Disney’s animated films are often known for balancing their colorful, family-friendly worlds and stories with relatable, thought-provoking messages.
The company’s newest film, Ralph Breaks the Internet, the sequel to 2012’s critically acclaimed Wreck-It Ralph, is no exception.
John C. Reilly returns to lend his voice to the titular character, as does Sarah Silverman as Vanellope von Schweetz, now Ralph’s best friend. This time, however, the story has changed – and the stakes increased.
When Vanellope’s game, Sugar Rush, breaks, she and Ralph must travel into the internet in search of eBay, where they can find the missing part needed to save the game. What they encounter is a whole new world of adventure.
But the story runs deeper than that. It also deals with the ways in which people and friendships change over time. Disney animator Michelle Robinson, who lived in Mesa from age 8 through her freshman year at Dobson High School, came back to town to discuss the film ahead of its release.
“I think of this movie as really being about friendship and about the way in which a strong friendship can weather – or all sorts of adversity – and that it’s OK that friendships change over time as the people change, but that the friendship still remains true,” says Robinson, who calls it a message to which almost anybody can relate.
“That’s really what we’re trying to do with these movies, is make an impact for people, to emotionally reach out to people.”
Robinson is a character look development supervisor for Disney, where she has worked since the mid-’90s, contributing to such films as Pocahontas, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, Bolt, Tangled, Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph.
“When the character comes to us, there’s already been kind of a design passed down, 2D drawings of what they think the character might look like, and then it’s been built in 3D as a model. But it doesn’t look like anything. It doesn’t have any color or texture. It sort of looks like gray clay or gray plastic. And so what we do is we paint the character,” Robinson explains.
“We essentially make the skin look like skin and we make the cloth look like cloth and then we add the fur, in the case of an animal, or hair, in the case of a person.”
An iterative – and interactive – process, the art director and film’s director oversee the process, and Robinson and her team must keep other subsequent departments in mind to make sure they get what they need. An entire movie such as this can take three and a half years, she estimates, though her role took upward of two.
“It really is a translation step from 2D to 3D in a way,” Robinson explains. “And so that’s why we kind of use the word ‘development’ in the name, because we really are sort of continuing to develop the way these characters look as they’re moving through the department.”
With a large amount of polishing and fine tuning going into the process, as she puts it, any one character can take anywhere from one to three months to craft within just her department. This lends hand to the “iterative” process she describes, as the referential world of Wreck-It Ralph grows even more referential in the sequel as Ralph and Vanellope explore the many corners of the internet.
Over Ralph Breaks the Internet‘s nearly two-hour runtime, Ralph and Vanellope encounter pop-ups, a search engine, the Dark Web and characters from the fictional Slaughter Race game. They also meet personalities from a variety of other Disney properties such as Stormtroopers, Buzz Lightyear, Eeyore and Baby Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. Disney’s princesses are a high point for Robinson – both in terms of challenge and fun.
“I could easily talk about the princesses for a long time, partly because in the course of the history of the studio, those princesses were designed over a long period of time and they really change. Each one is a little bit different. Cinderella is really different from Snow White,” Robinson explains.
“In order to make a version of all those princesses who look like they could live together in the same website, that was an interesting design challenge,” she continues. Many of those characters, she says, had never been translated to 3D before, so the film’s animators had the challenge of creating a sense of physical realism.
Reprising their roles are Kristen Bell as Anna from Frozen, Idina Menzel as Elsa from Frozen, Mandy Moore as Rapunzel from Tangled, Kelly MacDonald as Merida from Brave, Anika Noni Rose as Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, Auli‘i Cravalho as Moana, Ming-Na Wen as Mulan, Irene Bedard as Pocahontas, Linda Larkin as Jasmine from Aladdin, Jodi Benson as Ariel from The Little Mermaid, and Paige O’Hara as Belle from Beauty and the Beast.
In fact, Beauty and the Beast may have been a watershed moment for Robinson.
“I loved Disney movies when I was a kid. We saw every single one in the theater, but it seemed like such a remote possibility that I could ever work for Disney,” she says.
As she was good at math and art, she first decided to get an undergraduate degree in architecture. But the “exciting and interesting” nature of computer graphics, which was still in its early days, appealed to her. Halfway through a program at Texas A&M University, she says Beauty and the Beast was released. It was the Disney classic’s ballroom sequence that made her realize she could possibly make a living out of animation.
“A year later a spot opened up at the studio and I applied and I got in,” she adds.
A lot has changed in the time since Wreck-It Ralph was released. Now using a new renderer as well as other techniques and what Robinson calls “under-the-hood stuff,” the creation process has improved in some respects.
“Even though it’s only been six years, the technology has changed quite a bit. Six years is a really long time in terms of 3D computer animation technology,” Robinson says. “We did basically rebuild the main characters from the first movie almost entirely just to bring them to kind of current technology standards.”
Being that the world in which Ralph lives is so expansive and all encompassing – to video games, in the case of Wreck-It Ralph, and to the internet, in the case of Ralph Breaks the Internet – there’s a lot of room for Disney and its team to flex the creative muscle. Robinson acknowledges how different it is from some of her past works.
“It’s such a different kind of movie than, let’s say, Frozen, where essentially you’re working mostly with humans. In this case we’ve got humans but we also have the net user avatars, we’ve got the characters that work in the internet, we’ve got all sorts of different video game characters, we have viruses, we have the Slaughter Race characters,” Robinson says. “Every character was something new, was a new challenge, it was unique, and it was a lot of fun.”
Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet, which stars John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk and Alfred Molina, is set for a nationwide release this Wednesday, November 21.