Over the past couple of decades, one idea has almost become a cliché in reviews of animated movies: They might be aimed at kids, but there’s plenty about them that will appeal to adults!
It’s an idea that has come up consistently since the mid-’90s, the height of the Disney Renaissance and the start of the computer animation boom (thanks to Pixar’s 1995 release of Toy Story). Sometimes, critics homed in on the films’ sense of humor, like how Aladdin was built around Robin Williams’s genie, who provided an endless string of pop culture references that few kids would understand but their parents would enjoy. Sometimes, they simply appreciated that the movies contained musical numbers — which Hollywood had mostly gotten away from after the bust of the mega-musical in the late ‘60s.
But usually, they were responding to animated films that featured compelling themes and well-told stories. Certainly, not every animated film that came out during this period was a bastion of excellence — hello to Pocahontas, a deeply confused movie about early American race relations. But I get the sentiment; in comparison to the sloppy storytelling and non-existent themes in so many big-money blockbusters of the day, many animated kids’ films stood out for their narrative ambitions.
To this day, a surprisingly high number of animated kids’ films continue to adhere to good storytelling fundamentals. Their character arcs are clear. Their plots are carefully tuned. Their themes aren’t precisely subtle — at least one character usually states them outright — but they’re at least present, which is more than I can say for many similarly successful live-action blockbusters aimed at the whole family (or some approximation thereof).
Some American animation studios are better than others (notably Pixar, Disney, and Laika). But even something like Illumination’s new animated version of The Grinch, while not a stunning work of filmmaking, is still a marked improvement on 2000’s live-action spin on the story, which felt like an evolutionary step backward from the classic 1966 TV special, Dr. Seuss with all his vestigial organs still attached.
So why are animated films so frequently possessed of better storytelling than other, comparable big studio films? The answer has to do with how stories are constructed for those films. To find out more, I headed behind the scenes of Disney’s new, critically acclaimed Ralph Breaks the Internet.
Animated movies typically figure out their stories from start to finish before diving deep into filming
Like many people, I was skeptical of Ralph Breaks the Internet, the 2018 sequel to 2012’s terrific, video game-spoofing Wreck-It Ralph. Sequels have a poor track record to begin with, to say nothing of sequels to films with endings as perfect and wistful as Wreck-It Ralph’s. By the end of that movie, Ralph and his new friend Vanellope have conquered their fears and made peace with the things they haven’t always liked about themselves. Thanks to their new friendship, everything is swell.
So the end of Wreck-It Ralph already doesn’t offer up a particularly organic place to begin a new story. And that’s before you factor in that its sequel satirizes the internet, where the targets of parody change literally every hour. Animated films have very long development cycles (Ralph Breaks the Internet was officially announced in 2016 and had already been in the works for years before that). How could this movie possibly succeed, especially in an era when our relationship to online behemoths like Facebook and Amazon shifts by the day?
The answer to that question occupied everyone working on the film, but especially the story department.
A brief aside here: By “story,” I mean the overall structure of the film’s plot — which events will lead to other events, how the character arcs will play out, etc. You can often diagram a work’s story on paper, showing the rise and fall of the plot, as in the famous “three-act structure.” Think of it as the blueprint.
The “script” is the document that contains the dialogue and other details required to produce the final product you’ll eventually see in theaters — the house built from the blueprint. In the best-case scenario, the script is built atop a rock-solid story, but not all movies are best-case scenarios.
Some live-action blockbusters are still produced from scripts that are finalized well in advance of filming, but in an age when special effects workshops often have to start building a movie’s big action setpieces years before its release date, a complete script can be a rare luxury when a movie is actually filming — to say nothing of one based on an actual story that makes sense. Industry anecdotes about huge blockbusters where the script was being written right while production was happening are unfortunately common. This can lead to an all-time classic. More often it leads to something like Men in Black III.
Because the process of making an animated film is so expensive — there’s a lot more time and labor involved, since whole worlds have to be drawn or created in a computer and then animated — it’s imperative to only animate sequences that are as close to final as they can get. So on an animated film, story is typically determined ahead of time, and occasionally even before the screenwriter has started her first draft.
Enter the story department, staffed by hybrid writer-artists, who come up with ideas for how the major beats of a movie’s plot might proceed, then draw quick sketches — storyboards — of each sequence. The storyboards are roughly animated and voiced by temporary actors to create what’s called an “animatic,” then screened for the film’s larger production team, including the directors and screenwriters.
Here’s an idea of what an animatic looks like — this one features a deleted scene from the first Wreck-It Ralph film:
It’s very rare for a sequence to be approved immediately. More often, certain ideas are praised, others are thrown out, and the story team starts over again from (almost) scratch.
How Ralph Breaks the Internet benefited from the storyboarding process
One example the Ralph story team shared offers valuable insight into how the storyboarding process works. The story team knew they needed Ralph and Vanellope to go viral somehow, in order for the movie’s plot to progress. But coming up with a way for the pair to go viral ended up being tricky, because what’s viral today won’t be what’s viral tomorrow, or even an hour from now.
The team tried everything. One sequence that riffed on the idea of finding out whether you’re a Ralph or a Vanellope (which sounds vaguely like a BuzzFeed personality quiz) was discarded as being too weak. Another that dealt with a meme factory ended up making Ralph (who in the sequence took all sorts of abuse in order to make people laugh) feel like too much of a sad sack.
Finally, they started to zero in on what ended up in the film (which I won’t spoil) thanks to a sequence where Ralph became the star of a YouTube unboxing video (a subgenre of the platform in which people open products they’ve just purchased). The unboxing sequence didn’t quite land, but it was closer, for two reasons: It gave Ralph an authentic connection to the action of the story (it was something he was doing, in other words), and it pivoted off a fairly big-picture generic thing that’s out there on the internet.
It wasn’t too specific to be tied to any one era of internet history, while still feeling recognizable to people who’ve spent time online. With that feedback in mind, the story team moved forward with new iterations of the idea.
And that’s just one sequence. The numbers behind Ralph Breaks the Internet tell the tale of just how much work the story department put into the film.
If you buy a ticket to go see Ralph Breaks the Internet, the finished movie you’ll see includes 45 sequences that went through the full storyboarding process and were approved for full animation. Those were whittled down from 153 proposed sequences. Altogether, those 153 proposed sequences comprised 7,883 different iterations, and to make up those different iterations, the story department drew 283,839 total storyboards.
Where many animated movies discard hundreds of ideas for every one they find, “on Ralph Breaks the Internet, it was like a thousand ideas to get that one idea,” said Josie Trinidad, the film’s head of story. But the team’s effort seems to have paid off. The sequences screened for journalists at Disney headquarters were fresh and funny, and the film now boasts a 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes (it opens Wednesday).
Ralph Breaks the Internet is a great example of how the storyboarding process that animated films rely on tends to yield tighter, better-told stories. Instead of working from an unfinished script that can change from day to day on set — as often happens with live-action blockbusters — animated movies have been mercilessly pulled apart and vetted by multiple people before real production begins.
By the time a story is approved and an actual script is written, the film has been thought and rethought countless times. (In a weird way, this whole process is somewhat similar to the writers’ room that exists on most television shows.)
And though some live-action films use storyboarding as well, they often approach it differently. Some directors — like Steven Spielberg and Mad Max’s George Miller — are experts in the form, using storyboards to examine how an action sequence or fight scene will play on screen, and how it might land (or not) for the audience. But live-action storyboards are usually drawn after the script is written, to figure out how to visualize sequences as scripted. Only rarely are they used to create a rough visualization of a movie’s story to see if everything is working.
And there are animated films that don’t have story departments, especially those produced by smaller studios or independent directors. But for the most part, the storyboarding process is an industry standard that most major animation studios use.
Is the process foolproof? Of course not. In particular, it can create stories with a very point-A-to-point-B feel; sometimes a story department will focus so heavily on crafting a plot that makes sense that the characters’ emotional journeys fall by the wayside. The process can also lead to overly familiar, bland stories if all involved don’t guard against clichés, which is the pitfall of any story told by committee.
And even then, a story department is only as good as the different voices it can bring into the process, who must make a concerted effort to come up with fresh and new ideas. One needs only look to Pixar to find a studio with a strong track record whose movies nevertheless tend to tell variations on the same story over and over again.
But there’s a reason the storyboard process has been used in animation since the days of Walt Disney himself: It works. It boils stories down to their essence, and at its best, it finds new ways to pivot off of familiar storytelling tropes. It won’t work for every film, but its batting average is shockingly high. And if you’ve ever found yourself more satisfied with the story in an animated movie than you were in some comparable live-action blockbuster, you probably have this process to thank.