The creators offaced a gigantic challenge when production on the animated film began more than three years ago: how do you take the enormous yet transient nature of the internet and make it the setting for the ?
I spoke with the Disney movie’s head of story, Josie Trinidad, about what it was like adapting the internet into a place where Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) have their next big adventure. Our wide-ranging conversation, which has been edited for clarity, covers the story-making process; what it’s like to pick elements of the internet that would feel fresh despite the web’s transient nature; a dive into the creation of the hilarious Disney princess scene; and thebut simply couldn’t make the film’s final cut. The movie is up for best animated motion picture at .
The interview’s spoiler-free, but we do talk about elements from throughout the film for those of you who are particularly sensitive to knowing anything at all before seeing a film.
Q: What was it like to transform the internet into a children’s movie?
Josie Trinidad: When I found out that [directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston] wanted to do a movie about the internet, it’s like what an amazing, fun playground for our digital characters. Other Disney characters could not explore the internet the way Ralph and Vanellope can. It was such an exciting playground with so many places to choose from. It was almost difficult to narrow it down. But once we realized this was a quest movie, they were in search of a steering wheel, it sort of helped us narrow down where they were going to go.
We wanted them to experience things like social media and online gaming because they are video game characters. At first it was sort of overwhelming. But once we knew they had a job — this quest for the steering wheel — it sort of guided us. Where would you go if you needed to buy this part? eBay, Amazon — you’d go shopping. And so then we thought wouldn’t it be funny if our characters go to eBay and yet they don’t understand how it works, and that it’s [about spending] money. The numbers they are bidding — it’s not a video game even though they think it is. It’s real money.
Going through Ralph and Vanellope’s perspective in this big city of the internet made it more fun, offered more challenges and allowed us to play on their naivete. I have a 6-year-old son who knows what the internet is. He saw me storyboarding some sequences, and he said to me, “I want to go to the internet.” We made it such a physical, tactile and amazing place that my son sort of wanted to go.
Well, Disney might do that!
Trinidad: Not until they make it a land in the parks, honey (laughs).
What was it like when trends go by so fast? Fortnite is hot right now, but you worked on this before that game?
Trinidad: When we were working on it, we talked about viral videos or memes and things like that. Our initial reaction was like let’s do a chocolate rain meme thing or double rainbow — and now that’s a hundred years ago. That’s ancient news.
It was a huge challenge for us knowing that it could easily date us in this film. I think by going through our characters — first and foremost walking in their shoes and their journey — hopefully instead of dating us with these jokes or things of the zeitgeist, if the story is universal and the emotions and the characters, if that’s true and sort of gripping, that’s how our internet would be.
Yes that’s 2018 internet; however I’m still engrossed in Ralph and Vanellope and their journey, and seeing how their friendship evolves. The way that I can watch Cinderella and Jungle Book and Little Mermaid, hopefully our movie would still be classic in that sense.
Are there still video game character cameos or mostly should we expect internet personalities?
Trinidad: The arcade that they come from, Mr. Litwak’s Arcade, is sort of like their small town. So we see our familiar characters there like Q*Bert, Pac-Man, the Ghosts and Sonic, Chun-Li, Zangief, so in their small town we see them and, of course, Felix and Calhoun. But in our internet world we do meet some Netizens — as we call them like Knowsmore (Alan Tudyk) and Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) — and also some video game characters like the Slaughter Race character in Shank voiced by Gal Gadot. Slaughter Race is sort of Grand Theft Auto with a post-apocalyptic vibe.
Since the steering wheel is a physical object, does the movie take place in the real world too?
Trinidad: We’re mostly in the internet. Of course, the steering wheel breaks in the arcade. But we don’t focus on that.
What were some overall challenges to the story when production started three years ago?
Trinidad: Story starts especially early in the production process where there’s just a script, the idea and maybe some character designs and visuals. We help guide it and shape it. We have internal screenings where we storyboard the whole movie and really loose kind of drawings, and editors cut it together. Each one of them is a mini movie where we put up that version. We went through about four or five entirely different movies. It was about the fifth one where it really started to coalesce, and honestly that’s kind of when we came up with the idea of the broken steering wheel as the catalyst for them going into the internet. It really did take a while for us to get there.
It’s an exhausting process, and yet it also yields the best results. We’re trying to find the best idea. We can’t just settle for that mediocre movie. If it’s not working, it’s not working. We have to throw it out, try again and try something better. Because otherwise we’re all admitting to failure and we can’t do that to such beloved characters and to ourselves as filmmakers. But once we got it, things just started to fall into place.
But there were so many sequences, I think we boarded around 154 sequences. But in the movie, there are 45 sequences. There are 100 sequences, which are entire things that we thought were going to exist but were thrown out. And we had 283,839 storyboards.
I can’t wait for the Blu-ray.
Trinidad: Story is such a disposable kind of process and art. We’re trying to fail faster and get it wrong faster, so we can get it right. It’s a lot of ideas thrown on the floor.
In a way, you have access to the entire Disney empire, what was it like figuring out what would make the most sense? The Princess sequence in particular is hilarious.
Trinidad: It’s great, so happy that that scene plays so hilariously. The best part is it’s integral to Vanellope’s arc. It’s not just a one-off joke. It is incredibly important to Vanellope’s journey to learn something new. Only after she meets the princesses can she go in this new direction. It’s completely part of Vanellope’s arc, and it’s not just superfluous. There were many things we did try. But even if it was hilarious and we really loved something, if it didn’t work we threw it out. We weren’t tied to it if it wasn’t going to play a huge part in the storytelling.
Was that the case with involving other Disney properties as well?
Trinidad: I know that when we board these things, we try things out. Then if it works we show it to our partners like Lucasfilm and Marvel to get their blessing. With the princess scene we tried it because we thought of this great idea, Pam Ribon the co-writer wrote the pages, and they were amazing from the beginning. This was screening one, and we knew we had to try it because it was hilarious. From the response, our leadership was really supportive and we made sure that everyone was really happy for it. Really with the princesses, it was a loving homage to them, loving satire and a little bit poking fun at ourselves.
What I love is being able to see another side of the princesses. They are just like us; they’re relaxed. They are not just these Disney icons. We can see them behind the scenes and sort of get to them as real characters.
Do you work with the actors at all on story or is it more separate?
Trinidad: A bit more separate. We start so early on that we if we’re going to throw a lot of stuff out or we are trying things, we do scratch-record voices just because we are working material out. When it starts to really solidify that’s when they’ll bring the actors in. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman know their characters the best as well, so they are sort of partners with us. When we have recording sessions, Rich and Phil will definitely be open to improv and collaboration. One of the actors might say they are not sure about this line when my character says that, and they are so receptive. It’s sort of what makes the movie even more rich. It’s not just: please read the lines. It’s a huge collaborative effort.
Do the animation folks weigh in as well?
Trinidad: Yes they do. When we do these screenings we really invite other departments to give us their thoughts and give us their notes because they know the characters too. We are all the audience so we can kind of get this internal feedback which is really helpful. In a small group we might think “oh this is working, it’s really fun.” But if it falls flat in a screening, then we know: OK it’s not working. Again Rich and Phil are so open to collaboration, our animators and layout artists and lighters and everyone is invited to give us thoughts. If someone has a good idea, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. They are really good about incorporating it.
First published Nov, 23, 2018.
Update, Jan. 5 at 2:25 p.m. PT: Adds information about Golden Globe nomination.
: The Wreck-It Ralph sequel is a hilarious story about friendship that just happens to take place online.
: A behind-the-scenes look at just how Ralph and Vanellope head to the big (internet) city.