Interview: Producer Clark Spencer On Building The Worlds Of 'Wreck-It Ralph'

Clark Spencer is a veteran animation producer, with hits like Bolt, Tangled, and Lilo & Stitch under his belt. But on November 2nd, his biggest movie ever gets released, when Wreck-It Ralph reaches theaters. We chatted with the Producer about coming on board the project, setting up the worlds, and what video game character the movie couldn’t be made without:

MTV Geek: What first drew you in about Wreck-It Ralph?

Clark Spencer: I’ve been with the Disney company for – I hate to say it – but almost twenty-two years. When Rich Moore, who I knew from The Simpsons, came in, I was intrigued that John Lasseter was bringing him in. I just thought, hey, I’d love to work with this guy, to see how his brain ticks. Then, when I heard he was developing a project around the world of video games, I was completely in. I loved playing video games as a kid.

Honestly, I went to Rich, and the head of the studio, and said, “I would love to be a part of this project, because I think there’s a really great idea here, I think you’re a really interesting guy,” and I also said, “I’ve been here for twenty some odd years, so I might be able to help you navigate through this large company for the first time. It seemed like it might be the right kind of partnership.

Geek: You’ve done Bolt, Meet The Robinsons, Tangled… All three of those had somewhat troubled histories getting to the screen... And then turned out well, and were extremely well received. Wreck-It Ralph, on the other hand, was smooth sailing. Does that make you more, or less worried going into the release?

Spencer: It’s nice, because when you know your story early… It makes it easier as a Producer, obviously. That said, I knew there were other challenges that were going to exist on this film. One was going after the licensed characters. Two was that we were going to have to create four huge worlds. I knew these were big things to be doing. The only way this movie was going to come together was if the story was going to come together early. We needed enough advance notice as to which characters we were going to put in the film, so we could have the time to go out and license them.

In some ways, that helped me with the other challenges within the film… Knowing that story early on, and feeling like we got our arms round what this movie is going to be.

Geek: I’m curious to hear you talk more about both those aspects of the movie, but let’s discuss building the worlds first… Can you walk us through the process?

Spencer: When we set the movie in the world of video games, Rich and Phil felt we should go to major genres that people have played. So we start in the world of Fix-It Felix Jr., an 8-bit type game. From there we should go to a first-person shooter type game, and we should have a racing cart game, because those are the kinds of games played a lot in the ‘90s, and even today.

That gave us the genres we were going to go after, but then to Rich’s credit they tried to figure out, what are the worst kinds of worlds for our characters to be in, and make sure they line up. Throwing our character who comes from the most simple world possible into a hyper-realistic world, and a world of chaos like Hero’s Duty would be fun to see. When we put him in the world of Sugar Rush, that would be the worst world for this guy who’s kind of unhappy to land in… A sickly sweet world filled with kids. That felt like it would be a fun world to put him in.

Then we had to figure out, how do we make those worlds be believable, and make you – as an audience member – gone to different worlds. From all stand-points of the filmmaking, from the art direction, to the animation, to the effects… They’re all different in all four worlds, almost like you’ve gone to a different movie.

Geek: The other thing I have to imagine was difficult was making sure they make sense as actual video games, so they don’t play false to gamers.

Spencer: The interesting thing is, there’s things we have to think about from the stand-point of, what are these games, and what would the actual game be, if it was made as a video game. That might not all be in the movie, we don’t need to show every aspect of Hero’s Duty; but we needed to make sure it would be a legitimate game.

When you make a game like Fix-It Felix Jr., we actually went to companies that developed games like that in the 1980’s, and asked, what is it that makes an 1980’s, 8-bit game work? They talked us through the components of it. Then we used the software used in the ‘80s to create our 8-bit game… To really be true to the form, and stay in the color palette that actually existed. There are so many things we can do with today’s technology, but we wanted it to feel real.

We would go back and forth, and would actually test it with people who played games in the ‘80s, to make sure it felt real from that stand-point. When you see it in the body of the movie, we spend maybe thirty seconds setting up what that game is, but we needed to be more in depth than that, just to make sure it could actually be believable.

Geek: I know we’ve seen a playable Fix-It Felix Jr., are we going to see Sugar Rush and Hero’s Duty, too?

Spencer: There are, actually. They’ll be mobile games first, but they’re coming out right around the time of the film itself. They’re a little bit variations on a theme.

Geek: Let’s get back to the licensing part… What was the trickiest part about grabbing those properties?

Spencer: In the beginning it was whether they’d say yes or no. We’d go and pitch the movie to them, and once they heard the concept of the movie – and given that Toy Story and Roger Rabbit had already broken down the barriers towards this – they got excited about it. Then we said, we want you to go on the journey with us… We’ll show you script pages, we’ll show the model, we’ll show you test animation, and you’ll approve the final animation.

That meant to them, they won’t be just signing on a paper and letting us do what we want with our character, they actually get to have approval rights on all aspects of it. As a result, it was the perfect thing to do, because it was a compliment to our film… But it also complicated my process as a producer because it meant everything had to get sent over to Japan, or wherever the company was located to get approval. And they would give notes, as they should.

Geek: What was the holy grail character for you? What was the one you went for, that you couldn’t do the movie without?

Spencer: Bowser, Clyde, and Pac-Man. Bowser, because we felt he was critical to that support group scene where we meet the bad guys. Clyde, because we thought he would be so funny as the leader of the bad guy group. And then ultimately Pac-Man, because ultimately for all of us who worked on this, Pac-Man was the seminal game.

Wreck-It Ralph hits theaters November 2nd from Walt Disney Pictures!