Filmmaker and film critic Michael Sargent sits down with Phil Johnston, Rich Moore, and Josie Trinidad to discuss their collaboration process in making Ralph Breaks the Internet, now available in DVD and Blu-ray.
The original Wreck-It Ralph opened in 2012, it starred the voices of John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman and grossed a worldwide total of $471.2 million ($189.4 million of that was in United States and Canada), it had an 87% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and Roger Ebert himself wrote glowingly of it at the time. The film went on to win five Annie Awards, including Best Animated Feature, Director, Screenplay and Actor. It was also nominated for an Oscar® and Golden Globe® for Best Animated Feature. A sequel was, of course, inevitable, but like any good sequel and especially as a follow-up to that level of achievement has, it took time to be developed correctly.
When Ralph Breaks The Internet came out in November of 2018, the anticipation was high—it had a lot to live up to. And live up to it did. As of this writing, the film holds an approval rating of 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, has grossed $197.9 million in the United States and Canada, and $297.1 million in other territories, for a total worldwide gross of $494.9 million, and was nominated for Best Animated Film of the year by the Oscars. It was released February 26th on Blu-ray and DVD along with digital platforms. And if you haven’t seen it, I highly suggest you do.
Animation films, like all film, are a very collaborative effort, but in some ways even more than in the traditional narrative film. Especially when it comes to story, there're a lot of moving parts, if you look at the credits for an animated film you'll see there could be three or more people credited for story and at least two people who get the screenplay credit. In the original Wreck-It Ralph, the screenplay is credited to Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee with ‘Story by’ credited to Rich Moore, Phil Johnston, and Jim Reardon.
As most of you know getting a ‘Story by’ credit may be the only credit you get on a film when someone else comes along in the development process and rewrites, reinterprets or updates your work. The writing credits for Ralph Breaks The Internet lists screenplay by to Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon with a ‘Story by’ credit for Rich Moore, Phil Johnston, Jim Reardon, Pamela Ribon, and Josie Trinidad.
If you sit through the credits, you will see Josie gets the additional credit of “Head of Story.’
Animation often has additional writing credits beyond ‘Story by’ and ‘Screenplay by’ one such is ‘Head of Story’. But what do those people do? Clearly, they're storytellers, but are they screenwriters? What do these titles mean exactly, and how is this potentially a career path for a screenwriter? How did Ralph Breaks the Internet come to be for these storytellers in their careers?
Interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Mike Sargent: I'm here with the creative team behind Ralph Breaks the Internet. I'll start with you Josie, because most people don't know what ‘Head of Story’ means, and you're also credited on Disney-Wiki as a ‘Story Artist.’ So what does that mean, and how important is it for you to understand story structure to do what you do?
Josie Trinidad: So, originally I was a story artist. A story artist does story boards, and we help the directors and the writers visualize the script, essentially. But there's a little bit more because when we start, you know, it's very collaborative. We work on the script pages, we'll pitch our sequences, and there are a lot of changes that we incorporate. So, as a Head of Story, what I do now, in this role is I oversee about ten story artists and together we collaborate with Phil and Rich, to again, visualize the script.
Mike Sargent: Okay, now for people who don't really understand the process of directing an animated film, I have to assume Josie's role is very essential.
Rich Moore: Oh absolutely.
Phil Johnston: Yeah.
Mike Sargent: That's how you get to see the film before it's made.
Phil Johnston: What Josie didn't say is that when we're editing the movie, Rich and I will be sitting around a table and the editor will be behind us, and we'll be cutting a scene in story boards and we'll see something and go, "Oh, that will be better if Ralph tripped and fell here as opposed to just walking through the door." So in real time Josie will redraw whatever the story boards are on something called a SymSee, which is like a digital piece of paper. She'll redraw it in the moment, draw five drawings, boom, boom, boom, boom, we'll hear this, ding, ding, ding, ding.
Phil Johnston: Which is the sound of Josie's file going to the editor, within minutes. We've gone from an idea to something Josie instantly updated—who is a Master of Draftsmanship.
Josie Trinidad: Thank you.
Phil Johnston: She does it quickly and beautifully. And now we can test this new idea in real time. So in that way, these movies, despite how big and expansive they are, are kind of DIY. A lot of it is done in the edit room. And Josie's like a superhero.
Josie Trinidad: Thank you.
Phil Johnston: Which, we could not do without her.
Mike Sargent: Alright. Let me move to you, Rich. Since you directed, tell me a little bit about your journey and how much of a writer or storyteller you needed to be to be able to do what you do?
Rich Moore: Well, my history in directing began on The Simpsons. From the education that I had from California Institute of the Arts, from their character animation program that I went through, gave me a full understanding. In Cal Arts and we were required to make a student film every year. And that was working just on your own. You had to come up with the story, story board the idea, layout the film, animate the film, shoot it, and I mean, this was back in the late 80's when we still were shooting on film, not just scanning and going straight to digital. Then, you'd edit the film. You were in charge of the soundtrack, you were often your own voice actor and wrote your own music. So it gave me a comprehensive education in how to make an animated film. I was very fortunate that when The Simpsons began as a series, that I was first hired as a story board artist, like how Josie started at Disney. As that first season progressed, I was promoted to a directing position due to the fact that I got the material, and I had an understanding of how a show was made.
On that show, I was working from a script. The scripts that were written by some of the greatest comedy writers alive today. These are classic scripts, I consider. And I read a lot of scripts in my time on The Simpsons and then on Futurama also, where I was the supervising director. Kind of like what Josie was saying, that she's now overseeing a group of story board artists, I was overseeing a group of directors that made that show.
So, I had a great education in how to make animation at Cal Arts and then work with some of the greatest people in TV at that time—Jim Brooks included on The Simpsons—that gave me an understanding of how a story, this type of three act structure, is made. That was a great education for moving into the feature world when I joined Disney in 2008. And I always tell people that, because we are a director-run studio—the ideas come from the directors.
It's no longer like The Simpsons where I am assigned a script, am in charge of drawing the treasure map and then hunting for the treasure. I tell people it's a little bit like being a shepherd, you know, with this idea that myself and the co-director or writer come up with together and then it's the director's job to usher that shepherd, that idea, the germ of an idea, through the process of making an animated film, and making sure that that idea, though it grows so much through the process, still stays pure to what inspired us right at the beginning.
Mike Sargent: I'm gonna ask you, Phil, and this is asking from people who want to write but may have other ideas for a career, tell me a little bit about your career path and how you go from being a writer, a screenwriter of animated films, to actually directing them.
Phil Johnston: Well, I have a kind of weird path in that I studied Journalism and was a TV news reporter throughout my 20's. After about nine, ten years, I went back to film school to get my MFA here in New York at Columbia. So, I started screenwriting closer to the age of 30, and like Rich, made a ton of short films. I was a Directing major, and out of school, had a movie that I had written that was set up for me to direct as well. We were casting and location scouting and had money from a company called Pink Film, which then went out of business. Because I was also a writer, I needed to make money.
So, I directed some commercials and some PSA's and things like that, just to make money. Then I finally sold something as a writer—a TV show and a movie—neither of which ever got made. But that was my sort of entrée into the business. For the next several years, I made an independent film called Cedar Rapids. While that was happening, I met Rich at Disney, and we hit it off immediately, just as friends, and he had a general idea to make a movie about video games, and the two of us then worked together for the next eight months, essentially just goofing off and telling jokes to each other and wasting time.
Rich Moore: Best ideas come out.
Phil Johnston: Really it's true. We came up with Wreck It Ralph that way and Rich is a very, very open, collaborative person. So, a lot of people hear stories about writers in Hollywood being less than, and sort of abused, and that is true in some cases where the writer is easily disposable. With Rich, with our collaboration, he was very open to my ideas and our partnership never felt to me like he's the boss and I'm the underling. It was a partnership in building this story and creating these characters, from that movie to Zootopia. We also developed a TV show together. It's been a pretty great partnership. So when the idea for the sequel came along and Rich asked if I would be interested in directing it with him, which of course was an honor as I've learned a lot from him. Yeah, that's the general trajectory of how I got into directing.
Mike Sargent: So he made you an offer you couldn't refuse is what you're saying?
Phil Johnston: In a way, absolutely.
Rich Moore: Kind of Godfather. (laughs)
Phil Johnston: Godfather of Animation. (laughs)
Mike Sargent: Alright, now coming back to you, Josie. From what I understand, not every Head of Story can draw like you can, and I have to assume you, besides being able to draw and understand story, you're something of a writer too. What kind of skills does someone need, even if they don't draw, to do what you do?
Josie Trinidad: You know, honestly, I had always wanted to be an animator, and I was so ignorant that I didn't know how important screenwriting and understanding story structure was. I, as a child, just wanted to draw and be an animator. I actually studied English Literature at UCLA because my parents, being Philippine-American, they didn't think that animation was a viable career. So I got a real degree in English Literature.
Phil Johnston: In English, that's so useful. (laughs)
Josie Trinidad: So I could be a professor, I guess, I don't know what I was gonna do. (laughs)
Rich Moore: Speak a lot of English. (laughs)
Josie Trinidad: I just loved stories, I loved reading. So I got this degree and then afterwards I applied to Cal Arts, where I studied character animation. Again, totally ignorant that I should've studied screenwriting. But I made this terrible discovery at Cal Arts that I was a really horrible animator! But I had a knack for story and story boarding, so I didn't have to draw as well as these great animators that work at Disney. So I focused at school, in story and making my films—although maybe they weren't the best animation and the designs weren't the greatest, but the stories were solid. I was then fortunate enough to get this story internship at Disney. However, I still honestly felt like I really needed to, like at night, or my spare time, study scriptwriting. In the kind of day-to-day working at Disney, and working with great writers like Phil and great directors like Rich, I'm learning now, the basics of screenwriting. There's a part of me that wants to learn more every day.
Rich Moore: Get another degree.
Josie Trinidad: I kind of feel like i should. It's the Asian in me that's really like, "I think I need an MFA in screenwriting before I can feel qualified to do what I do." (laughs)
Phil Johnston: I have to say that I think you know more than you're saying.
Josie Trinidad: It's all instinct from reading and watching TV. When we're in the edit room, we're talking about the movies we love, or something on TV and we analyze structure on a daily basis, that I do feel like I'm getting this informal education. But again, I still feel like I should earn that degree for my parents.
Phil Johnston: You seem to be doing okay without it.
Josie Trinidad: Well, thank you.
Mike Sargent: Well, I'm gonna play this for my daughter, 'cause she lives in L.A. now. She went to school, studied writing, music and now she wants to animate.
Phil Johnston: Oh wow.
Rich Moore: Cool.
Mike Sargent: And she's not that good at drawing, but she's a really good writer.
Josie Trinidad: She should go into story.
Phil Johnston: There are way, way more aspects to creating an animated film then just animating.
Rich Moore: Oh my God, yeah.
Phil Johnston: And Josie's right, I mean, we think of it almost like animators, you know, the equivalent to a live-action movie, animators are actors. Story artists are writers. There are correlations between the two, where a writer doesn't have to be the best actor, but if they can put across a great story, then it's handed to the actors who further bring those characters to light. So, it's not always just animating that's important to making an animated film.
Mike Sargent: Alright, well I have one last question, I'm gonna ask the same question for all of you to answer. The question is: human beings have been telling stories since the beginning of time, whether they're true stories, fables, made-up stories, in every culture. Why do you think human beings need stories? What do you think the purpose of story is for humans? I'll start with you Rich.
Rich Moore: I believe that we tell stories so we can interface easier into life. I think that stories give you a version of a reality that's safe to make mistakes in and see how another person has handled difficult moments in life that may help you either in getting out something that you felt early on in life and you're trying to make sense of it. Or, to help you down the line when something like this may happen to you.
Mike Sargent: Like you have to raise money to buy a wheel for a...
Rich Moore: Correct. I think about that often and it's a great, great, question and I really think it has something to do with sharing these experiences. People had harrowing experiences that brought them close to death, and this is how I didn't die. You know, I think it's a way to kind of pull people together. It's a shared experience of the human condition by telling stories.
Mike Sargent: That's a great answer.
Josie Trinidad: Indeed.
Phil Johnston: I don't know who said it, there's this quote "We dream in coverage." Have you heard this?
Mike Sargent: That's good.
Rich Moore: Oh my God, so...
Phil Johnston: That when we dream, we are telling stories basically, and there are multiple setups in our dreams and there are cuts and things like that. I actually think before the first story was told, people were having dreams, and thinking, and thinking about stories. And I always think that we're just wired to do it.
Josie Trinidad: Yeah.
Phil Johnston: As Rich said, to share our experiences on the human condition and that's part of our processing of how we live and why we lived and how we're sentient. The only way we can really do that, beyond the memories you have, is to share those experiences with other people. And really, as human beings, it's all about how we connect with one another. Without stories to tell, or pick up lines, or whatever it is, our species probably wouldn't exist anymore. You know?
Mike Sargent: That's actually almost a better answer.
Josie Trinidad: I have a six-year-old son, and being a mother, I'm like, "I don't know how to raise this child to be a contributing person in society." But I know that I can tell him stories and that's my way of teaching him life lessons, I guess. There's a saying in Hawaii that you talk story. Everyday you talk story. You just tell, "Hey, what's going on." And that kind of thing, and that's talking story—the way that you share and learn from one another. By sharing experiences, you grow. Like, in this kind of pigeon like way, it's something that as a creative person, I can't help but not talk story. It's a way to emote, to share this innate feeling, and creativity. It's a way to try to express all of that in a coherent way and connect with someone who might have a different background than I do. Or a different life experience.
Rich Moore: That was probably the best answer.
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