Daniel Kruse remembers vividly the first time he was flown from Maryland to the glittering footlights of Southern California, where his film was to be shown before an audience casting a critical gaze.
He was in third grade.
It was an Anaheim film festival, Kruse recalls of his heady first brush with cinematic success. We won a bunch of local film fests and got pushed out to this international student film festival.
At the time, he attended Thomas G. Pullen Creative and Performing Arts School in Landover. Now, he’s a 31-year-old rising visual-effects talent whose résumé already includes credits on Avatar, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
He and several classmates who teamed to make their CG-enhanced film, Our Space Adventure, learned early that you’ve got to hustle to make it to – or at least near – Hollywood; they sold candy bars to help pay for the plane tickets.
In California came their reward.
We wound up as the winning film, says Kruse, his voice still revealing surprise at it all. Here I am, as a kid, winning student film awards!
Today, Kruse’s creative thrill ride has only picked up speed. And perhaps fittingly, his latest project is set in the world of rapid, hurtling video games. Kruse is responsible for guiding the state-of-the-art lighting effects in Disney’s new big-budget animation feature Wreck-It Ralph, which opens today and is poised to be a hit.
At Disney, the thought process is so much more creative and different than anything I’ve worked on before, says the L.A.-based Kruse, whose effects credits also include Iron Man 2, Bedtime Stories and Arthur Christmas.
There is a more painterly, drawing way of lighting, he says.
Wreck-It Ralph, which features the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch, is a visual stunner that careens from 8-bit, Donkey Kong-style ’80s games to high-def nods to Halo – driven often by a nostalgic recognition of cool first-generation graphics rather than warm Toy Story playthings of an earlier era. (It seems no coincidence that Pixar studio co-founder John Lasseter helped steer Wreck-It to the big screen as executive producer; there are clever echoes of Cars and Monsters Inc. resonating within the new film’s craft.)
Disney and Pixar are separate, but they do talk to each other, says Kruse, who graduated in 2006 with a master of fine arts degree in visual effects from the Savannah (Ga.) College of Art & Design. They do collaborate on the technical side. ... And with Lasseter there (as head of Disney animation), it’s definitely been a positive. He’s expecting things they might not have thought of.
For Wreck-It Ralph, that sometimes meant creating the right feel for hyper-real games and the flat Pac-Man look of yore. (Among the games getting visual references in the film are Street Fighter, Sonic the Hedgehog, Q*bert and Altered Beast.)
And for Kruse, that especially meant how to help create Sugar Rush, a cotton candy-colored environment that looks like a cross between a multiplayer driving game and My Little Pony. (The game itself is a main setting in the movie, as the lead characters navigate its various twists and turns.) Lighting these scenes was a daily challenge to raise – and reinvent – his game, Kruse says.
There are all these different feels, explains Kruse, who tapped new technology to render reflected light. You need to feel the hard, clean Jolly Rancher’ candy, and the subsurface-y feel of the candy corn. Everything was a (pastiche) of candy, candy, candy, candy! But all this candy is a character. Everything has this saturated, beautiful color palette that you work hard to achieve.
As befits such work, Kruse has an eye for elegant detail and an analytic mind for technical craft – gifts nurtured by a fine-artist mother and a blue-collar father who taught him the precision of carpentry, as well as an engineer-type grandfather who bought the family its first computers.
He decided computers were really important, says Kruse. We had to build the computers with him – from hardware to software. We weren’t allowed to have computer time till we could put it together with him.
Young Daniel, like his brothers, traveled to his Landover K-8 magnet school, which was fortuitously part of an Apple computers-for-classrooms program. He learned about camera setups and film processing, reel-to-reel editing and digital effects. He also built miniature models for his stop-motion projects. I was trying to make things look as real as possible, says Kruse, who would go on to graduate from the University of Maryland Baltimore County before heading to Savannah and, eventually, Hollywood – a career ride that, like the hero of the Wreck-It Ralph game in his film, keeps gaining elevation.
I kind of felt built for this ever since I was a little kid, Kruse says. I guess that’s how life is. Opportunities will show up, and if you can recognize them, that’s key. Things have always been put in front of me to keep me on the path.