It’s hard to visualize the expansive digital world we call the Internet, a global system of interconnected computer networks that link people, places and all things. But for the CG animated feature film Ralph Breaks the Internet, that is exactly what the artists at Walt Disney Animation Studios had to do. Then, they had to build it and bring this massive “invisible” world to life.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is a sequel to the 2012 film
Wreck-It Ralph; in that film, the perpetual antagonist Wreck-It Ralph in the video game Fix-It Felix Jr. sheds his villainous reputation by redeeming himself among the video game characters, who socialize outside their game roles when Litwak's Family Fun Center and Arcade closes at night. During that quest, he befriends Princess Vanellope von Schweetz, a little girl with a big penchant for high-octane racing in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed kart racing game.
Ralph Breaks the Internet picks up six years later in the arcade, as Vanellope finds herself on the verge of losing her game unless a difficult-to-find part for Sugar Rush can be located.
Where can a person find such an item? On the Internet, of course. So Ralph and his best friend, Vanellope, travel to this mysterious place via a newly installed Wi-Fi router in the arcade to locate the obsolete steering wheel and prevent Sugar Rush from becoming permanently unplugged.
Ralph Breaks the Internet is Disney’s 57th animated feature, directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, who shares writing credit with Pamela Ribon. Moore directed the original Ralph as well as the Oscar-winning
Zootopia (2016), with Johnston also serving as a writer on those films.
“We wondered if there was more to the story [of Wreck-It Ralph],” says Moore, who, along with the rest of the team, transported the lumbering Ralph (John C. Reilly) and feisty but diminutive Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) from the arcade to the expanse of the Internet. Joining the pair are some characters from the previous film as well as many new ones, including Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), an entrepreneur and head of the media site BuzzzTube, and Shank (Gal Gadot), a tough-as-nails avatar from the online racing game Slaughter Race.
Throughout the film, Ralph and Vanellope are put to the test. The same can be said of the entire production team on this film.
Where does one even begin when it comes to conceptualizing and bringing the Internet to life on the big screen? After all, it is a gigantic, complex world — one that creates awe when Ralph and Vanellope first see it. The artists wanted that same reaction from audiences.
Before anything, the team had to understand how the Internet and Websites work, and then translate that concept, from something akin to a board grid to a land with hubs. “We wanted a metropolis feel, but sort of abstract,” says Ernie Petti, technical supervisor, who interfaced with all the departments to determine and overcome the technical challenges that would have to be solved for this film.
The design team conceptualized the Internet as a cityscape — “the biggest city you’ve ever seen,” says Petti. It is filled with wires and boxes and districts, and teeming with brands (some real, some not) from all over the world.
It took four years to develop the film, during which time the actual Internet would change. To keep their vision current, the group focused on main pillars comprising the Internet — shopping, online gaming and so forth. In addition, they would build up the virtual city in multiple layers from the ground up (and out) using building blocks, with newer sites atop older ones, and popular sites given larger real estate. Interconnecting these dense blocks are streets and pathways, along with billboards, signage, videos and more jam-packed throughout.
EW STEPS IN WORLDBUILDING
“We’ve built buildings before, but the scope, scale and density here required us to focus our technology,” says Larry Wu, head of environments. “It’s orders-of magnitude-larger and more complex than anything we’ve done — more buildings, more crowds. We had to figure out more efficient ways of doing it.”
The Internet is built out of 3D geometry, not paintings, “to give the camera flexibility, and we had light bouncing around between all the objects and reflecting and interacting among all the buildings,” says Petti. “And, we needed to populate them with crowds and vehicles. That’s a lot easier to do when it’s all 3D.”
To achieve this dense world, a number of steps had to be taken. First, the crew needed an efficient way to construct the 3D buildings. Then, Disney Animation’s in-house Hyperion renderer had to be reworked to make the process more efficient. In addition, the artists devised a new screen graphics pipeline for all the signage so they could be authored and organized efficiently.
The buildings differed in size and material (glass, steel, concrete), with an average height comparable to the Empire State Building (1,250 feet). For construction, the artists used Autodesk’s Maya for modeling, along with in-house tools for texturing, including Paint 3D for painting and proprietary software for materials creation. Rendering was done using Hyperion. Each building contained subparts that were mixed and matched, and reused, yet they still had to look unique. While Hyperion has instanced buildings before, all the little pieces and parts here presented a problem. “We were processing too much,” Petti explains, noting that at peak, they were rendering equivalent to 1.9 million hours a day. So they rethought the entire instancing engine; instead of instancing a building, it would instance each piece inside and out. Meanwhile, the newly developed screen graphics pipeline enabled the artists to track the plethora of screens and videos.
While placement of the hundreds of thousands of buildings and screens was done procedurally, that only provided a starting point for the artists; everything still had to be art directed quickly and easily from that point forward.
There are approximately 150 master sets in the film, unique environments including the arcade from the original Ralph, which had to be revamped to work with the updated Hyperion. Then, those sets had to be fleshed out into individual locations within the Internet-scape. Some of the more interesting locations are Slaughter Race, BuzzzTube with all its ever-changing video screens, the seedy Deep Web, eBay and Oh My Disney, where characters from the studio’s various properties (Star Wars, Muppets, Pixar, Marvel) can be found and where Vanellope meets the Disney princesses (see “Oh My Princesses,” page 37).
Once the Internet was built, it had to be populated. Like the original Ralph, this movie features a mishmash of environments and characters, only this time they span far beyond the video-game realm to include just about every genre. And, there would be many of them, far more than a Walt Disney Animation Studios film has ever had, making it the studio’s most ambitious movie to date in terms of characters and crowds, as well as environments.
To put the daunting task of character creation into perspective, consider these numbers: Bolt had 57 characters; Wreck-It Ralph, 233 (421 variants); Zootopia, 182 (687 variants); and Ralph Breaks the Internet, 434 characters with unique sculpts and 6,752 variants. Also, a new crowd system enabled some scenes with 500,000-plus unique characters, though the system was able to generate twice that number.
So, who are all these characters? There are some from the first Ralph, as well as new ones with significant roles. Also, there are a plethora of Netizens, who live and work inside certain areas of the Internet, and Net Users, representing Internet users from the outside world.
Although Ralph and Vanellope made their feature-film debut only six years ago, in animation, that can be a lifetime. “Our system couldn’t even open up the original Ralph because our simulation engine, rigging systems and renderer have changed,” says Dave Komorowski, head of characters and technical animation.
With the updated Hyperion renderer, though, colors in this film are lusher and more vibrant. Also, Ralph received some facial work, more hair and longer legs (for better performance), and his clothing is more detailed and moves better, as does Vanellope’s. “You can see the pilling on the inside of her hoodie,” Komorowski remarks. One of the bigger adjustments to Vanellope was her hair, specifically her ponytail, which reacts realistically. In fact, the artists devised a new way of designing hair across the board in this film, defining hair grooms using a hierarchy of strands for improved art direction.
NEW MAIN CHARACTERS
There are many new characters that help Ralph and Vanellope navigate the Internet, including Yesss, the trend-predicting head algorithm at BuzzzTube. Yesss’ poses and movements are big, snappy and exaggerated. She changes hairstyles and clothing often, and her outfits are quite a spectacle — after all, she is a trendsetter. The ultimate creator of cool, Yesss sometimes sports a large faux-fur jacket made out of fiber-optic cables whose tips light up, changing constantly based on her data intake. Code, meanwhile, moves through her hair.
Shank — a more realistic character in terms of appearance and animation — fits hand-in-racing glove into the gritty urban environment of her edgy Slaughter Race game. “We ran a simulation and then art directed her long, flowing brown hair,” says Komorowski. She wears layered clothing: a hoodie on top of a T-shirt, and a leather jacket over that. Wind blows through her hair while racing.
On the gross side of the scale is Double Dan (Alfred Molina), a grouchy, slug-like shifty sort of guy so named because of a conjoined little twin brother, named Little Dan, tucked into the folds of his neck. Double Dan is the proprietor of the Dark Net’s apothecary, where he whips up various viruses. He jiggles as he moves thanks to muscle simulation.
The basic sculpts for these and the other main characters were created in Pixologic’s ZBrush, and then the models were ported over to Maya, where they were rigged and simulated using mostly proprietary tools. The models were textured using the studio’s Paint 3D and Adobe’s Photoshop. Hyperion, again, was used for the shaders.
NETIZENS & NET USERS
Another fun and interesting character is KnowsMore, an outdated, clunky digital academic running the search bar. He was inspired by the 1950s/’60s style of animation that is simplistic yet elegant. He was created in Maya, but his cartoony eyes and the reflection in his glasses were crafted in Disney Animation’s Meander. In fact, the Internet is filled with these native avatars called Netizens — colorful bits of characters of various sizes and shapes branded to their Website. They have a digital quality reflected through their rather simplified look. Some Netizens, though, like Shank, Yesss and Double Dan, have larger roles in the film and thus are fully fleshed-out.
In addition, there are Net Users, which are mechanical representations of us inside the Internet. They have limited, somewhat robotic body motion and iconic expressions that kind of snap from one extreme to another. They have block-shaped heads and are rather uniform in size, but their clothes and hairstyles are unique, thanks to a mix-and-match creation system.
The Internet is populated with thousands and thousands of these characters, more than a half-million, actually. “So we came up with a mix-and-match system that included facial sculpts and things like that, giving us the most variety possible,” says Komorowski. The animators then used a crowd rig for these characters, a simplified version of the standard rig. Next, they ran the models through a simulation system.
…BUT WHO’S COUNTING?
Disney Animation is known for pushing the state of the art in technology and creativity. And Ralph Breaks the Internet is no exception.
In this case, though, the challenge did not rest with a unique, singular advancement; rather, it was about expanding the scale and scope of previous advancements. In Frozen, all the characters were simulated. In Big Hero 6, the team wrote a new shader. In Zootopia, they dealt with massive scales of crowds and hair, and on Moana, they tackled wind in the hair and water. Without any of those steps, Ralph Breaks the Internet would not have been possible. Or, it would have been “less” in every way: fewer buildings, fewer characters, painted backdrops, static signs….
“Everything here was just more,” says Petti.
For More on the Princesses of Ralph Breaks the Internet, CLICK HERE!