As Wreck-It-Ralph heads toward surprise box office hit status, the story of an 8-bit arcade videogame hero couldn’t have been brought to the screen without considerable cutting-edge technological help, undreamt of in the in the original 2D era in which Ralph, and his nemesis/pal, Fix-It Felix, were ostensibly created.
Andy Hendrickson, chief technological officer at Disney Animation Studios, recently spoke with Below the Line about the infrastructure that allowed a digitally simple character to have digitally fantastic adventures. In the case of the titular Ralph, he wanders out of his own Mario-esque arcade game into the worlds of the adjoining games, including a somewhat “Halo”-like first-person shooter game called “Hero’s Duty” and a “Candy Land” racing game mash-up called “Sugar Rush,” where most of the film’s action takes place.
But Ralph’s journey was only made possible by the real-world journey undertaken by Disney Animation. “We started rebuilding our asset pipeline with Tangled,” Hendrickson said, which was apparently in the nick of time, as Ralph is a story that boasts “120 characters and five distinct worlds – and we have a fixed budget.” Comparable films usually had a couple dozen characters than needed to be rendered, but Ralph, with its blend of original and iconic arcade characters, was attempting to be a kind of “Ragtime” for the video game generation.
However, to handle that many characters, in the time they had, Hendrickson said that the studio returned to a classic Disney approach – they painted it. No, not in the Fantasia sense, but with the invention of “face shader” software that allowed every object in the film to be fed different inputs by the various animators. “You can paint those variables on in real time,” Hendrickson said, allowing a “Disney, painterly” approach to creating a lot of the scenes.
And this new approach helped with the fixed release date of the production as well. “It’s way fast, it turns out,” said Hendrickson.
Part of what makes it so fast is the algorithm used by this new, robust pipeline, which is “based in the physics of light.” It doesn’t allow you to “paint combinations that don’t make sense,” instead, all of the virtual painting is created “in response to light.”
That, in turn, “allows us to very quickly take a variety of scenes and put looks down quickly,” according to Hendrickson, and rather than use lots of math and code, concentrate “on the art of the world, rather than the mechanics.”
The NSA might even be impressed, as this concentration on light rather than code, was made possible, in part, by a giant super computer on the company’s Burbank lot. Hendrickson describes the computer as “a complete movie studio in a box.”
Besides benefits for digital painters, there’s also a camera capture, which allows animators to see the CG world being created through a viewfinder, and then, by virtue of this real-time plug in to Maya, “move the camera around the world” being created, all part of what Hendrickson terms the “new human/user interfaces” Disney animation is seeking between its tools and its animators, who are increasingly called upon to create ever more complex environments.
Camera moves can be set in roughly rendered sets, which are then finished by animators, who are free to experiment with different camera angles as well. The technique was so successful in pulling Wreck-It-Ralph together that Hendrickson says they’ll be “using it in all of our films going forward.”
And though this allows Disney Animation to work faster – Wreck-It-Ralph, for all its scope, was pulled together in about 18 months. Hendrickson says that “producing more films really isn’t the point.” Indeed, even technology itself wasn’t the point. “It was because of the story,” he says.
The ability to quickly incorporate hundreds of materials and thousands of samples – the light responses to those materials – allowed the animators to not only build new worlds, but try new and different ones as well. “You can run out of time,” Hendrickson says, trying to get the ideas and images “out of a person’s head and onto the screen.”
The super-computing era at Disney Animation allows the story “to be that much more creative.”
However, time isn’t the only thing one could run out of – apparently the raw juice for such computing was an issue as well. “We didn’t have enough power to run it,” he allows, so the solution was to locate “half of the computer in Chinatown.”
So there are new Disney buildings there, connected via fiber-optic cables running parallel to the 5 and 134 freeways, to headquarters back in Burbank. “The physical plant is distributed,” he says, which isn’t in and of itself a new concept, as Disney has “been practising cloud computing for quite some time.”
This particular cloud extended all the way down to an iPhone app – sorry, no Android verison – which allowed a quick check of render data on scenes that were being worked on. Hendrickson describes it as, “operational data, so artists can look and see what’s going on with a job.”
And in between the super-computer and the iPhones, there were lightweight work stations, which allowed animators to work from home, without having to haul data between studio and domicile.
Hendrickson allows there was some irony in the use of so much new technology to tell the story of old technology. One of his first jobs was actually working in one of the 80’s-era arcades that featured then-new games like the one Ralph inhabits.
They were using “microprocessors to entertain people,” he realized, and now, with Ralph’s digitally-rendered world, they still are.
Only really, really fast microprocessors. Which you can find networked all over town. “We’ve gone in a big full circle,” Hendrickson says. Or perhaps, in arcade game terminology, simply gone to the next level up.