Disney’s environments team had their hands full turning the net’s abstract vastness into a relatable and appealing digital world.
For Matthias Lechner, art director, environments, Larry Wu, head of environments and Ernie Petti, technical supervisor, the job of visualizing and then building the world of the Internet for Disney’s upcoming animated comedy adventure, Ralph Breaks the Internet, was as intimidating as it was exciting. “When I was asked to design the world of the Internet, it was daunting,” Lechner notes. “And fantastic. Where do you even start?”
Where do you begin the task of turning the abstract concepts of the Internet into the bustling metropolis we see in the highly anticipated sequel to the original 2012 hit film, Wreck-it Ralph? For the environments team, it began, as all Disney animated films do, with research. In this case, a trip to One Wilshire in downtown Los Angeles, one of the most connected buildings in the entire world, purportedly where one-third of all Internet traffic from Asia is routed to the U.S.
What they found was a jumbled mess – miles of cables, servers, rack mounts and datacom switches. Pictures they took of the assorted gear resembled aerial shots of a city. Soon, referencing big cities like New York, London and Shanghai, they started settling on the idea that if the Internet was a city, then buildings would represent websites. The bigger the website, the bigger the building.
The quickly ran into problems of scale as well as design – how many buildings are needed, and what should they look like? “One of the first ideas for the Internet was every building was unique,” Lechner explains. “That didn’t work because you don't know which one to look at. So, we came up with this idea where there’s a certain number of similar buildings, and then you stick in certain eye-catchers."
They also came up with the concept of having buildings covered in screens and video billboards, constantly changing signage that helps establish the energy of a city that itself is alive. According to Petti, “Screen graphics was a very early concept. We should have lots of screens that are constantly changing, as well as lots of videos. We did several tests with establishing shots of the city. What we discovered was that if the screens changed too frequently, it was far too distracting. You'd be looking all over the place. Are they too bright? How many should there be? How many should have motion? How many should be static? There was considerable trial and error just playing around with timing and the overall visual complexity.”
The decision was also made early to incorporate both actual and imaginary websites, so the audience would know where they were, based on a visual reference grounded in their understanding of the real Internet. “We made a decision early on that we would make up our own websites like BuzzzTube, some original online games and our search engine KnowsMore,” director Rich Moore describes. “But we wanted it to be familiar and relatable, too. So, we incorporated places like eBay, which is a big part of the story since it’s where Ralph and Vanellope go to buy the replacement part for her game. We have cameos from Amazon, Instagram and Snapchat, among others, and even some international sites, which adds the kind of legitimacy that we wanted.”
“If you don't have enough branded sites, the city feels too uniform,” Wu adds. “If you have too many of them then you don't know where to look. But, you also you need those identifiable, recognizable real brands to ground yourself in the world too. If it’s all made up stuff that you're still calling the Internet, it won't feel real.”
How then should identifiable brands be designed? What does Amazon.com look like in Ralph’s world? “When we had to design eBbay, for example, or other real sites, we tried many different things,” Lechner says. “For eBay, at first, we tried a bay. Then it was a flea market. When you look at Facebook, it’s a book and people are posting on the pages. When it’s one simple idea, you can easily understand it. The gag, the translation from the real world, has to be simple enough for the audience to not have to think about it. So, packing boxes, for example, are easily taken in. Then you see drones flying around and then you have it as Amazon. But, what is also important to me is if you don't know Amazon, it's still an impressive building to look at.”
For the video site BuzzzTube, all the videos had to be generated. At one point, Lechner had to enlist the entire art department of everyone in the Disney Feature Animation building to generate the volume of content that was needed.
In addition to the film’s new environments, the team had to bring in and convert environments from the first movie, including several real-world sets from Litwak’s Arcade, as well as the new sets needed to show how the arcade connects to the Internet, allowing Ralph and Vanellope to escape their previous confines and begin their new journey. How do they get to Internet? According to Lechner, “The Litwak’s Arcade owner buys a computer and router, plugs them together, and when he logs in, just like in real world, information gets packaged, encapsulated and sent off into the telephone wire, before getting transferred into a fiber optic cable. Here’s where we break the lightspeed barrier and enter the realm of the abstract. You’re really entering the Internet at this point.”
What about all the other elements we see in the film? What about “people?” As written about previously in How Disney Designed the Retro-Meets-Modern Digital World of ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet,’ the population of the Internet is divided into Net Users and Netizens. Net Users represent us – people who logon and use 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.
Wanting a modern city that didn’t feel like you were looking inside a computer, buildings were made out of concrete, metal and glass, with different ratios depending on the building type. Roads and sidewalks took on the look of circuit board patterns, complete with gold inlays. “The more we saw the shots, the more we realized certain things needed more detail,” Lechner said. “Like in sidewalks, there’s usually some type of terrazzo pattern. Because you need the fine detail for closer shots, we used circuit board patterns. We used a lot of gold inlays, patterned glass and mosaics. There's a lot of energy in things like railings, sidewalks, the paths people travel on. The sidewalks used to glow but we quickly discovered it’s hard to light glowing sidewalks, so they don't glow anywhere.”
What about vehicles? How do Netizens and Net Users move around the city? Transportation was designed around analogies for how, in essence, electrons travel through wires and light beams travel through fiber optic cables. “One mode of transportation is basically this shape, like a car, shown as a cube, like a pixel so to speak, that all the Net Users are traveling in,” Lechner explains. “When someone clicks on something, the cube forms around them and lifts them up to the website. It’s supposed to feel simple, efficient and fast. There are also Netizen vehicles that we had a little bit more fun with. We have some drones flying around, some special light cycles, email vans and recycling trucks. In one old, pop-up website we’ve got this crappy old car. But, it’s still futuristic. We could be more inventive with the Netizens cars, which are basically spaceships just flying around.”
One of the main design challenges was where to point the audience’s attention -- how to make sure they aren’t overwhelmed by the complexity of any scene and look exactly where you want them to. No matter how complex the scene, the story must always drive the visual, and keeping the audiences’ focus always takes priority. “We always design to the cameras no matter what sets we build,” Wu points out. “After we define cameras, we make slight adjustments to focus the eye. We arrange elements, we rearrange, we shift around, we always build the shots with an eye to the camera and the audience.”
“I think part of the challenge is making sure that your eye’s looking at the right place when you have all those different scales,” Petti adds. “Knowing that was our challenge, we designed our workflow so that we could quickly gather enough details for the camera when needed. We didn't build all the detail everywhere at first. We only added details when the story called for it.”
The biggest technical challenge was just handling the sheer enormity of the environment and huge array of items that made up the world. The team struggled to render a final image with literally millions of elements. According to Lechner, “I think a lot of it was about the scope and scale. It's not like Moana, where there's water and we'd never done water like that before. Or like Zootopia, where there's fur, and we'd never done fur like that before. We know how to make buildings. We know how to make people. But, we’ve never had hundreds of thousands of buildings in a single shot, with millions of people, vehicles flying around and all these signs that are constantly changing and moving -- managing all of that, building all of that, while not breaking our renders, or tools, or the artists who have to art direct and make changes on everything in the shot, was difficult. We took all our tools and just sort of amped them up to be able to handle the sheer amount of complexity that was present throughout the movie.”
The team learned early on their rendering pipeline would choke on the visual complexity. ‘When we had enough buildings so that visually, we liked what we saw, and we were happy with the camera, we did our first test,” Petti notes. “We tried to render it all out, using Disney’s Hyperion renderer. Well, it wasn’t happy and it never came back. So, we had to go back and figure out how to make a city on the scale we needed but with enough efficiency that we could work with it in all departments and finish the movie on time.”
"You have all those signs on the outside of the buildings, like billboards,” Lechner remarks. “All those pieces make up just one building. If you have hundreds of thousands of buildings, and you try to brute force this through the pipeline, it’s just not going to be able to handle it in the renderer.” Ultimately, 1.9 million render hours per day were needed to render final images for the show.
Considering how to light the world of the Internet begs the question, “Does Ralph’s world have a sun?” Where does the light come from? “At some point we thought that we would use the sun from a weather app that you would see in the sky,” Petti explains. “But, what we ended up with is sort of like an electronic Northern Lights that's moving ever so slightly over the Internet. It's very subtle. We didn't want the audience to be aware of it. Emotionally, if I make the sky green, you have a different reaction than if I make it blue. So, we ended up having a blue hue to the sky that feels like a sunny day because that's emotionally what we wanted to get in those shots. At one point we talked about having nighttime shots in the city, but we never ended up doing it.”
While the film always takes place in daytime, the vertical aspect of the cityscape means that shadows impact the lighting for many scenes. “The Internet also has considerable vertical change. New websites are built on top the older websites underneath, so the lower you get, the darker you get,” Wu notes, “We definitely play certain scenes in shadow of big buildings.”
All told, there were 150 different unique environments, including those brought over and updated from Wreck-it Ralph. These were made up of almost 6,000 unique assets, along with all the little props that went into building them. To handle that volume of material, the team pulled not just from the original film but from many of Disney’s previous animated movies. “We pulled from Big Hero 6, from Zootopia, from Tangled and even way back to Bolt,” Lechner says. “You’ll find lots of little Easter eggs. Look at the items being auctioned off on eBay. You might see the frying pan from Tangled. Or Aladdin’s lamp.” Disney has a model repository where artists can access anything published on any show. “Getting the model out, that’s easy,” Petti adds. “Once you start dealing with the textures, or hair, that probably didn’t age as well. We’d have to do more to recreate that successfully.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.