the 8-bit video game Fix-it Felix Jr., who is tired of being overshadowed by Felix, the “good guy” star in the game. He then decides to set off on a game-hopping journey across the arcade to fulfill his dream of being a hero.
In his role of producer, Spencer was responsible for the film’s schedule, budget and crew. At the same time, since the film gathers a slew of character cameos and references from iconic video games, Spencer had to negotiate with game companies in order to use their characters in the film.
“In the very beginning, the director Rich Moore said that we had to have real characters from real video games to make this world believable,” Spencer says. “I agreed with that. But as the producer, that made me nervous. I was thinking if I could actually make this happen. What we decided to do, which I think was a smart way to approach it, was to wait until we really understood the story of the movie and knew how we were going to use these characters to approach the companies.”
Spencer started his campaign journey by approaching Nintendo, Namco, Capcom and many others. They loved the idea. “I think Toy Story and Who Framed Roger Rabbit in some ways have broken down the barriers, because both of them brought fictional characters coming from different worlds into the same movie. What both of them did was to introduce these characters to a new audience. So I think the video game companies thought that it’s a way for them to make the 1980s arcade games like Pac-man become relevant with the young kids today.
“In the end, it actually proved to be much easier than I ever would have expected to get the companies to say yes,” Spencer recalls. “Over the course of time as we started working with these companies, they then would come to us and say ‘hey, have you thought about this character?’ and gave us story ideas. We also had other outside companies coming to us, suggesting their characters. The momentum was building behind the project. It was at that point that I knew that we were onto something.”
Ironically, soon after convincing the companies to cooperate, Spencer realized they had actually secured an enormous number of characters to be placed in the story. “There are almost 190 unique characters in Wreck-it Ralph, while the most we have done in a film before was 60. So it was more than three times the number of characters that we have ever put into a film before. Also, we did not simply design these characters but we had to build the models in the computer and put them in a way that allows the animators to move those characters and then figure out how these characters are actually animating. So that’s a huge cast for us.”
Another challenge was the creation of Sugar Rush, a candy-coated cart racing game in the film, where Ralph encounters another main character Vanellope von Schweetz. “Sugar Rush is a really complicated world for us to build,” Spencer says. “Because making food look appealing in the computer is really difficult. We spent a year doing research on how food photographers make food attractive in still pictures. One of the best examples we’ve got is that in order to take a photo of pancakes with maple syrup, they use motor oil. Because motor oil is a thick substance and adds the color to the syrup and makes it look much lighter. We had to figure out how we can use technology to actually build that into our system for the film itself. So that was a huge task.”
From the very beginning in the making of this video game crossover, the creators of Wreck-it Ralph realized they were not simply making one film. By combining four worlds – the world of Fix-it Felix Jr., Hero’s Duty, Sugar Rush and Game Central Station – each with completely different art directions, animations and visual effects, they were in fact creating four films.
“Although in the movie you only see a little bit of the game play, we had to think about what the overall games are about,” Spencer says. “We had to figure out if we were the game developers and we had to create the game Sugar Rush, what the overall game would look like. It took lots of time. We did lots of research on games and managed to have meetings with game companies to talk about what makes a good recent game, what makes a first-person shooter game and what made a great 1980s vintage video game. We had to know the games inside out before we started throwing them into the story and showing them to the audiences.”