INTERVIEW: Wreck-It Ralph director talks bringing games to film

As Wreck-It Ralph arrives in cinemas today, MCV talks to its director Rich Moore:

Wreck-It Ralph was clearly made by someone with a real love and understanding of video games. Are you as much of fan of games as the film would suggest?

Well I’m definitely someone who played a lot of games. Yeah, I would say I’m a video game fan. I grew up when video games were first coming onto the scene. I can literally remember seeing a Pong game in a pizza place and not knowing what it was, thinking it was very cheap cartoon. I didn’t know what it was. It seemed like just very limited animation, two paddles and a ball. My older brother said ‘No, this is a game. You play it like ping pong. Here’s the knob to move the paddle.’ It’s weird to think that anybody needed to be told that at some point but I definitely did. I can remember playing and thinking ‘this is so great.’ It was like sports but didn’t have to be active.

It started a love affair. I can remember Asteroids came out right after that and Space Wars and stuff like that. All those kind of point to point games like Battlezone with the tanks and the periscope. I really love all those but then when the games with the raster graphics, the ones that were more character based like Pac-man and Donkey Kong of course and Dig Dug. I really liked those. They were my favourites. As a kid, my favourite era was the late 70s/early 80s games because they were based on characters. It felt like controlling a cartoon or something so I loved those.

Then I started playing more games at home with the Street Fighter era. I was really bad as an adult when the N64 came out because I had to have them all. You could have four different systems at once and it was just a mess in the house. My kids were exposed to a lot of games growing up and they loved Mario Kart, that was the first game that my son beat me on. I remember that day. It’s a sad day when the student beats the master, the pupil overtakes the teacher. Now I’m hopeless with the games on my phone, just the dumb ones. I shouldn’t say dumb but like the With Friends games. I cannot stop playing them.

"Had we tried to make this movie about someone like Donkey Kong, there’s so much mythology and baggage attached to pre-existing titles that I feel someone would be disappointed."

– Rich Moore

And now Fix-It Felix Jr, the arcade game and home to Ralph in the film,is one of those games.

I know. It’s so weird. It’s just so bizarre that at the same time that we were making the movie, we were also developing the game. We would have these meetings about the movie and then meetings about the game. It was a weird job. I get to make a game that looks like a game from the 80s. My notes would always be the same like ‘No, it’s got to be more like an old game. The way it looks, the way it reacts and the interface of it and the reaction time and sounds.’ I think they did a really good job at capturing that time period.

Many have deemed Wreck-It Ralph a video game movie. What are your feelings on films based on video games because they have quite a chequered history?

I like Tron. I enjoyed it as a kid. The Tomb Raider movies I guess weren’t too bad but I never thought ‘Oh this is a movie based on a video game’. It was just taking the Tomb Raider mythology and making a movie around it. I never thought ‘somebody’s playing the game’ or something. It just seemed like a movie.

Is there a freedom in making a video game movie like Wreck-It Ralph that isn’t based on any pre-existing game license?

Definitely. I think that had we tried to make this movie about the character of someone like Donkey Kong, there’s so much mythology and baggage attached to pre-existing titles that I feel someone would be disappointed. Someone would be like ‘Oh no, you missed the point. He wouldn’t do that.’ It was easier to take something that was new and felt evocative of that time period that was pristine. It was almost like virgin snow that felt like an old game but wasn’t an existing property that would pull certain members of the audience out of the story because it wasn’t being serviced in the way that someone would feel it needed to be.

Is that one of the reasons that most licensed video game movies suffer?

It may be a very, very difficult feat to pull off. If you were trying to really please these people that know it well, would it get so unwieldy that people who’ve never heard of it felt that they’re being left out with things going over their heads? They’d recognise that. We wanted to try and make this in a way that a person who’d never played video games before could watch and enjoy it without feeling that they were not part of the joke or the story.

It was not a case that you had to come in with a pre-existing knowledge of the culture or a certain game to get exactly what was going on. I wanted the audience to feel included, even the people that have never played games before. I think it would be hard if you were making a movie about a specific game. I can see where ultimately, someone would feel left out of that.

"The game publishers were never really strict. They were vocal, but we invited them to be vocal because we wanted the characters to feel authentic."

Rich Moore

There are a lot of video game references in the film and cameos from game characters. Were you wary of how you used these recognisable gaming figures?

Yeah, for that exact reason that we’ve been talking about. I remember as a kid watching Looney Tunes and there were lots of references to things that I had know idea what they were. Had there been a few too many, it probably would have turned me off and I just wouldn’t have wanted to watch it because I felt that too much was going over my head so what’s the use in watching. But they always seemed so well balanced that I would think ‘okay, that’s not for me. That’s for somebody else. Maybe someday I’ll get that but I’m a kid and I’m perfectly happy with the parts where the character is getting shot in the face or being hit on the head.’ If there’s enough in there for me, then I’m good. It was that tightrope act of having the right balance so a portion of the audience didn’t feel they were being neglected or talked down to.

How were the game publishers with handing over characters to you? Were they a help or a hindrance?

They were never strict. We always invited their input for the reason that it was almost a time issue. It was one of those things like, okay, we know Bowser and we know how he acts but we don’t know him as well as the guys that work with the character every day.

Given a certain amount of time, we’ll probably make the same discoveries that they already know but it makes more sense to partner up with them. We would show them our layout paths where we blocked the camera. We would show rough animation and scenes in finished animation with the look and the texture because we really wanted to get their input quickly rather than waiting until the end and saying ‘Oh god, that’s a good note but we can’t do it know because we don’t have time.’ I wanted to know right upfront what they thought so we could address it.

Sometimes we’d make discoveries. We’d realise of course he doesn’t make those kinds of mouth shapes, that’s what makes Bowser Bowser, or it took them pointing it out. They were never really strict, they were vocal, but we invited them to be vocal because we wanted the characters to feel authentic. If they didn’t, the fans would’ve known. They know the characters best so we wanted the characters to feel as genuine and authentic as possible.

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