Animating “Ralph Breaks the Internet” not only entailed summoning bold imagination to bring the World Wide Web to life — it also meant tapping into fond memories to recreate beloved Disney characters.
The film includes a hilarious sequence featuring classic princesses, and Vancouver-born animator Benson Shum got to meet the actress who voices Mulan in order to draw his favourite cartoon warrior.
“There was a lot of pressure to make that character come to life,” said Shum, but he added meeting Ming-Na Wen helped.
“My supervisor asked if I wanted to go down to the recording booth to watch her record the lines I was going to animate. I was like, ‘Yes.’ I bolted downstairs to the recording room. … She was just so kind.”
The movie, a sequel to 2012 hit “Wreck-It Ralph,” follows the title character voiced by John C. Reilly as he and his best friend Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) venture into the internet. The web is a chaotic, colourful city filled with incessant pop-up ads and skyscrapers bearing brand names, and the duo meet familiar characters and new friends.
In the standout princess sequence, Vanellope stumbles upon a gathering of iconic female characters including Mulan, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White and Ariel. The group is skeptical that hoodie-clad Vanellope could be a princess, and the scene cleverly sends up the gender dynamics of Disney films past.
Watching Wen deliver her lines informed how Shum drew Mulan, a rare non-princess in the Disney canon. Animators try to figure out what voice actors are thinking, he said.
“What is going through their mind while they’re saying this line? We try to animate that, and I think that’s what gives the character a lot of layers and makes them feel like they’re breathing and real.”
Shum grew up in east Vancouver but now lives in sunny southern California as an animator for Walt Disney Animation Studios. His journey to his dream job took time: he wasn’t accepted, initially, to his chosen college program, and his career bounced back and forth between animation and live-action visual effects.
His advice to those hoping to break into the industry is simple: just keep drawing.
“I think that’s still a very important thing to do, even though a lot of stuff we do now is on the computer,” he said. “Drawing will teach you about design, about how to pose a character and see things three-dimensionally.”
Though Shum left Vancouver, there’s no shortage of opportunities in the city. It has come into its own as a graphics hotspot with about 60 animation and visual effects studios.
“Growing up, the industry wasn’t really here. We had a few studios,” he said, speaking in a Vancouver hotel during a recent visit. “I love to see that my hometown is growing. … There are a lot of amazing artists here.”
His other credits at the studio include the original “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Frozen,” and the upcoming and highly anticipated “Frozen 2.” Working on the “Frozen” franchise has been exciting because he grew up watching similar animated musicals, he said.
Some 70 animators worked on “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” Shum was among six or seven who created a sequence in which Ralph plays an iPad game that involves swiping left and right to feed pancakes to a bunny and milkshakes to a cat.
In typical Ralph style, he gets over-excited and stuffs the bunny with too many pancakes, with comically disastrous results.
A two-second shot in that sequence took two weeks to animate, so the work can be painstaking. But the finished product makes it all worthwhile, Shum said.
“When you see the character come to life, I think that really makes you excited again. It’s no longer a static object,” he said. “That always energizes you again to keep going.”
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