The biggest new star in Ralph Breaks the Internet is also one of the most popular players in real life. Let's face it, as beloved as the Disney Princesses are who appear in the film's show-stopping, virally sensational Oh My Disney scene, they don't hold a candle to the title player: the Internet.
Disney's 57th animated production and the sequel to 2012's Wreck-It Ralph expands on the original's exploration of the digital landscape. Only this time, it's much, much bigger.
"Believe it or not, there was no pressure on us to do a sequel. we all had options," Ralph Breaks the Internet producer Clark Spencer told SYFY WIRE during a recent press day at the Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California. "But it seemed to us that at the end of the first film, Ralph and Vanellope's story wasn't quite finished. We love these characters so much and there is so much more to say. If we can figure out a way to expand their universe and make life much more difficult for them, then hell, let's do it!"
The way Spencer and his team decided to expand the story was to take our heroes out of the arcade and download them onto the Internet. Ralph and Vanellope head there to find a replacement part to help fix Vanellope's game, Sugar Rush, before it's permanently unplugged. Bringing the World Wide Web to life onscreen as an actual real environment is one of the film's most impressive achievements.
It was also one of its most daunting challenges.
The design process began as every Disney animated film begins: with research. For Zootopia, the filmmakers went to Africa and to the Savannah to learn as much as possible about animal species. For Moana, they studied the cultures of the South Pacific. For Ralph Breaks the Internet, the film's Environments Team took a field trip to, oddly enough, downtown Los Angeles.
That's where a building known as Wilshire One resides. It's an otherwise nondescript high-rise filled with servers and fiber-optic cables that essentially houses all the connections for Internet usage in North America. While there, amidst the miles and miles of cables and wires and server boxes, the genesis for the design of the movie came into focus.
"The jumping off point for us was, if the Internet was a city, the buildings would be the websites," Larry Wu, the film's Head of Environments, told SYFY WIRE.
It's not every day you hear the directors of a Disney animated movie cite Blade Runner as a visual reference, but the 1982 dystopian classic was one of several science-fiction films that helped inspire the architectural design of the Internet. "Happy Blade Runner," co-director Rich Moore says. “The Fifth Element too, inspired us because we wanted a very vertical world, that starts here and grows out and upward. "We used these other films to figure out how they did it and then determine how our city would look, and wanting it to be as different and unique as possible."
"That's what the Internet is. It's like Constantinople," adds co-director/screenwriter Phil Johnston. "It's a city built on top of a city built on top of a city."
Dave Komorowski, Disney's Head of Characters and Technical Animation, says that stacking concept made perfect sense in creating the film's information superhighway. "At the bottom we might have a MySpace or a Netscape," Komorowski says. "But then you have Google, which keeps growing so it's one of the biggest buildings in the Internet, in terms of a three-dimensional space."
Production designers on animated films are often challenged by scenes like a crowded New York City street. In Ralph Breaks the Internet, the task was exponentially harder. "On a film like this you find yourself in a situation where you're not only populating the main street, you're also populating many other streets. It's a lot of characters," Moe El-Ali, the film's Crowds Supervisor, says.
The number of characters used in the sequel is massive. There are 434 unique characters in the movie, with 6,752 variants on those characters based on different hair, clothing, etc. In total, there are more than 500,000 character variations in the movie. To put that in perspective, Wreck-It Ralph had just 421 variants.
Creating the film's Internet city and its citizens took a toll on the production team's Hyperion rendering machines, so the team had to come up with a new process to render the designs. "We had to work on a new process to handle this much data efficiently so that all of our departments could work and build on the art direction," Technical Supervisor Ernie Petti says.
The two main groups of people in the Internet are Netizens and Net Users. When it came to designing how people would look when they're running around inside the Internet and on websites, Production Designer Cory Loftis says inspiration was drawn from Apple's iOS icons, like the ones you see when you download an App. Many of the head shapes for the characters in the film bear that resemblance.
"The difference between the two is that the Net users — us — we see ourselves running around the Internet because we create avatars. But the [Netizens] are the Ghosts in the Machine," Loftis says. "If you send an email, one of them is delivering it. If you put an item in your cart on a website, one of the Netizens will push the cart to the checkout lane. They are the worker bees of the Internet."
Since work on the film began four years ago, the filmmakers were careful not to lean too heavily on popular Internet memes and trends.
"We knew when we started working on the movie several years ago that the things and tropes of the Internet would not be the same that day as when the movie came out," Moore says. "There would be moments where people would come up and say, 'You have to put Ken Bone in there. He's huge on the Internet, he's big. But it's like, no one remembers Ken Bone today. Sorry, Ken Bone."
They focused on the foundations of the Internet, like social media, shopping, and online gaming. And because the Internet is depicted as a huge metropolis, the film also explores some of the sketchier parts of the city. At one point, Ralph ventures into the Dark Net, where faceless Netizens lurk around each corner and viruses spread like wildfire. It's here that Ralph encounters bullying from Internet trolls.
"Over the last four years the Internet has become a pretty hostile place," Moore says. "We can't do a movie about the Internet and make it be all roses and sunshine. We have to give due to the darker side of it and that's why Ralph goes to the Dark Net at one point in the story. We don't want to lecture or preach to the audience, that's the last thing we want to do. But we can show that Ralph could encounter these things and he can fall prey to them. But ultimately we don't want him to solve them, but we want to see how he goes about rising above it."
The filmmakers debated whether to use the names of actual Internet companies or make up their own. In the end, they decided to use real brands such as Etsy, IMDb, and Amazon. The always-popular eBay is featured prominently in the movie when Ralph and Vanellope find the replacement part they need.
"We really wanted the Internet to feel like the Internet we all use every day. We didn't want to distract the audience and have them wracking their brains over what site is that supposed to be, or thinking about that play on words," Moore says. "And like in the first movie, we wanted the places that the characters spend a great deal of time in to be original ideas. We thought that would be the fun part of creating that world. In this movie, eBay is the one exception to that. I mean, on the Internet, if you're searching for a steering wheel, where would you go? So to change the name to 'eBuy' or something would just make the audience start asking questions."
"They would just start saying, 'wait, that's supposed to be eBay,'" Johnston says.
That makes perfect sense. So why is the giant video portal in the film called BuzzTube? Why not just call it YouTube?
"Well, BuzzTube really isn't exactly YouTube," Spencer says. "There's much more of a social media aspect to it. The idea of hearts, which is what you earn on BuzzTube instead of 'likes' as you do on YouTube, was important to us dramatically because of Ralph having the heart necklace from Vanellope and because love is sort of a theme in the film. We wanted hearts to be the currency of BuzzTube.
"I think we did for a moment say, 'should this just be YouTube?' But then we debated it and the hearts [were] a big thing and also the art direction of what we wanted BuzzTube to be like, it just felt like its own thing. eBay totally fit the bill to what we wanted. YouTube was not exactly what we wanted BuzzTube to be."
Check out the photo gallery below for a series of images showing the progression of the "top-down" shot of the Internet at various stages of the production process.