Last Night, I Saw John Lasseter’s Desk and “Wreck-It Ralph.”
Neil Ticktin and the rest of the MacTech Conference’s organizers take the attitude that they’re the hosts to all of the show’s attendees and speakers. They try very, very, very hard to make sure you have a great time while you’re here.
I reckon that if he ever held the conference in Paris, I’d come back home and my friends would want to see my photos of the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and I’d shrug and tell them “I just didn’t make it to any of those places. I was having too much fun at MacTech events.”
Witness last night’s revels. After dinner, hundreds of us boarded buses in a mature and orderly fashion and we were taken to the Walt Disney Studios, for a tour of the Disney Animation building followed by an advance screening of “Wreck-It Ralph.” The movie doesn’t open for another two weeks.
This was more than slightly amazing. I hadn’t imagined that this whole thing had been set up just for us. I thought Disney was one of these corporate campuses with an unofficial “Take Your Visiting Friends And Relatives To Work Day” set aside every week or every month, when (say) everybody in the Mattel office knows to make sure they snap the fake wheels onto their prototype hoverboards just in case someone’s cousin from Omaha is walking through the building that day.
But nope: dozens of Disney employees, from interns to animators and up, kept the lights on in the building and canceled their dinner plans just for MacTech. I can’t imagine how Neil pulled that off. Some folks from Disney IT are speaking at the conference, so he definitely had some Ins. Still, I have to wonder if he also had a hostage of some sort. Perhaps a bootleg workprint of the movie on a server in a copyright-hostile nation, and a daemon that would automatically post the FTP link to twelve Disney message boards if Neil failed to send the server a text message at a pre-determined hour known only to him.
Well, however he pulled it off, I’m glad he pulled it off.
There were some Rules to contend with. No photography inside the studio (blast) and cellphones had to be checked outside the theater. All in all, I thought it made more sense to just leave all of my electronics in the hotel room.
Good Lord! Four hours, during which I had to live only in each moment!
I did fine.
Sure, every eleven minutes, my endocrine system dumped some panic chemicals into my bloodstream. But when I reminded myself “No, we didn’t leave our phone or our iPad on the bus. We didn’t bring them, remember? It’s fine. We don’t need to run back” my pulse rate dropped right back to nominal. For the next eight point three minutes.
I had no recording devices, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t document. I stapled together a notepad from hotel stationery so I could take notes during the evening.
1) Most of the Disney people wore custom-made, hand-scissored paper name tags depicting a classic Mac wearing mouse ears. “Bruce” must have dropped his at some point. I felt that the responsible thing for me to do was to pick it up before someone stepped on it and they slipped and fell and sued the company.
(You’re most welcome, Disney. No, please…it’s what I do. The tag is right here in my hotel room for safekeeping.)
2) “Wreck-It Ralph” is set in a “Toy Story”-esque behind-the-scenes world of arcade games, and the lead characters are from a “Donkey Kong”-style coin-op game called “Fix-It Felix, Jr.” And whaddya know: the animators had a 100% convincing mockup of the arcade cabinet, running a fully-playable copy of the game. It was accurate all the way down to the detail of a tiny, worn sticker in the corner of the backlit title panel, with the name, address, and phone number of the machine’s service contractor (“New Wave Arcade Repair and Service, 423 West 10th Street, Los Angeles, CA”).
3) John Lasseter’s office is impressively small, given that he’s Chief Creative Officer of the animation studio. It’s on the main floor and has windows on three sides, so his business is everyone’s business. The shelves are filled with toys and the walls are lined with original production drawings. Mostly anthropomorphized airplanes. Are these from the 2013 direct-to-DVD release “Planes”? The designs had more of a vintage, Tex Avery feel to them. Alas, John locked the door before he left and some nosy animator wouldn’t leave me alone long enough to pick the lock, so I couldn’t get a closer look.
4) I admire Lasseter greatly so yes, of course I spent a lot of time looking at the things laid on his desk. There was a program for “Paperman,” a rather exciting short that will be attached to “Wreck-It Ralph.” There were a few all-too-brief clips of it running on a screen elsewhere, as a demo of the steps involved in modern digital animation.
“Paperman” seems to combine the flow and the immediacy of hand-drawn 2D animation with the expanded palette of digital presentation. The sole disappointment of a long evening at Disney was that we didn’t get to see it in full. I’ve now seen “Wreck-It Ralph” for free, more than two weeks before its release. I still plan to pay money to see it in a theater. I want to see “Paperman,” too.
5) Disney Animation is a major Mac house. Every presentation and every demo that incidentally included a screenshot of any kind of process had a MacOS menubar in it.
An in-house Mac developer gave a detailed walkthrough of “Raconteur,” Disney’s custom app for building, presenting, and managing digital storyboards. It was a great demo. It made me try to imagine those segments that Walt Disney used to present on the old “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World” show, in which he explained the animation process.
“We use CALayer objects for the thumbnails, and when the animator plays through the scene with dialogue, we’re using the IKSlideshow class…”
6) It was an “open house” style tour. Lots of Disney folks were on hand, and they seemed genuinely pleased to talk about their work. I’m devoutly interested in this stuff. Apple talks a lot about making products that sit at the intersection of liberal arts and engineering. Well, Apple ain’t got nothin’ on Disney or Pixar. The process begins with artists drawing and writers writing, in an environment where anything is possible and limits don’t exist. Then, they need to build the software and the technologies to make those things happen.
Four animators were in a small screening room, talking about the job of animating the movie and illustrating their points with some loops.
Near the start of the process, an animator hand-draws a short clip of full pencil animation of a character, just to play around with how this person might move and interact, and to define his mannerisms and ideosyncracies. This informs how the model needs to be built and rigged. Then, they produce a “calisthenic” of the model doing pretty much what the name implies, as a means of working out all of the technical details to implement the features the animator suggested with the pencil animation.
So what happens when they discover that no amount of trickery will allow this character to touch the top of his head with those stubby little arms? Do they change the design? Do they change the scene so that he no longer needs to scratch his head? Or do they cheat?
And that’s what I find so fascinating about this kind of work. All across the planet, Mac developers are trying to work out how to change their apps to comply with Apple’s new requirements for sandboxing in Mac OS 10.8. It’s a purely technical requirement, with a technical solution.
In animation? They’re dealing with the fact that eleven months ago, a writer typed “The Emperor takes off his crown and scratches his head, unaware that he’s disrupting the the microscopic alien invasion armada that’s landing on his scalp.” The massive fleet of spaceships is no problem. Rendering hair at micron-resolution is no problem. A dude scratching his head? Uh-oh…um, can we give him a scepter, maybe, and then he scratches his head with that instead?
7) Pixar and Disney are separate animation studios owned by the same company. You’d think that they’d pool the development of their software, but apparently not. Some of the reasons for that are amusingly esoteric. At times, huge technical problems are created by simple cultural differences. Disney’s artists use filenaming scheme that’s different from Pixar’s, for example.
I imagine that a separation of software benefits both studios, though. Innovation is accelerated by multiple teams working equally hard to solve many of the same problems simultaneously and in isolation.
(If you want to create a great cat, take two of the same species and drop them on separate islands for a half a million years. Each will independently develop unique innovations, techniques, and solutions.)
Plus, the more I talk to animators the better I realize that each movie is like a whole new software product, and that the tools are designed to function for a specific shop floor and a specific kind of craftsman. A Ferrari factory has the staff, materials, and skills to make anything…except a Lamborghini.
Onward to the screening. It’s common for a studio to collect devices before a screening. But I’m quite phobic about letting a device with so much personal information on it out of my control. Before dinner, I returned to my room, patted myself down, and then I locked a pile of cameras and gadgets in the safe.
I needed to about-face shortly after leaving my room. As I walked back, I couldn’t help but think of that familiar scene from 1980′s “hero lone-wolf cop” movies.
“This time you’ve gone too damn far, Ihnatko! I want your iPhone! NOW!!!”
(I squint, scowl, and drop my iPhone 4S on his desk blotter. I start to turn away.”
“AND the other one!!!”
I didn’t have the iPhone 5 in a leg holster or anything. But oh, right, yes…I’d forgotten the other one.
As we all lined up outside the studio theater, I heard the security guys say for the Nth time that phones weren’t allowed inside the theater, and I passed by the Nth unmissable, severely-worded sign to that same effect. I wondered if LA studio culture was the same as the TSA’s. If I joked about having an iPhone taped to my chest, would I be arrested and interrogated? Would they have shut down the theater and put the whole studio in lockdown, delaying all movies for a minimum of three hours until the all-clear?
But everyone was very sweet and very efficient, particularly when you consider that they were walking several hundred people across the studio and into the theater. I was the third person to enter. I instinctively scanned the ceiling for a telltale little red light. I’ve been in ILM’s big theater a couple of times…there’s a tiny dot that tells you “You are sitting in the theater’s sweet spot.”
I think. For all I know it means “You are in the seat on the trapdoor that drops you straight to the Rancor pit.” Whatever: no such luck. I chose the center spot, and sank into one of the cushiest theater seats I’ve ever sat in.
We have been asked not to talk about “Wreck-It Ralph” in detail. As if “simple gratitude to the studio that went to great, generous efforts to show us all a good time” wasn’t enough of a reason to comply, there’s also this: if sneak-previewing their tentpole holiday release to us were to End Poorly for Disney, then they’d probably wouldn’t take the same risk with another group in the future.
(So if you’re an 2014 LA convention of orthopedists and you get to see “Wreck-It Ralph 2″ a month in advance, you have the attendees of MacTech 2012 to thank.)
I’m sure that Disney is not averse to Advance Buzz (see “Wreck-It Ralph” in theaters and in 3D on November 2!). So I’ll say a few things about it.
During the end credits, I jotted down the names of two movies. First, “American Graffiti.” This 1973 film was set in 1962, when most of the adults in the audience were teens, like the main characters. To heighten the audience’s sense of connection to the story, George Lucas (screenwriter and director) licensed the actual music of the era…which at the time, was unprecedented.
“Wreck-It Ralph”‘s game characters had that same effect on me, and I think the rest of the audience. The sound of Q*Bert cursing immediately sends almost everyone above the age of 35 back to where and who they were when they first heard it, just as reliably as the opening bars of “Love Potion No. 9″ did for all of those baby boomers in 1973. There are gaming signposts like that for almost every grownup who sees this movie.
(Can a parent take their kids to see “Wreck-It Ralph” without interrupting it every three minutes? “Oh…OH! Son! See that guy in the chef’s hat? Walking in the background? That’s Peter Pepper! He walks up and down these ladders, trying to assemble hamburgers, and…”)
The second movie: “That Thing You Do!”.
Each of the three arcade games that play central roles in the story were made up just for the movie. That’s risky. How many times has there been movie in which a character is meant to be a fantastic performer, and there’s a big scene in which they perform and all of the other characters applaud and think “Wow! This person is incredibly talented!”…but the entire movie audience is thinking “No. He totally sucks. As a comic, his material is obvious and hacky, his delivery is painfully labored, he’s not connecting with the audience in the comedy club in any way at all…”
“That Thing You Do!” is about this college band that writes a song that almost immediately becomes a national Top 10 hit. The song is performed seven times during the movie. If the song sucks even once, the audience will never believe anything else that happens in the movie. But “That Thing You Do!” is wonderful. I could easily imagine it being one of those tunes that you can’t escape from for a whole summer.
Same thing with the made-up games in “Wreck-It Ralph.” I actually wanted to play these games: “Sugar Rush” (a candy-themed racing game akin to Mario Cart) and “Fix-It Felix, Jr.” (an 80′s Donkey Kong style boss game).
And the “Fix-It Felix, Jr.” arcade cabinet in the animation studio was fully playable. Whatever hardware was driving it inside, nothing whatsoever broke the illusion that this was a vintage 80′s game.
I really got into it. It’s a terrific game. I could imagine dumping quarter after quarter from my paper route tips into this machine, at the game room in the candlepin bowling center near my parents’ house. I could have sat there for a half an hour, if not for the fact that my time there was limited, there was a lot to see, and I wanted to be courteous to other folks who might have wanted to play.
That’s kind of incredible, isn’t it? Disney went to a great deal of trouble on a detail that few people would really experience. Everybody who sees “That Thing You Do!” will hear the song. Practically nobody who sees “Wreck-It Ralph” will play the arcade game in its in-movie context. And yet…it’s perfect.
(It’s so good, in fact, that I wonder if Disney doesn’t plan to produce a few hundred cabinets for the theaters presenting “Wreck-It Ralph.” There’s a free mobile app edition, but it doesn’t compare to the immersion of a real cabinet with a real joystick and buttons.)
I wish I’d had more time to speak to the animators about the game’s development. The basic mechanics are part of the story. It’s a high-rise apartment building; Ralph pounds away from above, breaking windows and dropping bricks; Felix climbs up, fixing broken glass and dodging falling debris. But how did the game become so needlessly (from the point of view of making the movie) playable?
I was told that the filmmakers handed it off to Disney’s game division and that they themselves were surprised by the job they did. I wonder how much back-and-forth there was, and how hard the studio worked on the game mechanics before they moved from hand-drawn storyboards to the irreversible engines of digital movie development.
Well. “Wreck-It Ralph” is a terrific movie. It keeps moving, moving, moving and it fully exploits an exciting concept that’s intrinsically kinetic and visual. The story is touching without getting overly sentimental, and the plot is complex without becoming burdensome.
And it pleased me straight through to the end of the credits.
(Upon consideration, I shall label the rest of this post as a Spoiler. I was delighted with this discovery, and maybe you’ll prefer to experience that glimmer of recognition on your own. It’s a subtle thing.)
(Last chance to bail.)
The end-credits music are tunes based on the games in the movie.
There is a song about the game “Wreck-It Ralph.”
That song is written and performed by Buckner & Garcia. You know…the folks who had a hit in the early 80′s with “Pac-Man Fever.”
I told you that I intend to see this movie during its release, so I can see the “Paperman” short. But I was so delighted with this highly-esoteric inclusion of B&G on the soundtrack that I now want Walt Disney Animation Studios to have $11 of my money on general principle.
My thanks to everyone at MacTech and Disney who made this wonderful visit and screening possible.