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How Disney Designed the Retro-Meets-Modern Digital World of ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’

Production designer Cory Loftis and head of animation Renato dos Anjos discuss 60s-inspired character designs in the studio’s new ‘Wreck-it Ralph’ sequel.

Lumbering video game bad guy Ralph, along with squeekingly annoying Vanellope von Schweetz and a host of eccentric new digital characters, will hit theatres this coming November 21 in the highly-anticipated Wreck-it Ralph sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet. In Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest feature, our pair of oddballs leave their arcade for the expansive and wide-open world of the Internet, which may not survive Ralph’s wrecking. Wreck-it Ralph director Rich Moore and producer Clark Spencer are back again, along with the film’s co-writer Phil Johnston, who this time joins Moore at the helm.

The sprawling video game worlds of the first film seem insignificantly small compared to the expansion new world of Ralph Breaks the Internet. Which of course begs the question…what should the Internet look like? How do you depict the ultimate digital world? Are there buildings? People? Kind Bars?  

For production designer Cory Loftis, creating that world began, along with Matthias Lechner, the film’s art director for environments, with bringing the abstract concept of the Internet to life. In the case of Ralph Breaks the Internet, that meant a sprawling metropolis filled with countless levels of streets, bustling with crowds, vehicles and all the energy and distractions of a modern city. “The process began with trying to decide what the Internet would look like, not necessarily the characters themselves, but the Internet itself,” Loftis explains. “We looked at a lot of what's considered modern as far as graphic design and color palettes, and the truth is, we’re in a weird period in time where what was old is new again. Like, there's a lot of interest in people using Risograph printers, which have this very distinct color palette. It's not exactly CMYK. It's a little bit skewed. Many retro shows, like Mad Men, have created a new interest in 60s fashion. You see that creeping into the fashion industry. You see it creeping in to modern hairstyles. A lot of Instagram filters people are applying to their photos are retro filters to make them look like Polaroids or old film stock. Even in modern films like Her, there's this renewed interest in 60s sensibilities and 60s graphic designs. So that's where we started.”

“Google put out a sort of, graphic design manifesto on how they come up with their icons and graphic designs,” he continues. “We kind of meshed those two things together. Retro, but modern. We use elements you find in modern electronics. It's a very modern aesthetic -- we stayed away from anything that dated buildings or put them in a very specific century. We fed that same idea right through to our characters.”

Head of animation Renato dos Anjos and his team spent over a year exploring various styles of animation, testing how characters might move in this new world. What does it mean when someone goes online? How is that represented in the animation of the characters? “For example, when you’re browsing, when you move your mouse around, what do the Internet characters do?” he says. “The team explored all sorts of websites. What is it like buying something on What webpages do you visit, buttons do you push? What happens when your Internet connection gets lost. Many of the animators have 2D backgrounds, so we’d do simple tests, just to see what action was possible, to inspire ourselves, the story team and even the directors.”

For the film’s main characters, Vanellope, voice again by Sarah Silverman, and Ralph, a returning John C. Reilly, new studio production tools mean their basic look has been upgraded to reflect much greater detail. For example, better simulations provide for more detailed wrinkles in their clothing. Vanellope has more sophisticated hair – she no longer sports the fake pony tail from the first film. “A lot has changed since the first film,” Loftis notes. “We’ve had advances in look development, in lighting, and a brand-new renderer has been written. There were challenges just with the main characters. For example, Ralph’s legs are as wide as they are short. When the animation team tried to bend his knee, it was like trying to bend a bowling ball.”

New to Ralph Breaks the Internet are two main groups of characters: Net Users and Netizens. Net Users represent us – people who logon and use the Internet. They are avatars reflecting every person’s Internet activities. “Net Users are what we look like running around the internet,” Loftis says. “We started out looking at modern iOS icons. Rounded corner squares. That was the initial inspiration for the shape of their heads. There are so many places you need to make an avatar of yourself when you setup an account. We were looking for a fun way to represent yourself in a simplified form. Give ourselves lots of hairstyles, accessories and clothing options.”

In the world of the Internet, Netizens are like the “ghosts in the machine.” If you send an email, one of the Netizens delivers it in a little mail truck. If you put an item into a shopping cart, they push the cart and then check you out. They are doing all the actions you’re doing when you’re clicking things on your screen. For the design team, that meant lots and lots of variations for all the new characters. “We had to come up with some sort of system to make all those variants,” Loftis describes. “Ways to do different hairstyles, different shaped mouths and noses. You get a big set of variations just by changing nose shapes. You make the nose too big, it gets in the way of the mouth. Lots of beards and moustaches. Different hats. Different body shapes. Do they have fingernails or not? Weird things like that.”

“Then they all had to be dressed, which was another daunting process,” he adds. “So, we came up with a system that made sure every shirt worked with every pair of pants and every pair of pants worked with every blouse. We made sure it all worked as one giant system.”

Netizens also incorporate details that mesh with the world’s environmental design, where the streets bear resemblance to circuit boards and sidewalks have aluminum edges like cell phones. “With our Netizens, their skin quality is sort of like silicon. Subsurface light bounces around a lot more inside their skin than it does in human skin,” Loftis says. “We've added gold circuitry into their skin. Their fabrics are all fairly reflective. We stayed away from anything like wool or cotton that shows a specific weave. Everything is very modern, but we stayed away from things like stitches because then the next question is, who made those clothes?”

Put the idea of character variation into context. The film Bolt had 57 characters. For Wreck-it Ralph, with its multiple game worlds and the generic population of Game Central, there were 223 characters with 421 variants. Zootopia had fewer characters but more variants. Every species had a mom, dad and kids. Each species needed characters in street clothes and police uniforms.

Ralph Breaks the Internet has 434 characters and 6752 variants. By changing attributes like hair and skin color, outfits, even logos on t-shirts, designers had access to over 500,000 unique variant options.

One of the film’s new characters is Yesss, voiced by Taraji P. Henson, head algorithm and the heart and soul of trend-making site BuzzzTube. According to Loftis, Yesss is the curator of cool on the Internet. In designing Yesss, his team did extensive research with fashion magazines and websites. They even looked at images of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s office. “The directors wanted Yesss to be the most current thing out there,” he notes. “She’s constantly living in the moment, constantly changing her outfit. Her hairstyle. Changing the content on her websites.” One of her coats is actually modeled after arguably the most famous coats in Disney animation history. “He coat is actually made up of fiber optics,” he continues. “It’s modeled after Cruella de Vil’s fur coat. It has a flowing, over-the-top feel. Her earrings don’t actually attach, but they hang like earrings. She has a floating wristband. Her outfit lights up -- it has an animated light cycle to it. And her hair has data streaming through it.”

Another important new character is KnowsMore, a throwback search engine voiced by Alan Tudyk. KnowsMore is the website’s logo -- think from the late 90s. According to Loftis, “He’s got a more retro design. He’s a little bit clunky. Our original thinking was, maybe he should be shaped like a little light bulb. Or a little professor. At one time, he was an owl. We played with him larger and smaller. Ultimately, we started with the logo. It has the old 60s illustration vibe to it. There was something nice about how flat and stylized it was. We really wanted to keep that in his design. But, once we put eyes on him, he started to look less like an illustration and more like just another character in the film. So, we played around with how stylized we could get with his eyes and glasses.”

“For KnowsMore, his design really called for something that was very simple," dos Anjos explains. "But, since the character in the movie goes through a lot of complicated emotions, we decided to animate his eyes in 2D. That way, he could emote however we needed, very specific for a shot, instead of us having to rely on something that was built in the computer. So, the eyes are all hand-drawn. There’s a lot of Ward Kimball animation that came into play. I think we'd be hard pressed to find an animator that does not look at his era of animation with a lot of love and care. There's a lot creativity and innovation that can happen with that style.” 

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.