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Disney’s ‘Ralph’ raises tech to new level

new level

With each new film, the technology group at Walt Disney Animation Studios finds new ways to help filmmakers tell their stories in exciting ways. Proprietary advances in technology, led by chief technology officer Andy Hendrickson have taken every aspect of ‚”Wreck-It Ralph‚” to the next level.

‚”‚’Wreck-It Ralph’ is one of the most complex films that we’ve ever made here at Disney,‚” says Hendrickson. ‚”We have a huge cast with more distinct characters than we’ve ever had before, and four separate and unique worlds. Uniting those in a visually appealing way required new artistry and new technology.‚”

‚”Getting the best images on screen requires the best technology,‚” adds Hendrickson. ‚”Quality is our business plan, so we’re all about creating new technology to support the art in the best way. It’s that mixture of art and technology that you see on screen. You saw it in ‚’Tangled’ and you’ll see it in ‚’Wreck-It Ralph.’ It’s one of those things that has always set Disney animated films apart.‚”

Technological innovations for ‚”Wreck-It Ralph‚” include an improved and more robust pipeline, the path that defines how all the elements of the film are managed and accessed: real-time visualization of final imagery using GPU (graphics processing unit) technology: Camera Capture, a new technique for practicing virtual cinematography and scene planning: and BRDFs, bidirectional reflectance distribution functions, which algorithmically defines how real surfaces react to light. Plus, the effects created for ‚”Wreck-It Ralph‚” are advanced thanks to new technology.


The new approach to the production pipeline allows each department to access the data in a much more refined and easier way. This allows them more responsibility and control of their work and ensures a smoother flow from one department to the next.

New to this production is the auto-render process, which lets the filmmakers see representative renders of every shot every day, an idea dreamed up by VFX Supervisor Scott Kersavage. By seeing shots daily throughout production, visually quality is assured. When shots and scenes move forward, problems can be detected the day they happen, as opposed to waiting many months for a final render.

Seeing the Light

In a related development, a proprietary new interactive lighting tool called Figaro (developed internally by Disney’s technical wizards David Adler and Greg Nichols), allows the lighting department to get a quick preview, which approximates the final lit image. Typically, lighting is one of the last steps in creating a computer-animated film and occurs many months after the animation and effects are completed. Figaro lets the lighting department experiment with the foundation lighting to get an almost instant look without waiting for lengthy renders. Advances in videogame rendering technologies have made this possible and proven to be a great new tool in filmmaking.


Camera Capture, a proprietary suite of technology making its debut on “Wreck-It Ralph,”” allowed the layout artists and the director to quickly and easily visualize numerous takes, exploring a wide range of virtual camera moves. This was especially critical to creating the action-oriented scenes in the world of Hero’s Duty, for example, giving filmmakers a fast and flexible way to turn an action idea into a ‚””filmed‚”” scene.

Adopting techniques that give animated films a feel and quality more like live-action films, Camera Capture is an exciting tool that opens up new worlds of possibilities in animation in terms of planning, staging, and visualization. Using rough layouts with simple geometry or more finished environments, Camera Capture makes it easy to see what it would be like to move through each world and create exciting camera moves to meet the demands of the story.

Says Evan Goldberg, manager of the technology team that implemented Camera Capture, ‚””The notion of camera technology goes back to Disney’s earliest efforts in animation where there was a desire to get more depth into the movies with the invention and implementation of the multiplane camera on landmark films like ‚’Snow White’ and ‚’Bambi.‚”” In the ’90s, Disney animation introduced a digital version of this idea with more layers and depth-of-field using CG elements and the movement of the camera in more realistic ways. The ballroom scene in ‚’Beauty and the Beast’ would be one example. With ‚’Tarzan,’ a process called Deep Canvas was introduced to allow the camera to move through a painting so that moviegoers felt like they were surfing the trees with our hero. The evolution of technology into Camera Capture gives us the most lifelike camera we’ve ever had in our animated film history. The motion is as rich and precise as the operator’s real-life movement. It provides a more organic, natural feel to the virtual cameras and increases the overall quality of the cinematography.‚””

According to Goldberg, the capture stage at Walt Disney Animation Studios is a multi-functional space. It is half performance stage and half work area where the filmmakers work alongside technical experts to visualize the camera movements and improve the software. ‚””Tracking devices, big screen monitors and a variety of marker-laced camera rigs immerse our filmmakers in their virtual world as they explore the environments and plan the action,‚”” he says.


Perhaps the biggest technological advance in the production of ‚””Wreck-It Ralph‚”” was the implementation of new idea of how surfaces react with light in a physically based, realistic or theatrical way. Disney’s principal engineer Brent Burley went back to the basic science of light interacting with real materials to derive an entirely new algorithm, which accurately describes a wide variety of objects observed everyday in the real world.

Director of look and lighting Adolph Lusinsky says, ‚””Disney’s BRDF is a marriage of the way a surface reacts and the way a light illuminates the surface. It’s completely different from the way lighting has worked on any of our previous shows. This very ambitious new approach opened up all kinds of possibilities for us. With our old shader system, you had to cheat to get things to look believable. With this approach of BRDFs, you get a much more believable look in the way light rolls over a surface and how light reflects. With chocolate, for example, you get a really nice broad sheen on it.

‚””At Disney, we want to be able to achieve a result that looks physically believable and accurate, but then we want to be able to art direct it too,‚”” continues Lusinsky. ‚””It lets us get an image that’s very Disney.‚””

During the research phase, Lusinsky and his team visited a candy factory, a bakery and an auto factory. They also traveled to Germany to get a close up look at candies from around the globe at the largest international candy fair.

‚””In the world of Sugar Rush, I love the way we were able to light all the food,‚”” says Lusinsky. ‚””It looks spectacular and yummy. It was challenging to make everything look yummy and still get the cinematic lighting beats that we need to tell the story. The new BRDF allowed us to use translucency to get a gummy look, as well as a refractive shader for more of a Jolly Rancher candy look where you can see behind it. For other materials, we were able to see bubbles floating inside the medium. We’ve never been able to do anything like this before at the Studio.‚””

Producer Clark Spencer adds, ‚””Our lighting team had to first understand the science of lighting food and making it look appealing, and then we had to technically figure out how to do that and translate it into the computer. Specific technology was developed to make the food look good, and we came up with an idea called a gummy light. What this does is refract light in a way that lets light actually go through something and that’s part of what makes food look good. If the lighting is immediately bounced back, then it feels flat and unappealing. If it can travel through and you can see inside the textures of what the food is, it becomes more appealing. So there was an immense amount of work done to try and figure out how to make Sugar Rush exist and seem yummy and appealing.‚””

Hendrickson adds, ‚””I’m really proud of our BRDF breakthrough on this film. We wouldn’t have been able to make four distinct worlds economically without it. We would have had to curtail the creative ambition of ‚””Wreck-It Ralph‚”” and that is against the very essence of Disney. I’ve never seen another animation company do it as exacting as we do, and we’re carrying it even further with our next film, ‚’Frozen.’‚””


Technological advances played a major role in the film’s elaborate effects as well. David Hutchins and Cesar Velazquez shared duties as effects supervisors.

‚””In terms of sheer number and variety of effects, this is the largest effects film Disney has ever tackled,‚”” says Velazquez. ‚””Rich Moore and John Lasseter challenged us to make the effects from each of the worlds unique, so that when you look as smoke or dust, you can tell if it’s from Sugar Rush, Hero’s Duty or the Nicelander’s world. They wanted us to add character to an explosion or any kind of effect, making it feel like it belonged in that particular world.‚””

Velazquez cites effects in Sugar Rush. ‚””Even something as mundane as the dirt the racecars drive through during the races,‚”” says Velazquez, ‚””is made to look like cocoa powder or frosting.‚””

‚””Our signature effect is the glitch effect,‚”” continues Velazquez. ‚””Whenever she hits an emotional state, she glitches. It’s almost like a short-circuit, or a hiccup‚Äîwith lights and twitches‚Äîit turned out really well.‚””

Hutchins adds, ‚””All of the environmental effects for Hero’s Duty were created in the effects department. We also developed the look of the weapons, the muzzle flashes and tracers, all of the exploding Cy-Bugs, and the smoke plumes, fog and atmosphere that gave it a gritty, complicated and organic look.‚””

Hendrickson concludes, ‚””With the speed and computational abilities of computers becoming more sophisticated every year, we have the ability to actually calculate the physics of light in a way that corresponds to how we currently understand light interacting in the real world. This allows the process of lighting our scenes to be more an artistic endeavor and less of a data-wrangling endeavor as time goes forward. Our goal is to maximize the artistic expression in our films and minimize the difficulty of tool use. The trick is to take these really advanced technologies and turn them into artist-approachable tools.

‚””Though sometimes it feels as if we are in a phase where we can pretty much realize anything the filmmaker wants to see on the screen, there’s still a long way to go. We’re just at the beginning of the science of making motion pictures with computers.

* Follow Gadget on Twitter on @GadgetZA

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