Growing up in Kearney, Neb., “in a town of football and farming,” Darrin Butters was “that kid” — one more likely to carry around a puppet than the old pigskin, more likely to spend his time on a flipbook than in the fields, more likely to know a magic trick than anything that might pique the interest of his Midwestern peers.
But, hey, he turned out OK — Butters has spent over two decades as an animator for Walt Disney Animation Studios. His earliest credit was on “Dinosaur” (2000), the studio’s first feature to use computer-generated imagery; his work has appeared in Disney movies like “Tangled” (2010), “Frozen” (2013) and “Zootopia” (2016), a movie in which his animation of Flash, a sloth who works at the Department of Mammal Vehicles was so memorable it inspired the costume of an actual DMV employee in California.
His latest work appears in “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” the follow-up to the Oscar-nominated “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012), which Butters also worked on.
The sequel opened Wednesday, following Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and his best friend, Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), as they escape their comfortable video-arcade homes to venture into the massive world of the Internet in search of a missing part for Vanellope’s game, Sugar Rush. As is wont to happen on the Internet, chaos and adventure ensue.
In a lecture at UMass Boston earlier this month, Butters told students that animation combined his interests in drawing, puppetry, magic, and theater.
Similar presentations took place at area colleges, including Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Harvard, during which he offered students sneak peeks and behind-the-scenes footage from his work on “Ralph Breaks the Internet” — plus, of course, a photo of him as “that kid” with his puppet in tow. Students also had the opportunity to ask questions following the lecture.
His many interests and talents — Butters enjoys woodworking, cross-stitching, and fly-fishing, in addition to visual art and performance — also offer him inspiration in ways that solely watching animation doesn’t, he said.
“We find inspiration in all sorts of things. If you go to animation to get inspired, you’re just going to kind of reiterate the same stuff,” he said. “But I go to the theater, I watch live-action movies. You never know where you’re going to get these inspirations.”
As a character animator, Butters’s work focuses not on what the world looks like but rather how the people within it move. In “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” that includes Ralph and Vanellope, as well as the millions of Net Users — avatars that represent people browsing the Web — and Netizens — characters that live within the Internet and serve Net Users.
Animators are allowed to request the scenes they want to work on, and animate all the characters in a given scene. Butters chose “car people” and claimed “first dibs” on animating the high-octane chase scenes that take place in Slaughter Race, an online game not unlike Grand Theft Auto, in which the ultimate goal is to steal a hot rod from Shank (voiced by Gal Gadot).
Butters’s character preferences lie in the weird and unusual — the quirkier, the better. He has a particular affinity for his work on a fleshy pink, bug-eyed, turtlenecked resident of the dark Web named Gord, a character Butters said the team of animators wanted to make “as bizarre and unsettling as possible.”
“I like the bizarre characters,” Butters said. “Maybe the director doesn’t know what they want for [those characters], but you get to explore — like, how far can I put the eyes until they look like it’s a fish? You know, and what would that stretchy arm look like? Those quirky characters are some of our favorites.”
Also a favorite for Butters is the lavender, egg-shaped, round-spectacled KnowsMore, who works as a search engine with an overzealous auto-fill. Voiced by Alan Tudyk and perhaps more akin to an over-caffeinated reference librarian than Google or Bing, KnowsMore’s animation style harkens back to that of the 1950s and ‘60s — a style Butters is a “huge fan” of.
Because the animators work on specific scenes rather than specific characters, Butters said that the animation process involves a lot of collaboration, both with fellow animators and with the character designers in charge of physical characteristics, like the shape of Ralph’s body or Vanellope’s hairstyle.
“We’re finding it together, because nobody owns a character — it’s very much a group effort,” he said. “They’ll build the character and model the character and put the controls in it, we will animate it, and all of a sudden, there’s a lot of notes and questions and revisions because you’re now seeing that thing at work.”
“It’s an iterative process,” he said — one that results in memorable scenes like one of Butters’s favorites from the movie, in which Gord silently hands papers to Ralph and Vanellope, his wrinkly arm stretching reluctantly to meet Ralph’s meaty fist.
“[Gord is] so bizarre and unlike anything that I’ve animated before,” he said. “Getting a character [like Gord] that’s loosely defined and maybe a little off kilter is very exciting. It’s refreshing and a challenge, and it’s fun, because sometimes we don’t know what it’s supposed to be, and somebody does a shot of a scene and it all of a sudden solidifies that character.”