The Edge’s Film Editor Barnaby Walter talks to Wreck-It-Ralph producer Clark Spencer about his work on the film, what it’s like to work at Walt Disney Animation Studios and his thoughts on 3D cinema.
Some people are still in the dark as to what a producer does on a film, so tell us a little bit about what your work as a producer involved on Wreck-it-Ralph?
There are a couple things; I think that’s probably why people sometimes don’t know quite what a producer does. First and foremost, you build a schedule, you have a budget, you hire the team in on the film and you manage that team. The second component is being a partner to the director, and to be in the room with the director and make sure everyone is communicating, and that everyone really understands what the director’s vision is and are doing what they can to achieve it. And that’s not just managing the animation, but the technology as well and developing new technology; that’s what we had to do with the world of Sugar Rush [a game world in Wreck-It-Ralph], create new technology. So it’s every aspect of the creation of the film. You’re the director’s partner. Another part of my job was working with the outside video game companies to get the rights to characters and to make sure that relationship was really working, such as with Nintendo and Sega, that was a big component. And the last piece, that’s quite unique to Disney, relates to consumer product in terms of merchandising and publishing and books and walk-around characters and theme parks. So I was the person who works with The Walt Disney Company so that they can really leverage off Wreck-It-Ralph. So they are the four main areas the producer manages.
It’s interesting you mention the Disney aspect to the job, as the name has a place in many people’s hearts. How do you make sure you stay true to the name of Disney? Is there a special Disney code in terms of content, story and characters?
Well to me the biggest element is that the common theme in Disney animated films is telling a story with a real core to it and a real emotional heart to it. The movies I grew up with such as Bambi and Dumbo have a really emotional side. So we always make sure we put that in – not just a funny story but a funny story with a really emotional side to it. That’s what calls it out as Disney. We were pushing boundaries with Wreck-It-Ralph; it’s not a fairytale. I think Disney is sometimes known for telling great fairytales, and this is set in the modern world of video games. But to me it has that great side, where you are taken to this world and fall in love with Ralph and Penelope and get emotional when he has to do something really difficult but in a way to protect her. So that’s what makes it a Disney film for me.
The gaming side of the film showcases a lot of great characters viewers will be familiar with, and you mentioned dealing with the licensing companies in order to get them. How did you decide which games would receive a cameo and did any owners of the characters say no to you?
It’s interesting – in the very beginning when director Rich Moore talked about it I said ‘Let’s not limit ourselves with what we want to do, as who knows what companies are going to say yes and which are going to say no’. We let the story artists, when they were building the story, use any characters they wanted so long as they could find a great way of incorporating them into a scene and we let the writers do the same thing. We also put a big board up here in the animation building and said to the people in the building: ‘If there is a character you want in this movie that you feel it’s critical we have, put it up on the board’. So we were always referencing that board. And then, about a year and a half of making the movie, in terms of the development side of the production, we actually went out to the companies and started approaching them, and amazingly they were very supportive of the idea, and I think it’s because of films like Toy Story and [Who Framed] Roger Rabbit where we saw that a mash-up of characters really was great for storytelling in the movie but also great for those characters. It gave them a lot of exposure to new audiences. So they became very excited about it, and we pretty much got everything we wanted. Everyone asks about Mario, they say ‘Why isn’t Mario in the film?’, and when we talked to Nintendo they said they didn’t want Mario to just have a small cameo; if he’s going to be in the movie he needs to be fully integrated into it, in an organic way. And we could never find a way of doing that without stopping the movie – just throwing Mario into the movie didn’t make sense. We tried man! But ultimately we’ve got to tell the story of Ralph and Penelope, that’s what this movie is about, so in the end we went back to Nitendo and said, if we were going to make another film we could talk about it, but there was really no way in this film that that could work in the proper way.
Although the film is set in lots of different videogame worlds, it still feels quite smooth and streamlined. How did you go about ironing out the narrative to keep this going?
It was hard; I have to be honest with you. Originally we had a fourth gaming world called Extreme Easy Living Two – sort of The Simms meets Grand Theft Auto, with a Disney spin on it – and it was a really fun world and it was hard to let it go. But you can’t make the audience keep getting dropped into another game and have them want to go to a new place, especially late in the movie. So it was a complete balancing act, and I think the reason it works is because, in animation, we are lucky as we get to make the movie several times before it’s done, so with this movie we put it up on story-reels seven times before the movie was done. So you really get to sit there and think what the right amount of time is to play in these worlds in a way that makes the storytelling work. But it’s hard; I think if we had made the movie we had in our very first screening it wouldn’t be the movie it is today. It think it’s that ability to hone it that helps our ability to make the story stronger. This is definitely to your point – it’s a really good question – it’s a balancing act, to be able to go through these worlds and still tell a story about Ralph and Penelope.
You’ve produced a great number of films at Disney. You recently made the latest Winnie the Pooh movie, which was traditional 2D-looking animation. How different is the process of working with CGI animation?
They are pretty different. The big difference is, in 2D animation, you spend all of your time in the animation of it, as that’s the slow part of the process. You can design a character very late in the game, you can quickly draw it a get it in there, but the animation of it is the long part of the process. With CG you have to build every element in the computer. So you can’t late in the game to add a new character as it takes six months to build a character and have it ready. Once it’s all built then the process goes faster. So for me, as a producer, that means you have to figure out your environments and your characters early on, but with 2D you get a lot more time actually making the film. But I love both. It’s amazing to watch someone draw a character, but it’s amazing to see what comes out of the computer too.
When I spoke to director Rich Moore he said he was initially unsure of making a movie in 3D. Have you always been a fan of the process or did you take convincing?
The first film I did in 3D was Bolt, and it was one of those things where you think ‘Well, are we really doing this for the right reason?’, or are we just doing it because it’s what is out there now in terms of the market place. But when you look at the world of Wreck-It-Ralph, you think this is a world that really lends itself to 3D, and we were really lucky as we had a gentleman named Robert Newman who does all of our 3D work, and he does it from a storytelling standpoint. To me that’s the key. If you just layer on a 3D element to a film it can take you out of the movie as you’re so busy seeing depth you aren’t seeing the story. But what Robert does is if there are any intimate scenes there are almost no depth to it it’s very shallow, because it’s about the characters, but if there’s a big action scene there is a lot of depth to it. But Robert gets the whole script of where the movie is going to be deep in terms of depth and where it is very shallow, and he has to decide where he is going to move between those so he doesn’t strain people’s eyes, because you can’t just go from deep to shallow deep to shallow. So for me, he’s supporting the story-side through 3D. For me it shouldn’t be a gimmick, it should be important to the story, and as I’m sure Rich said, he didn’t want to do it because it’s out there in the marketplace. We wanted to do it because it helped with the storytelling.
Wreck-it Ralph is out on Blu-ray and Digital Download on 3 June. Clark Spencer was talking to Barnaby Walter for The Edge. Image © Disney.