Cesar Velazquez interview: Wreck-It Ralph, visual effects, Disney

The effects supervisor on Wreck-It Ralph talks to use about his work on the film, and being at the end of the production pipeline...

You think visual effects work, and you don’t necessarily think of a fully animated movie. Yet at the end of the production pipeline of Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph was a very busy effects team. Here, one of the film’s two effects supervisors, Cesar Velazquez, spared us some time for a chat…

Can I start by briefly touching on Eraser, Batman & Robin and Mars Attacks!

Yes! Very early back on where I started.

So if my memory serves, in Eraser you’ve got Arnie bashing two crocodiles’ heads together, in Batman & Robin we’ve got the icing up of Gotham City, and Mars Attacks! you’ve got the exploding heads. So what kind of apprenticeship was that?

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Those were when I started out in the industry.

First job?

I moved out here to L.A. around 1995. It was a fairly good time to get into the industry. Being in my late 20s and moving to L.A. was a very exciting process. On those films, I was merely doing software development. When I  first started out I was doing software development, and then I transitioned into production. But my background at school is art history and fine arts. Coming from two parents who were engineers, I learned how to do software development. And when this industry came around, it was a perfect fit for the artistic side and the technical side of me.

Effects in particular, I like this analogy: what we do in effects is start off with a creative idea, and what we finish with is this pretty picture that goes on the movie screen. But everything in between can get very technical, because it’s all done with computers. It’s having the artistic idea, and the goal, and the technical abilities to be able to create those.

For traditional arts, it’s not just a pen and paper, it’s being skilled in design, and the technique too. 

Computers can be dangerous things. Glen Keane said, when working on Tangled, that he felt the computer could always sell you short if you weren’t willing to take a step back and go back a little lo-tech. It sound like you’re balancing that too?

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Yes. For me, the computer is a tool, like any other tool, and you have to know how to use it. You can kind of get things with a computer that look surreal, but that sort of appeal is lacking. It’s the skill of artists to hit the goal and use the computer as a tool. It can be very helpful, just like any other tool. or it can be detrimental to what you’re trying to achieve. You can’t just rely on the software and hardware.

The film effectively started in its current guise around 2007. When do you first learn you were working on it?

For me, I was brought on about a year and a half ago. Effects is generally later in the production cycle, so the general story and the general environment had been worked out. I was the first effects person brought on, to evaluate the story at that point. I did a high level view of what we were going to do for this film. And what I saw was that there were so many effects in there, of so many different varieties. So this film has two effects supervisors.

A lot of the time the perception is that if it’s a fully CG animated film, why does it need effects people?

Here at Disney, the way it’s broken down is that we’re always trying to create a believable world. That extends down from the sets, the environments, and the characters in it. What we do in effects is to add motion to the worlds surrounding our characters. There are effects that you’re supposed to see – so the transformation of the main character – and there are effects that you’re not supposed to see, like the dust coming off the cars, or some blowing leaves in the background. All of that falls under effects. 

What’s the percentage breakdown of your work then, between the seen and the unseen?

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It varies from world to world. All of it takes time! Some worlds have effects that have what we call hero shots, or that require more of an attention to them. Then there are shots like dust or leaves, where we don’t have a lot of them. So we try to make life easy on ourselves by creating tools and pipelines to propagate those out, so we have more time to spend on the big explosions.

You have different tiers of explosions and fire here, depending on where it’s happening?

Yes. That was another challenge. What is fire in each different world? That was one of the challenges we had, finding that out. Working with the effects designer. What we came up with was that for Niceland [the 8-bit world], it took a lot of tries, but for fire, it was one of our early successes. We found having step motion, as 8-bit games moved, with repeated patterns. Simplifying the motion. That doesn’t mean boring: it means making it fit into that world. Simplification, but still appealing.

You seem to be aiming for sophisticated simplification if anything.

It’s less about the tools and more about the work that comes out of it. The tools can do much more complicated things, but we don’t want to draw the viewer out where they go ‘look at that smoke in the background, it looks weird’. We want them looking at the characters.

There are clearly subtle differences between the worlds in the film as well of the overt ones. The speed the camera seems to move, for instance. The perspective it’s allowed seems to alter slightly. How does that impact your work?

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For us, when we start working on shots, certain sets have to be prepared for us. We’re given a set, camera and characters, and it should be ready for the artist to start their work. 

Whenever I talk to people involved in animated films, the pace of the animation seems to increase. Tangled, for instance, the last 40% of animation was done in the last six or seven months. You’re at a point in that process where you need that work coming to you before you can do what you need to do, at the very end of the pipeline?

Yeah. The lighting department, along with the effects, we’re at the back end of the pipeline. Our deadline is a hard deadline: it’s when the movie comes out. And being at the end of the pipeline definitely presents challenges of making sure the work gets done.

Does it throw up a surprise? Presumably, the film is so well planned, so you know pretty much exactly what’s coming, and you can see its progress. Do you ever get a shot coming towards you and you’re going hang on, that’s not what I was expecting to deal with at all?

Very rarely! It’s a creative environment, where things are always evolving and changing. But we have a great staff here where nothing is truly so far out of the blue that we’re not expecting it. That said, it’s part of the daily process that there are always things to fix!

If you have a eureka moment now, and came up with something so near the end of production and said you know, we really should do this…

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[Laughs] There’s always room for that. What’s great about effects and about our director is our artists have a lot of opportunity to take ownership of the worlds they create.

Cesar Velazquez, thank you very much.

Wreck-It Ralph is released in the UK on February 8th.

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