Rich Moore had been 25 years in the trenches of TV animation, apprenticing with Ralph Bakshi on his reworking of Mighty Mouse and graduating to producing and directing episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama (where he where Emmy Awards for his work) when producer John Lasseter gave Moore a career-changing opportunity: pitch a film for Disney. He found the perfect project in an unproduced property bouncing around the studio, a video game movie that no one had been able to crack yet. Moore, who in addition to a career in TV animation confesses to a lifetime spent playing video games, found the way in: the story of an old-school character from and 8-bit console game facing a mid-life crisis and heading out in to the universe of modern video games on a quest. In an industry where video games are fodder for big, violent action movie franchises, this was a fresh approach, a meta-movie that embraces video game culture with affection and humor, and delivers an adventure as exciting as is wholesome.
Wreck-It Ralph earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. Not bad for his first-time out in the feature film world. I got a few minutes to speak with Mr. Moore by phone about the origins of the movie, the challenges of working on a feature film as opposed to a TV project, and the genius of Alan Tudyk.
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Keyframe: Hollywood loves its video-game movies, but Wreck-It Ralph takes a radically different approach than the usual action spectacular.
Rich Moore: I’ve been a fan of those movies and I think my approach to Wreck-It Ralph as a movie about video games was to really make it just that. The story is being told within the world of games. We’re not taking the world of a particular game and making it the milieu of our story, we’re saying that in this universe, each of these cabinets in this arcade is its own separate world or planet and they’re all tethered to this one hub, the power strip, and the characters are able to travel from their game to this power strip and visit their neighbor’s world. And they know that they live and work in games. That was the approach that we took in telling the story: just being true to games, approaching each one of the genre worlds with the affection that we have for them.
Keyframe: It’s a meta-video game movie, but it’s also a hero’s journey. Instead of tramping through fantasy kingdoms or the galaxy, he’s visiting other gaming cultures.
Moore: Exactly. We wanted to create a story that was accessible to not only gamers, be they hard-core gamers or casual gamers, but also people who never played a game in their life and just kind of knew about games. So it was important that the story be a very human story and, like you say, that kind of hero’s journey of someone maturing into this role. In Ralph’s case, it’s going from this very selfish person to almost like a big brother to a little sister, and then something like a father to a child. So I do kind of see that there are some parallels between this story and the classic hero’s journey.
Keyframe; It also captures that feeling of being different and left out, not just in Ralph but in Vanellope, who is convinced that she’s a glitch in the system. I can understand kids really relating to that, feeling they are outsiders and glitches in their lives.
Moore: I’ve had so many people approach me after the movie came out, and people who have directed me to blog entries from both adults and kids, or parents writing about their children, commenting upon how warm the film made them feel and how un-alone it made them feel, and how happy the parents were once it was revealed that Vanellope was the princess of this world, that she wanted to stay a glitch, that she realized that’s what made her the person she is today, and her acceptance of who she was as a glitch. Parents especially really were happy for that turn in the story and very thankful.
Ultimately, my job is the same job, and that is to tell a compelling story that has a lot of heart and a lot of comedy and emotion to it, and we do that through characters that our audience cares about and hopefully will invest in. And it should all take place in a world that’s so fantastic that we want to go there, that we want to spend time there and learn about that world. So the deep job of directing ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ are exactly the same. It’s only the machine that’s different.
Keyframe: This is a Disney movie and she is a princess, but she’s not your typical Disney princess.
Moore: Agreed. I remember pitching that idea to Sarah Silverman and we really loved that idea. It was something that we collectively—myself, Sarah, our story team, and John Lasseter, who is our executive producer—just thought that it was a good kind of twist on that type of fairy tale, and still being true to the fairy tale aspect of it.
Keyframe: I love how Alan Tudyk channels Ed Wynn’s Mad Hatter as King Candy.
Moore: Alan is just incredible. He’s a great mimic but also a great actor and when he was channeling Ed Wynn as King Candy, he would say, ‘You know what, it’s not just Ed Wynn, there’s a good portion of some Ruth Gordon that I’m putting in there too.’ He’s like an alchemist with personalities and voices. I cannot wait to work with him again. I said to Alan, ‘Even though King Candy is gone, if we do a sequel, we’ve got to create another character for you because I love working with you.’ And he’s totally down for it. It makes me really happy to hear you say that.
Keyframe: You’ve directed hundreds of hours of animated TV. What’s the biggest challenge you found in directing an animated feature of this scale?
Moore: I would say the big difference is that television is always a sprint. We’re always behind from day one making a show or an episode. Whereas in movies we take the time to really develop these characters and make them feel as if they are people that we know or ourselves at a certain point in life. And the machine is much bigger on a movie. In the case of The Simpsons versus a Disney film, a good portion of the crew on The Simpsons are in another country. The animators who in-between the animation and the people who paint the final art are in Korea, whereas at Disney, everyone is under one roof. I’m looking face-to-face with everyone who is a part of the production team, which is great, to be able to speak face-to-face with whoever is working on the film at any given moment. On The Simpsons, we created a language, a shorthand that we use for communicating overseas. That’s very different from an animated film. But ultimately, my job is the same job, and that is to tell a compelling story that has a lot of heart and a lot of comedy and emotion to it, and we do that through characters that our audience cares about and hopefully will invest in. And it should all take place in a world that’s so fantastic that we want to go there, that we want to spend time there and learn about that world. So the deep job of directing The Simpsons and Wreck-It Ralph are exactly the same. It’s only the machine that’s different.