It didn't make the most noise at Comic Con or have the most star-studded panel, but Disney's animated film Wreck-It Ralph had one of the best receptions of any film at Comic Con this year, with the audience laughing constantly at clips from the adventure about the villain of an 8-bit video game who decides he wants to be a hero, and travels to other games within the arcade to find himself. More than just looking like a solid quest story, with John C. Reilly voicing the titular bad guy and Jack McBrayer as the cheery Felix, Wreck-It Ralph contains cameos from tons of familiar video games characters, and scenes set in worlds that look a whole lot like Halo and Mario Kart, even if they don't quite say it. In one early scene Ralph is at a self-help meeting for video game villains right alongside Bowser, Kano from Mortal Kombat and one of the Pac-Man ghosts.
But as director Rich Moore explains, you can't just toss in those characters and be done with it-- you have to make their presence count. And as a veteran of The Simpsons and Futurama, Moore knows how to work intricate comedy into an animated world, which is part of what makes Wreck-It Ralph look so exciting. I caught up with Moore the day after the stellar Hall H presentation and asked him about his own personal Comic Con memories, what he hoped to get out of presenting the footage to Hall H, and the key to including references to old-school video games without making them lame. Take a look at the conversation below, and see Wreck-It Ralph in theaters this fall.
Are you a Comic Con veteran?
Oh, my first Comic Con was 1986, when it was in the community center, in the old days. It was a whopping 10 people in line to get in. What it's become-- it feels like within the last two years it's taken another huge lurch forward. I can't put my finger on it, but something about the last two years… Something's happened.
Do you feel like it's for the better or worse?
It's just natural. It wasn't better or worse. It is what it is. And it was mostly comic books then, and animation cels. That's why I was there, a whole bunch of us from Cal Arts were like "Oh boy." I think there are more people in hall H than there were at Comic Con that entire weekend.
When you present your movie in Hall H, do you feel like these are your people?
Oh yeah. Because I was one, and I still am. And before Comic Con, when I was even younger still, there was the science fiction, horror and fantasy conventions that used to take place at the LAX Hilton, which was around the time that Star Wars came out. I was about 11 or 12. That's back when those costumes were homemade, they are made out of cardboard. Sometimes you would see someone must have gotten costumes from the costume houses, or someone who worked for Lucas would show up and you'd be like "Oh my God, did you see that? That is a real Boba Fett." It's imprinted in my brain, the first time I saw a legitimate Boba Fett costume at a convention. It's like the Pope or something.
So when you come and bring your own thing to Hall H. do you know what to expect from the crowd,and do you get what you expect?
I go into it thinking "If I saw this, I would be happy. If I saw this it would make me laugh." We work in a bubble when we do these things. This one, I've been working on it for about three and a half years. And you're just working on it with the same people, day in and day out. And at some point you hit this kind of moment where you think 'Maybe we're nuts. Maybe this isn't what we think it is." Then you have these other moments where it's like "I cannot wait to unleash this on the world." I had a similar feeling when I was younger working on The Simpsons, on that first season. The summer of 89, it was my first directing gig right out of school. I'm thinting, we kind of know what this is about, in this tiny little studio where we're making it. But there are millions of people out there who don't know Springfield and the world of this show. And in about a month, they're going to know it, and it won't belong to us anymore. It's going to belong to the world. So that's where I was within the last couple of weeks. The way I process it is "I hope they like it. I hope they love my kid as much as I do." I go out there with fingers crossed and hope it played.
When people talk about humor based on references, there's a fine line between laughing because it's something your recognize, or laughing because they're actually doing something new with it. LIke in the self-help scene in the footage you showed, the Pac-Man ghost gets a laugh when he turns blue, but he's also turning blue for a reason. You're threading that needle through this entire movie. How do you do that?
I agree with you that the reference jokes, if it's just a reference themselves, to me it's just kind of cheap joke telling. You're not working at all. "Oh, there's a Starbucks in Shrek World!" That's funny why? "Because I go to one! I'm like Shrek!" To me it's not such a fine line. On Simpsons, we didn't too many of "There's that!" There was always an emotional or conflict component to something, or an ironic twist on it. It's not just a Starbucks, it's funny that it's a Starbucks because of blank and blank. That's been my upbringing in storytelling and filmmaking. It's kind of second nature. We just can't have the Pac-Man ghost go through the scene and turn blue, it has to have some sort of emotional component to it. Of course he would turn blue! He's surprised, and that's what he does. That's when stuff plays well, when everyone goes "Of course that's what he would do."
When you're cramming this world full of so many familiar video game characters, are you challenged by having story for every figure who's in the background? People will notice all these characters they're familiar with.
I think that's just good storytelling, not just throwing a bunch of characters in there, and who cares. They're in there for a reason. We began the process of it, where we didn't say "I don't know if we can get them, let's be real careful." Just, as we storyboard this, if you feel like a particular character would be appropriate for the scene, let's put them in.
We make the movie by remaking the movie over and over again. We did 7 story reels of the movie where it's the complete movie up on reels, over a two year time period. Every 10 to 12 weeks we would put up the entire movie, like in animatic form, married to the soundtrack. Then we'd watch it with a group of our peers from the studio and Pixar, and I'm fortunate that a lot of my friends that I went to school with are at Pixar too. We watch each others' stuff, just like we did in college. We watch it, and then a group of us go into a room, and then they say for 5 seconds "oh, that was great. But…" And then it's two hours of everyone picking your baby apart, and then you take lots of notes and go off, and then you begin the 10-12 week cycle again. Sometimes it's parts from the ground up. Sometimes it's massaging this area, and a matter of fluctuation, and then we screen it again. Way better that your friends point out these things in a safe environment than going to Hall H and putting it up. This stuff is road-tested by the best.