Wreck-It Ralph Shines Bright with New Lighting and Effects Technology
It’s difficult not to be taken aback by the stunning visuals of Disney’s latest animated feature, Wreck-It Ralph. To quote Billy Crystal’s from the famous SNL sketch, “You look maavelous.” While most studios claim to “push the envelope” on every project, few actually do. In Disney’s case, CTO Andy Hendrickson’s push to develop innovative and enabling digital tools has given the studio’s artists an unprecedented technological playground in which they have created a truly spectacular animated film. According to Hendrickson, “’Wreck-It Ralph’ is one of the most complex films that we’ve ever made here at Disney. Getting the best images on screen requires the best technology. Quality is our business plan, so we’re all about creating new technology to support the art in the best way. It’s that mixture of art and technology that you see on screen. It’s one of those things that has always set Disney animated films apart.”
For Wreck-It Ralph, in addition to refinements in the production pipeline and a new virtual cinematography Camera Capture system that let layout artists and the film’s director, Rich Moore, literally walk through scenes in real-time, visualizing various takes and virtual camera moves, Disney implemented BRDFs, or bidirectional reflectance distribution functions, a brand new lighting system based on a new idea of how surfaces react with light in a physically based, realistic or theatrical way. As Director of Look and Lighting Adolph Lusinsky explained, “Disney’s BRDF is a marriage of the way a surface reacts and the way a light illuminates the surface. It’s completely different from the way lighting has worked on any of our previous shows.” According to Lusinsky, with the old shader system, lighters had to cheat to get things to look believable. With BRDFs, you get a much more believable look in the way light reflects off of and rolls over a surface. “At Disney, we want to be able to achieve a result that looks physically believable and accurate, but then we want to be able to art direct it too,” he continued. “It lets us get an image that’s very Disney.”
In discussions with Lusinsky, Look and Lighting associate director Brian Leach, FX supervisors Cesar Velazquez and David Hutchins and VFX Supervisor Scott Kersavage, they shared insights into tackling the challenges faced creating the numerous “worlds” where the story takes place.
Lights, Camera, Fudge!
As previously mentioned, Disney built a new lighting and shading system for the film from the ground up. Their principal engineer Brent Burley went back to the basic science of light interacting with real materials to derive an entirely new algorithm for a more realistic, more reality-based lighting look on materials. Studies on surface lighting for over 100 materials were performed as part of the research that went into the new system.
BRDFs mean fewer lights are needed overall and fewer pinpoint lights are needed to hit specific areas to mimic more accurate reflections and make them look good. Now the light reflects in a more physically-based manner. The results look much more real.
One of the biggest challenges the new lighting system faced on Wreck-It Ralph was making food look believable and more importantly, making it look delicious. Though extensive research was done for each world, the largest amount was done for Sugar Rush, which represents 50% of the movie. Making an entire world out of candy is unique and poses tremendous visual challenges in order to make everything look real and tasty as well. Like on most animated films, the team needed reference materials for study.
So, the visual development group traveled to the world’s largest candy fair, the annual ISM Cologne in Germany, just to immerse themselves in different types of candy from around the world. They were surprised by the detailed lighting used to highlight the confections. Some candy was even showcased in special displays, lit with small pinpoint spotlights, like pieces of jewelry, dazzling with little glints and reflections. They traveled to a See’s Candy manufacturing facility to see firsthand the dynamics of a huge candy making plant, marveling for example at how marshmallow is moved around from one place to another on conveyer belts running high above the heads of administrative staff. They visited bakeries and other facilities where large volumes of food were made, packaged and processed.
Additionally, the team brought in a number of food photographers to see how they lit their shots. As Leach explained, they were trying to learn how to make food look delicious, what they should try to achieve and what they should try to avoid. One key was the issue of broad specular reflections, being able to see into the shadows, trying to use warm colors so the food looked tasty and inviting.