Ralph Breaks the Internet, Disney’s sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, is superior to its predecessor in several ways. Character Designer Jeff Merghart, a La Mesa native who attended Helix High and Grossmont College before heading to Burbank to seek his fortune, didn’t sign on until the second installment. Coincidence?
Matthew Lickona: When did you decide that you wanted to be a Disney artist?
Jeff Merghart: I had this plan when I was in kindergarten. I think I was two years old, and I remember my mom taking me to the theater to watch The Jungle Book, and I could not get it out of my mind. And then when Robin Hood came out in 1973, I remember seeing a poster of the main character and looking at it so long that I could see it in my head. And then I realized that if I could see it in my head, I could copy it. After that, I started researching who the artists were, who the animators were. We went to the library in La Mesa and got The Art of Disney. I studied Wonderful World of Disney when it showed on Sunday evenings. And then when The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation came out, I got that. I applied to Disney when I was still in high school, and I got the coolest rejection letter — with Snow White and the dwarves on the letterhead. I have it framed in my room at home. They sent me a pamphlet for Cal Arts, their animation training school, but that was a pipe dream. I decided to go to Grossmont College to get my AA and then go up and see if Don Bluth would hire me. He had left Disney and started his own little place, and he was working on An American Tail at the time.
ML: So you just headed up and knocked on the door, and he took you in?
JM: He took me in. I did an animation test and they hired me the same day. I thought I was special until I noticed later in the week that they were hiring pretty much anybody off the street. But it was great training. You learn from everybody around you, and you get slapped down a lot, and you learn a lot of stuff the hard way. But I’m glad I did it. I see students today with huge debt from art school — and all they learned was how to use a software program. They still can’t draw. I stayed there until they moved to Ireland — that’s where their investment partners were from. I said, “There’s no beaches there,” and I came back to San Diego.
ML: So how did you finally wind up at Disney?
JM: In the summer of 2016, I got a call from a recruiter who was referred to me by one of Disney’s lead artists, a friend of mine named Corey Loftis. When he left the video game makers Carbine Studios in Aliso Viejo, I came in and filled his spot. And he was a fan of a game I used to do for the first PlayStation, The Mark of Kri. We both went from making video games to making a movie about video games.
ML: Do you have advice for someone who sees Ralph Breaks the Internet and decides they want to be a Disney artist?
JM: I tell students that their own art is never wrong as long as they’re happy with the outcome, but if you want to be a professional, you have to be able to do what other people want. A good style of your own can get you in the door, but you need to be able to adapt and evolve. If you can’t, you’re not going to last.
ML: Favorite Disney films from a visual perspective?
JM: Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians, Pinochhio. From the new era, Moana and Zootopia. And of course, Ralph Breaks the Internet.
ML: The film’s final boss-type character is one of more unsettling things I can recall seeing in a Disney film in some time.
JM: Ha! Yeah, you’re welcome.
ML: How do you walk the line on that sort of thing when you’re making a film that children will see?
JM: I know there were discussions, but Corey kept us protected from the gory details. He would come say, “Try to do the most so-and-so thing you can, and we’ll see if we can get it approved.” Apparently, it worked. We definitely had a sense of humor on this team.
ML: I know that design is a collaborative process, but was there a particular character you did a lot of work on, development-wise?
JM: Yes, Spamley.
ML: Who hawks internet spam.
JM: He was cool. We played with different attitudes. We thought about a used car salesman, or Bob Odenkirk’s character from Breaking Bad. Someone’s who’s annoying but lovable at the same time. I think Corey put the newsboy cap on him. Some suggestions for voice actors were pitched to us, and we kind of based our designs on how he’d look if this actor or that actor voiced him.