Having already rung up $100 million in domestic theatrical receipts to go along with its certified fresh 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, “Wreck-It Ralph” looks well on its way to staking out a claim as the next hip new animated franchise. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance recently to speak to director Rich Moore one-on-one, about some of the unusual flights of fancy in cracking the narrative spine of the fun little film, the differences between small screen and big screen animation, and all the exotic research trips he didn’t get to take. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: So is this time — talking with the press — more terrifying or fun?
Rich Moore: It’s fun because it’s talking about what we’ve been working on, and it’s right up upon us.
ShockYa: You were an originating director on “The Simpsons.” How different is it working with more established characters — or those that you know are existing in a more serialized small screen format — and channeling ideas, energy and story nuggets if you will, through those characters rather than through more discrete storytelling? Does that place any certain constraints on imagination?
RM: The stories that you’re telling on television are definitely way different, because you’re taking a cast of characters and you’re putting them through several different little morality tales that always have to land back where you started. They land at zero because they can’t change — if the characters are learning big lessons and becoming more mature or fully rounded people, and they carry that over to the next episode, then it’s not much fun, they’re not going to make the same mistakes they would if they’re starting from zero. So number one, directing those stories, they have a different rhythm to them, and you’re doing them at a much faster pace than if you’re just honing the same 90 minutes over the course of three years. As far as putting constraints on [you], I think with these new characters it’s kind of liberating that you can take them and start from zero and then take them to a place where you can land them and let them finish off a journey as changed people. The constraints are more in television, where you can’t really take a character as far as in a movie, or the emotions don’t play quite as deeply as they do in a movie. … In a movie the audience feels satisfied when they see a character grow or change in some way.
ShockYa: Before you had the story, how much time was spent on developing the characters and these worlds?
RM: When we make a movie we’re always kind of developing the characters and the place to reflect the themes and core conceit of what the thing is about. When it was pretty clear in “Wreck-It Ralph” that we were making something very simple — about an arcade videogame character wondering about the meaning of life and wondering why he can’t be something different than what he was programmed to be — we thought, “Well, who best to tell the story?” (Screenwriter) Phil (Johnston) and I talk a lot about how, for the first couple months of working on the story we thought that the good guy hero character was going to be the main character in the movie. And we couldn’t get traction with that idea because it seemed like well why would someone who has a pretty good life and is a hero be wondering if this is all there is to life. It seems like he would be pretty happy. I’m not saying that that couldn’t be told. But in the style that we were doing it wasn’t sticking, and it was Phil at one point who said if you think of our characters as Mario and Donkey Kong, wouldn’t it be more fun to watch Donkey Kong go through this journey? Doesn’t he have more room to grow, going from a selfish bad guy character to someone who’s selfless and feels comfortable being that person that he didn’t like being? So that’s how we landed on who our main character was, fundamentally, and knowing that we wanted to place our story in an arcade we wanted someone who’d been doing this a long time so that dictated that this should be an old game that’s been around a long time, so we get the feeling that it’s someone who’s put in his time. That’s how we came up with the conceit of an 8-bit videogame. And being an old game, it really felt like a small town.
ShockYa: The film showcases some clashing and contrasting animation styles which give it a real flavor. My favorite might be the 8-bit world of the title game. But essentially you had to re-teach your animators, right? And what sort of challenges did you have with the studio, if any?
RM: It was a big challenge, but the studio was always very supportive. It was something that I’d talked about with (executive producer) John Lasseter, and the two of us agreed that what makes the movie fun is that it has an element of being a mash-up. He and I both really enjoyed playing “Super Smash Brothers,” and what we like about it is the fact that it has all the Nintendo characters in there. So we wanted that thread going through the whole movie. Studio-wise, they were totally in support. It was more about taking these people who are the best of the best at what they do (and re-programming them) — these are Shakespearean actors being told to act like they’re in the cheapest soap opera they can think of! So it took coaxing and nudging. Not because they didn’t want to, but they didn’t have experience doing it, and that’s where TV experience comes in. You can say, “Well, this is what bad animation looks like.” (laughs) Not that “The Simpsons” is bad animation, but there have been plenty of things that I’ve done work on that were not sterling examples of the medium. (laughs) It’s a different world.
ShockYa: You also brought in food photographers to talk about how you light food and how it shows up differently on film, and people were dispatched to confectionary conventions in Germany. Did you go on any of those trips?
RM: No! No, no. (laughs) The only field trip that I got to go on was to a videogame graveyard, basically, right up the street from us in Glendale in a warehouse. So I got to drive 10 minutes from the studio to a dark warehouse filled with skeletons of videogames while these guys were in Italy and Barcelona. I’m in Glendale with a guy named Gene, looking at the trophies from a videogame trivia contest that he won in 1987. (laughs) But that was a good trip. It was inspiring, in its own way. I went with our story department, and there was something about seeing the games sitting there and in my generation these things were the kings, these prized jewels that people were crowded around trying to get on, and it was weird seeing them collecting dust and broken open. It was a sad thing, a little bit, a little somber. …It caught a mood that the story department was good on picking up on, and I think that it kind of helped fuel the engine of the nostalgia factor of the games. I think the movie does a good job of that — of rekindling what it felt like to go to those arcades, and what it felt like in there.
ShockYa: The film’s idea of using a surge protector as a hub between all these discrete videogame worlds works so well. So I was surprised to learn that the original idea revolved around… a vortex in a toilet?
RM: (laughs) Well, it speaks to our process — two guys in a room just talking it through. What is amazing about that idea — of a vortex in a toilet — is that in the moment that it came up it seemed like, “Good God, we found the heart of the movie! This is going into the movie come hell or high water. Why didn’t anyone think of this before?” And it has nothing to do with videogames or anything! Not saying that a vortex in a toilet can’t have other uses, but in this movie, no. (laughs) In the moment, for a brief while, it seemed liked a great idea, though, and I think it’s a good example of how we work — talking things through, and then it goes up on a board for several days. But within maybe 48 hours it was like, “No, no, no, no, no…”
Written by: Brent Simon