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Interview: Clark Spencer, Producer of “Wreck-it Ralph”

February 28, 2013

By John C.

Clark Spencer

Clark Spencer

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of talking to producer Clark Spencer about the awesome Disney film Wreck-It Ralph and the work he has done at the studio over the past 23 years.  The film was honoured with numerous accolades throughout the recently wrapped awards season, and is coming to Blu-ray this Tuesday.

We talked about what it was like to attend the Oscars, where Wreck-It Ralph was nominated for Best Animated Film, and the likelihood of us getting a sequel.  We also spoke about the casting process and what special features fans can look forward to from the Blu-ray.

Clark Spencer is clearly passionate about his work, and I would like to say thank you to everyone who helped make this interview possible.  Hopefully it gets you even more excited for the Blu-ray release of Wreck-It Ralph, and gives you some insight into the production of the film.  Enjoy!

So first of all I just want to say that I loved Wreck-It Ralph…  Well thank you.

You’re welcome.  So can you tell me a little bit about what it was like working on the film?  Well, and I know this always sounds so clichéd, but it was a pretty amazing experience.  When the company announced that Rich Moore from The Simpsons and Futurama was going to join Disney Animation, I actually went to John Lasseter and said, “I really want to work with this guy.”  I’m a huge fan of both those TV series, and I just wanted the opportunity to work with somebody who had this kind of comedic mind and this great sensibility that was going to kind of push Disney in a different direction.

And then when he pitched this story about the world of video games, and kind of going behind the screen and seeing that these characters after the game is not being played, have real lives and they have real problems?  I thought that is such a great idea for an animated film.  So sort of from the beginning I was the guy in there saying please let me be the producer on this film, because I think there’s a really great film here and I want to be a part of that.  So it was a really amazing experience.

And how long had you been involved in the production?  Well the film took four years to actually make – Rich came on four years ago, but I came on maybe three and a half years ago.  Usually in the very beginning, it’s just a director and a writer who are developing the idea for the story and the outline, and then once you really start building the script and doing the storyboards, is when a producer comes on.  So I guess three and a half years ago.

The casting for all of the characters was just perfect in the film.  Can you tell me a little bit about that process?  Yeah, you know it’s interesting because I’ve worked on several movies and usually the process is that you kind of know what type of character might be in a movie, but you haven’t decided who the actual voice is going to be as you start to write the script.  But from the day they started writing the script, the director Rich Moore and the writer Phil Johnston, knew they wanted John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch, and they actually wrote the script with those four people in mind.  Now the benefit of that is, you’re not going to spend a lot of time trying to figure out, well who should we hire?  The con is, what if they say no?  I mean, you don’t know that they’re going to say yes to making your film.

From the very beginning, when we approached the actors, Jane, Jack and Sarah all said yes.  They were really excited about the project.  John C. Reilly took a year to say yes.  And it’s not because of the project – he loved the movie and he loved the idea of the movie.  For him, he’d never done an animated film, and he said “I don’t know if I’m the kind of guy who can get behind a mic, in a booth, by myself, and act.  It’s not what I do.  I’m a guy who needs to act off of somebody.  That’s what makes me who I am and it’s my process.”  So we spent about a year talking about it, and finally we said, “do you know what, John?  If that’s your process, we will make that happen.”

And we did something we never do in animated films, which is we recorded John with the other actors.  He recorded with Jane Lynch, and Jack McBrayer, and Sarah Silverman.  And Alan Tudyk, his scenes with King Candy, and as a result, I think the performances are amazingly naturalistic, because they were in the room together.  And so, it’s because of him that we profoundly changed our approach to how we’d record this film, and I think as a result the movie’s that much better because of it.

Yes, and I think that really shows through in the film – the chemistry between the actors and the characters.  Yeah, I mean John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman had never worked together, so it was fun to have the two of them in a room together playing off of each other’s own sensibilities and comedy.  It was great.

And how did you secure the rights to have the classic video game characters appear in the film?  Well, that was not easy.  I mean, I will say in the beginning when Rich Moore pitched the idea, he said to me, “I want real video game characters – it’s the only way to make these worlds feel believable.”  And I agree with him – I think it’s the only way to make an audience come in and think that these are real worlds, because we’re gong to create worlds that people have never seen before with Hero’s Duty, and Sugar Rush, and Fix-It Felix Jr., then it’s got to also have some real video game characters.

And we made a smart decision – Rich and I talked about it a lot – we said let’s wait until the story really starts to solidify, and until we know how we want to use the characters, to approach these companies so we can be really specific.  And I think that helped us in a huge way because when we went to the companies at E3, the big gaming convention here in Los Angeles, and we met with Namco and Nintendo and Sega, we could really pitch the story articulately, and as a result they got excited about the movie.

But more important than that, I think in some ways Roger Rabbit and Toy Story broke down barriers, where companies now understand that if you put characters together that don’t normally live in the same world, audiences love it, and more importantly, people who don’t know your characters, discover them.  So I think a company like Namco says “look, Pac-Man is going to be discovered by five years olds who don’t play Pac-Man today, if we put him in the movie Wreck-It Ralph.”  And that’s what got companies excited.  So from that moment on, it actually became relatively easy.  But there were many nights where I kind of wondered as a producer, whether it would actually happen.

And are there currently plans for a sequel?  They’re not… they’re not official.  I mean, Rich Moore loves this world and he loves the characters.  He spent four years creating these characters and you kind of want to do more with them.  And he’s definitely thinking about another idea, because there’s so many worlds you could go explore in the world of video games and so many ideas you could do.  So he’s definitely thinking about it.

What John Lasseter always says – and he’s the chief creative officer of our animation studio – he says, only make a movie that comes from your heart.  Because you’re going to live with it for four years, so you’ve got to really love it.  So if Rich comes up with the right idea, I think it will probably happen because the movie has been so well received around the world, and I think because the movie is set up to have other stories told.  If Rich comes up with the right idea, I think there will be a sequel.

Well, I look forward to it if it does happen.  So with the amount of recognition that the film has received, what has the awards season been like this year?  Amazing.  And hectic at the same time.  Because the film got so many accolades and so many award nominations, that I think we did fourteen awards ceremonies in like eight weeks, and there’s been a lot of events we’ve been to.  And we’ve won a lot.  We won the Critics Choice Award for the Best Animated Film, we won the Animation Guild Award for the Best Animated Film, I won the Producers Guild Award for the Best Animated Film, the sound won for Best Sound…  So it’s been a pretty phenomenal experience.  But the big kind of cherry on the top was going to the Oscars.  I mean, as a kid I watched the Oscars.  I never thought I’d actually be at the Oscars.  So to be there, and to really be in contention for being one of the Best Animated Films, is a pretty phenomenal experience.  That was amazing.

It was also just a really exciting year overall for the awards season, so it must have been amazing.  It was.  So many great animated films, so many great live action films.  I think the nice thing this year is there was a lot of spread between who won, so it wasn’t just one film that dominated everything.  Especially in live action, you know some things went to Lincoln, some things went to Argo, some things went to Silver Linings Playbook and Les Miz, I mean everybody created really great movies so it was an honour to actually be there with all these great filmmakers.

I agree.  And you also produced Meet the Robinsons and Bolt, which are two other films that I love, so can you tell me a little bit about what it was like working on those ones?  Well each film is completely different.  I mean, I love the films because of that process.  You work with different directors.  My first film was Lilo & Stich with a team of directors, and then I go to Meet the Robinsons with a completely different director, and then I go to Bolt with another director, and now Wreck-It Ralph with another director.  Each one has kind of its own process, because all of the directors are completely different.

If you look at a film like Meet the Robinsons, Steve Anderson from the beginning knew what that movie was, and went in and told that story.  So that was sort of the journey on that film, just realizing his vision of the story itself.  When you look at a movie like Bolt, it was a movie that we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how do we make this story have great emotion to it?  So kind of the emotional element was where a big focus of that film ended up coming from.  You look at a movie like Lilo & Stich which was my first film producing, so I was just trying to figure out, what do you do as a producer?  That was really my journey on that film.

And you look at a movie like this – Wreck-It Ralph – it’s amazing because its such a big movie.  There’s four completely different worlds, each with its own art direction style, each with its own animation, each with its own lighting, camera moves.  Every world is completely different.  That’s a massive thing to embark upon because its really like creating four movies in one.  And then the technology.  We had to build technology to make the world of Sugar Rush come to life, because putting food – creating food – in the computer is really difficult, to make it look appealing and appetizing, and yet we’re setting a world in the world of candy.  It’s got to look appealing, you’ve got to want to eat it.  So we had to create technology that’s specific to that world, so that’s a huge thing we had to go off and do.  There are almost 190 unique characters in this film, and 60 is the most we’ve ever done, so that’s three times more characters.

Wow.  So that was a huge thing for us to go off and do.  To make Game Central Station feel like a real place, you’ve got to do that.  And to have all those unique characters, you’ve got to do the same thing.  Even if you’re only putting Bowser in a couple scenes, you’ve got to build the character – the model – you’ve got to put a rig in him, and you’ve got to figure out how you animate that character just for those couple of scenes.  So huge challenges on this film, but from the beginning we knew they were the right challenges to make this world come alive.  So each movie has had their own journey, but they’ve all been… they’ve all been amazing.  I hate to sound totally cliché, but I feel like I have one of the most amazing jobs in the world.

For sure, and what can fans expect from the Blu-ray release of Wreck-It RalphWell to me, what’s great about the Blu-ray and about DVD in general, is that you get to see things you didn’t pay attention to in a movie.  In other words, if we’ve done our job right, you go watch the movie, and you just appreciate the film for the story that we’re telling.  But on the Blu-ray, we have a couple things.

We have a piece called “Bit by Bit” which is actually the behind-the-scenes of the art direction, and as I was saying, we wanted these four worlds – the world of Fix-It Felix Jr., the world of Hero’s Duty, the world of Game Central Station, the world of Sugar Rush – to be completely different.  We actually show you how we made those worlds be different.  The world of Fix-It Felix Jr. is based on squares, the world of Hero’s Duty is based on triangles, and the world of Sugar Rush is based on circles, so you really get to understand what we chose to do to make it feel like you’re going to four different movies.

Then for the deleted scenes, and you know obviously lots of DVDs have deleted scenes.  To me, there’s two great things people get to discover through the deleted scenes.  One is, there’s the lost world as we call it of Extreme Easy Living 2, which was a world where The Sims meets Grand Theft Auto, done Disney style.  It was a whole world that came at the break between the second and third act in the very first versions of the film.  Great world, really funny, but it’s one of those things where it was just one too many worlds in the film.

So we actually show you our deleted scene from that world, and you know should there be any future in this franchise, maybe that world will come back, so that’s fun.  The second thing we really talk about is originally the film was a threesome – it wasn’t just Ralph and Vanellope.  It was Ralph, Vanellope and Felix all going on this journey together, and Felix traveled with Ralph to all of these worlds and so it’s a whole different perspective on how you could have told this movie.  So we showcase that.

There’s also the short film Paperman, which won an Oscar this past Sunday for Best Animated Short, and it’s an honour to have that be a part of this.  It’s a beautiful short, it combines technology people have never seen before between combining and mixing CG animation with 2D animation.  It’s all done in pantomime, and it’s a beautiful story.  So I think for audiences that didn’t get a chance to see that with the film – because it was attached to the film – it’s a great opportunity to get to see it as part of this Blu-ray/DVD package.

Then the last thing and I think this is the thing people will love the most, is there are so many hidden Easter Eggs throughout this entire movie, that people I think might go bananas.  Because between Disney trivia and gamer trivia – and again, if you don’t know or care about those things you can watch the movie and love it –  but if you know about any of those things, freeze-frame any frame of this movie and there is something in it.  You know, there’s a geek side to animators, and they love including those things.  So from the graffiti that’s on the walls at Game Central Station, to the high score for Fix-It Felix Jr., to things that exist throughout in terms of just little pieces, people will find things that they didn’t see in the movie theatre itself.  So I think that will be fun.

Well, I look forward to revisiting it.  Are there any other upcoming projects you can tell me about?  Well, what happens for me is I finish up on Wreck-It Ralph right now and we get a little bit of time off, and then I’ll come back in and start talking about what that next project is.  So I don’t know specifically what I’m going to do.  I will say obviously I had an amazing experience working with Rich Moore and I hope I get to work with him again – that may be a possibility – and then there’s obviously some great projects happening here at Disney Animation.

I’ve been with the company for 23 years, and this is an amazing moment right now.  Between what John Lasseter has brought in terms of really kind of growing the studio and letting us believe in ourselves again, and between the projects that are actually in development, I think there’s really no better place right now in the world of animation than to be here at Disney Animation.  So I’m very excited about what the future holds for that.  Our next film from Disney Animation is Frozen.  It’s great, we’re going back to the fairy tales and I love that about what’s happening here.  We’re doing fairy tales and then we’re doing something modern like Wreck-It Ralph and we’re kind of mixing it up, which is kind of nice.  But this will be a return to the fairy tales and it’s based on the story of The Snow Queen, so a great project that will be coming out this fall, really perfect for the holiday season.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.  You bet.  Thanks John.

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