Triple Play
Issue: Volume 35 Issue 6: (Oct/Nov 2012)

Triple Play

Watch the trailer.

Video games and movies about video games have come a long way since Walt Disney Pictures released TRON in 1982. Inspired by writer/director Steven Lisberger, who had become fascinated with Pong, TRON was one of the first films to incorporate computer animation. Now, 30 years later, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Wreck-It Ralph tips a nostalgic nod to the early days of video games with a film packed with state-of-the-art animation, lighting techniques, and visual effects.

Directed by Rich Moore, the Emmy and Annie Award-winning director for The Simpsons and Futurama, Wreck-It Ralph stars the voice talent of John C. Reilly as Ralph, the 8-bit, 9-foot-tall, 643-pound villain in a 1980s arcade game Fix-It Felix. Ralph is a home-wrecker in Niceland, Felix (Jack McBrayer) is the repairman who must fix Ralph’s damage in time to win the game.

Ralph and the other arcade game villains participate in a group therapy session, but it does not help Ralph accept his role as the bad guy.

After 30 lonely years of being the bad guy, though, Ralph decides he wants to be a hero. The good-hearted, gorilla-like character with fists like bulldozers believes that if he could only win a medal he would receive the same love and respect from the Nicelanders as Felix. His chance arrives in the form of a new arcade game, Hero’s Duty. This modern, hyper-real sci-fi game stars Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (“Glee’s” Jane Lynch) as a tough-as-nails leader fighting to save humanity from Cy-Bugs, menacing creatures who know three things: eat, destroy, multiply.

Ralph somehow does win his medal in Hero’s Duty, but not without consequences. He crashes into a third arcade game, Sugar Rush, a 1990s cart-racing game set in a world made entirely out of candy and desserts. There, he meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a scrappy little glitch who wants to race, but can’t. The other racers ostracize the cute little programming error. But, they are all in danger from an enemy that Ralph inadvertently unleashed.

Above, Fix it Felix Jr. and the other brightly colored inhabitants of Niceland rock out at an 8-bit party.

Central station, characters hang out after-hours; it is also where those made homeless from unplugged games live. “Unplugged” is the danger Nicelanders face. When the characters realize that without Ralph there is no game, they send Felix chasing after the bad guy to persuade him to return. Along the way, Felix meets Sergeant Calhoun, and, surprisingly, the opposites attract. This movie does not stand still.

All told, there are 180 characters in the film, albeit some, like Pac-Man, with bit parts. Throughout the film, gamers will recognize many of their favorites in central station and elsewhere. “I’m sure the lawyers would say it was hard to get permissions, but it wasn’t as hard as you might think,” Moore says. “We started with face-to-face meetings. We explained the story and how we would like to use their characters, and nine times out of ten, people were delighted.”

Even so, Moore is quick to point out that the film is about Ralph’s journey, his character arc. “Once we had that, we went back in, figured out how the video game references would apply to the story, and layered them in,” he says. “People respond to the story line, and the characters. We wanted that foundation. We never threw in a reference just for the sake of reference. It needed to apply to a scene or a character.”

Each of the worlds in the film has its own animation style and look. In Fix-It Felix’s Niceland, for example, simple characters move up and down on a grid. There is no diagonal movement. “The animation is staccato, pose to pose, with no in-betweens,” says producer Clark Spencer, “and we used simple textures and lights. In Hero’s Duty, a modern sci-fi shooter, the animation is hyper-real and the textures are complex. It has a gritty realism. Sugar Rush is like a Mario racing game. It has cartoony animation, 2D squash and stretch in 3D. It’s a whimsical world.”

From left to right: Ralph leaves his game, Fix It Felix Jr., and enters Hero’s Duty to try to win a medal and prove he’s a good guy, but he ends up in Sugar Rush, a cart-racing game. Each environment has a distinct look and feel.

Game Design

Art director Mike Gabriel led the design effort that produced a shape language for each of the games, and appointed a different visual development artist to work on concepts and designs. Niceland artists worked with squares and rectangles. Triangles predominated in Hero’s Duty. And artists for Sugar Rush, as might be expected, confected a world made of curves and circles.

“When we started on Niceland, John [Lasseter] said, ‘Guys, celebrate the 8 bit. That is what’s distinct in this world,’ ” Gabriel says. “It was probably the easiest to design. Ian [Gooding, co-art director] looked at a stack of mid-century books, and in a day put all the interiors together. But, we had one scene with a splotch of cake that wasn’t rectangular, and John said, ‘You’re not doing the 8-bit thing.’ We decided, ‘OK, we’ll show you.’ So, everything is 8 bit. The wallpaper, the dirt on the tractor, the negative space is all 8 bit, the wood paneling, the fire in the fireplace.”

Visual development artist Ryan Lang created concept art for Hero’s Duty. “This was the land of triangles,” Gabriel says. To design this first-person shooter, the artists attended gaming conventions and looked for a common theme. “We asked ourselves, What are the requirements for this world? And the answer was a hostile environment,” Gabriel says.

Visual development artist Lorelay Bove’s brother, Edgar, an architect, suggested that they reference buildings designed by Daniel Libeskind. “He uses such a violent-shaped language,” Gabriel says. “Ryan [Lang] was the primary designer and he brought in [visual development artist] Cory Loftis, who is a gamer. Cory and Ryan ran with the idea and perfected it.” A building with jagged, triangle-shaped walls juts up from a ground plane defined with triangles. The world is angular, dark, harsh.

To conceptualize Sugar Rush, Lorelay Bove went back to her roots, to Barcelona, where she had spent her childhood. “When I was young, I’d walk by Gaudi’s buildings, and because of the shapes, I’d think, ‘Oh, he’s trying to make a candy house,’” she says. With that in mind, the artists took a side trip to the Catalonian city.

“We were going to Cologne, Germany, to a candy convention, but we decided to stop in Barcelona,” Gabriel says. “I was shocked. I’d see images of Gaudi’s architecture. But when I walked in the space, I understood the things he was doing. He’d do things like block a doorway with pillars so that when the door was open, the room felt contained. I fell in love with Casa Batlló.”

Back at Disney, Bove began constructing Gaudi’s repetitive patterns from candy and cakes they sampled at the ISM candy convention in Cologne, and at a bakery and the See’s Candy factory in Los Angeles. Jelly in cookies reminded them of stained-glass windows. The ruffled piping on a cake became dust swirls from race cars. Bits of walnut became gravel on the racetrack. “We also learned a lot about how to light food,” Gabriel says, “even to be able to do the artwork. If the light bounces into food, your eye wants to see whether it’s old or new. If it looks gray, it looks old. The back shadow side needs to have the vibrant color that your eye says is good.”

Shades of Reality

Making the candy, cookies, chocolate, and cakes look good enough to eat fell to the artists in the look and lighting department, who stirred up an entirely new batch of shaders for the film. “One reason was that we wanted to up the quality of the movie,” says Adolph Lusinsky, director of look and lighting. “We wanted shaders that gave us more believable reflectivity and shading than in the past.” Lusinsky notes this was especially important for Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush, one a first-person shooter and the other a racing game inside an environment made of food.

The second reason was that their Pixar RenderMan shaders hadn’t changed in more than five years. “We didn’t have area lights or image-based lighting for Tangled,” Lusinsky says. “The shading was more of a computer plastic model.” RenderMan 16’s support for raytracing and global illumination helped motivate the change.

“With our new shader system, we have more believable shading and reflectivity on surfaces,” Lusinsky says. “And, we brought image-based lighting and area lights into the studio. This was especially important for the food. You need big, broad reflections.”

It took the team a year to write the new shaders and put the user interface in place. “It was a complete restart,” Lusinsky says, “a complete rewrite, and it was down to the wire. It was scary.”

Because the new shaders weren’t finished when the artists began working on textures and materials, they began with the old shaders. “In September, the new shaders were finally ready enough,” he says. “We had the artists go in and switch materials, use the new shaders, and make adjustments.”

In the past, using the old shaders, artists would make decisions about material properties. Now they worked with properties based on physical measurements from the MERL BRDF (bi-directional reflectance distribution function) database, which contains reflectance functions for 100 materials. “The artists start with materials based on physical data,” Lusinsky explains. “We built up our material library beginning with the assets we needed to make for the film—wood, metal, skin, and other surfaces—using the data that was out there. The materials are more believable, and things sit together well when they’re all based on real-world data.”

You might ask why the look and lighting team paid so much attention to real-world materials if the film is set inside arcade games. The answer is simple: The goal was to create a movie, not a video game. “I think the worst fear for a lot of people was that this would look like a video game and not a movie, and that you’d wish you had a game controller in your hand,” Gabriel says. “This is a film. The video games are the icing on the cake.”

Thus, Hero’s Duty needed to look like an action movie that takes place in real environments. And, the food needed to look edible. “The director wanted Hero’s Duty to be really real and not just a game,” Lusinsky says. “And you can’t use cartoon shaders for food. It’s amazingly hard to put fudge on a ground plane and have it be believable. If it doesn’t look right, it’s not appetizing.”

Lighting artists used Figaro, a new, in-house, interactive tool to design photorealistic lighting for the dark world in Hero’s Duty (top, left), bright lights for the cartoon colors in Sugar Rush. (top right)

Photographic Lighting

The new area lights and image-based lighting incorporated into the system that provided true soft shadows and proper reflections helped. And, because the digital lights now reflect real-world data, the team used real lights as reference. “We built a lighting studio for the movie,” Lusinsky says. ‘The studio invested in a complete lighting setup for us so we could study lighting for the film. We spent a lot of time photographing food under different lighting conditions. For example, we wanted to know how much light went through a candy cane versus a cake. We used that data and provided the photographs to the look artists as well. We also spent time on live-action sets to study how directors of photography light a live-action stage. We didn’t replicate their lights exactly. But, we studied their techniques and applied them.”

The lighters working on Wreck-It Ralph could experiment using a new rendering system dubbed Figaro that provided interactive, real-time lighting. “It has the new BRDF, our new materials, and the area lights in it,” Lusinsky says. Early in production, the lighting team, then about five artists, began working with the layout artists creating animatics.

“We bought high-end Nvidia cards and souped-up machines so we could chew through sequences quickly,” Lusinsky says. “Figaro is mostly GPU-based, but it can hand stuff to the CPUs. The images aren’t perfect. We don’t have subsurface scattering in the real-time tool. And, we don’t have good anti-aliasing, depth of field, or motion blur, those really nice things that RenderMan can filter. Figaro is meant to get something in front of the director as quickly as possible so he could see the direction we wanted to go with the lighting.”

Once the lighting artists incorporated the director’s notes, they created QuickTime movies with a range of shots in a sequence that the team could start with when they moved into full lighting production. “With RenderMan, it’s a systematic process,” Lusinsky says. “With real-time lighting, it’s more cinematic.”

Although the crew designed the tool for use early in production, it found its way into full production as well. “If someone received a sequence started by another artist, they could quickly go through the lights, understand how each worked, click things on and off, move things around, and get a sense of how the lighting setup worked,” Lusinsky explains. “They could try out new ideas.” Lights set up in Figaro translated directly into RenderMan.

Worlds of Effects

Working closely with the lighting artists were the effects artists who created one to six effects per shot for nearly 1,000 shots. They did this for the three worlds and for another location, as well: the code room.

“It’s a secret room,” says David Hutchins, effects supervisor. “We built it entirely using a procedural workflow. We can handle that kind of complexity easier than the modeling department.”

In the code room, we see how the video games might look from a character’s point of view. “The idea is that since the worlds these characters live in represent video games, they wanted to pull back the curtain and show the audience what the code looks like,” says Cesar Velazquez, effects supervisor. Working from art department sketches, the crew created icons, nodes, and connectors to visualize a general data flow.

Although the team created effects throughout the film, the worlds of Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush consumed most of their work. Hero’s Duty because the environment was so active. Sugar Rush because Ralph spends most of his time in that world. In both, simulation took the cake.

For Fix-It Felix’s Niceland, by contrast, the team used sprite animation, low frame rates, and simple colors. To create a Nicelandic fire, for example, the effects team converted a repeating pattern drawn in 2D into 3D voxels. By contrast, Hero’s game effects were overt, complex, realistic, and immersive. And in another contrast, Sugar Rush had cute, cartoony patterns inspired by a hand-drawn look.

“In Hero’s Duty, we have columns of smoke, ash flying in the air, steam, and other effects to fill the atmosphere,” Hutchins says. “For Hero’s Duty, we’d set up simulations and run iterations until we got the look we wanted, and then created a layered look. Compare that to Sugar Rush, where we had dust that looks like frosting piped onto a cake.”

While the simulations in Hero’s Duty were straightforward, those in Sugar Rush needed a hand-drawn look. Clouds, for example, were matte paintings unless Ralph moved through them. Only then did they become 3D volumes. To help give simulations a sweeter, hand-drawn look, the team turned to Disney artists, who had created traditional effects.

“We used a hybrid technique,” Hutchins says. “We combined the result of simulations with hand-sculpted shapes. Simulation is great for complexity, but not great when you want to direct the contour of the shape or have specific timing. When a simulation looked too CG, we augmented it with procedurally, art-directed shapes that would blend and merge with the simulation results.”

Often, an effects animator would do a first pass and a quick playblast or rough render. Then, an effects designer would draw over the result to adjust the shape and timing. “The goal of current simulation technology is to make the result as real as possible, so when you want cartoony or hyper-real looks, it becomes difficult,” Velazquez says. “That’s where we could draw on the legacy of 2D animation and 2D effects animators we have here. In most cases, we tuned the tools to tune the shape and timing. In other cases, we threw out the simulations and incorporated a new approach. Nothing groundbreaking, just fine-tuning. Because of the large number of shots, we had to economize where we could in tool development. We wanted to smartly use the fluid simulation tools we had.”

As the look and lighting team had done, the effects team created tools that allowed layout artists to give animatics a more sophisticated look. “Ralph breaks a lot of things,” Velazquez says. “Rather than just seeing a sphere, the director could look at smoke and destruction.”

The primary tool for the effects team, though, was Side Effects Software’s Houdini, with RenderMan for rendering, Disney’s pTex for texturing, and Disney’s xGen for creating grass, fur, and to scatter sugar crystals throughout the Sugar Rush environment. The team also created a destruction pipeline using Houdini for authoring and fracturing, and the open-source software Bullet for simulation.

“I think the overall take-away from this film is the variety,” Hutchins says. “And, the need to have the effects support the look of three different worlds.”

For the director, the total package seems like the right film at the right time. “There’s a lot of history to video games now,” Moore says. “I think what’s fun about this movie is that we’re able to play old-school games against the new ones. There’s a lot of comedy in that, a lot of nostalgia. This movie might not have worked 10 years ago.” Given the advances in computer graphics, it certainly wouldn’t have looked the same.

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at