VISUAL EFFECTS: KEN RALSTON - 'ALICE IN WONDERLAND'
CULVER CITY, CA — Just as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was finishing up post production and 3D conversion, I had the pleasure to chat with the film’s senior visual effects supervisor, president of Sony Pictures Imageworks Ken Ralston. He was a little tired, understandably, but excited by the look of the film and his close collaboration with Burton.
“For me I think it’s the best work I’ve ever done,” he reports. “I had a blast with Tim, and he gave me more creative freedom than I have had in a while. It was a wonderful collaboration.”
While reports indicate over 1,700 visual effects shots were completed, Ralston says it was actually more. “Every shot is an effects shot — even the live action because it’s 2D converted to 3D.”
Below, Ralston gives us a glimpse of the film’s visual effects challenges, including a short shoot schedule: the main shoot was just 40 days. Alice in Wonderland stars Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway, to name of few.
POST MAGAZINE: Can you describe your work on the film?
KEN RALSTON: “From the moment it started, I was involved with Tim and working with the designers on all the different characters, figuring out how they would all be done. At the same time, [production designer] Rob Stromberg was doing the designs and concepts on the environments. I had to be involved with that so we could plan to get it all in the shoot part and through the computer-land version of all these environments.
“It also involved all the preproduction design and getting ready for the shoot — how we were going to shoot things and how fast we had to shoot. We didn’t have much time to either prep, shoot or get the movie done in post, so everything had to be very streamlined. On the post side of it, we were basically trying to do all the hugely complicated things that are in this movie, which is many techniques and weird combinations of techniques, just to pull off some of the work… well all of it.”
POST: Can you talk about those weird combinations?
RALSTON: “It’s a lot of different things. In one shot we could have an eight-and-a-half-foot tall Alice with the Red Queen, who has a giant head. For the character Stayne (also known as the Knave of Hearts) — played by Crispin Glover — we are only using his head on a CG body. They were surrounded by other actors as the sycophants to the Red Queen that we were going to end up shooting months after the principal photography, combined with CG animals and an entirely computer-graphic environment.”
POST: Did you do previs?
RALSTON: “Not exactly. Basically, we set up some very simple MotionBuilder files of the environment and had them on the stage when we were shooting, so when we were setting up with the actors — they still had to be shot more or less like a real film with the masters and close-ups and all that — Tim could look at the environment.
“He’s an interesting director where a lot of times he just didn’t want to see it on there. He might compose and set up to them, but he would not look at it; this way he could concentrate on the immediate performance of the actors. That was our previs for most of it.
“For the scenes that were more action oriented and less dependent on the actors, the company Third Floor was used to explore the action sequences and help the movie take shape in the very beginning. This helped Tim find what direction he wanted to go in.”
POST: How much was shot greenscreen? And is this the most you have ever done?
RALSTON: “Maybe 85 to 90 percent was greenscreen; and it is definitely the most I’ve ever done.”
POST: What were the particular challenges involving all that greenscreen?
RALSTON: “One of the main ones was because of the nature of the short shooting schedule we had, and the availability of Johnny or Anne Hathaway, or the other actors, I wanted to simplify what was happening on stage. Also, the way Tim works is different than some directors. He is more an artist moving into this green limbo, so I tried to make it as simple as possible, and that meant we had to streamline our shooting techniques and have everything sitting there waiting to go so we could move from set-up to set-up to set-up. So the speed of it was one of the biggest challenges and making sure we got everything we needed.
“I also wanted to try to keep all the actors in the same scene if I could, no matter what was going on. So if you had an eight-and-a-half-foot tall Alice with a regular-sized Hatter doing the very intimate scene where her hands are on his face and they are talking to each other, I wanted it shot one take. If she wasn’t that tall, that would be it and we’d worry about the technique to get her larger later. Although we had already figured it out and it just was the matter of how delicate do you handle it and how do you set up your camera when you shoot those things? I enjoyed having the energy of the performances coming through without having to break up — like a lot of effects films — where you shoot the Hatter as one element, then you shoot Alice as another element holding on to a green soccer ball or something, and I hate that stuff. What we gain from that is little subtleties you might not remember to do if you are breaking up into pieces, so if her hands are on his face you see little nuances of his skin getting moved around and his cheeks moving where she is holding him, even though her hands are twice the size of normal hands.”
POST: Did you use motion capture?
RALSTON: “We tried. We were set up to do it and we were getting stuff, but as the film went on, because of the nature of the characters, we wanted something more expressive and slightly more stylized — some things are far more stylized than others, but something with a little snap to it that’s not quite real. We started off with a basic foundation with the motion capture, but we readily realized we don’t want to use this, it’s not all that interesting, so we started moving away from it.”
POST: I know they were all challenging, but can you describe one of the most difficult effects sequences?
RALSTON: “There is a scene where the Mad Hatter is being brought into an arena — essentially an execution scene — and it’s filled with people on the ground and in the balconies. The Red Queen is up on a balcony surrounded by her sycophants. Down below there are animals mixed in with the people and you have the all-CG executioner. Stayne is down there. It’s an entire CG environment with lots of live actors thrown in wearing weird costumes — quite a few of them spread all over the place. It was just a complicated combination of live-action elements, CG elements, CG characters and making the lighting look interesting and feel like a live-action moment, even though every image you are seeing is so strangely surreal.
“It was all a huge challenge. When we shot the principals, like the Red Queen and Hatter, none of the other background people were shot. Although we did have voice talent in green outfits to do their versions of the Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar, and all the other characters. When you see this scene, keep in mind the Red Queen is sitting on a throne that wasn’t there, in a balcony that wasn’t there and surrounded by people who weren’t there. It was really just Helena with a couple of people in green outfits and everyone else was shot about a month or two later once we had an idea of the cuts we wanted to use. That’s the same for all the people on the ground. It was all at a later shoot, so it all had to match the live action stuff we shot months earlier.”
POST: Any other things come to mind?
RALSTON: “The combination of things was so difficult. It was a mixed bag of interesting tricks. The shrinking/growing shots with Alice were very complicated because some of it is a CG Alice and some of it is a live Alice wearing a CG dress that’s growing when she’s shrinking or shrinking when she’s growing. The costumes are all CG too and simulated on a lot of the characters. Trying to make it look like Stayne is really wearing that CG cape.
“All the different atmospheric effects — every shot is crammed with a lot of different tricks to give you a sense of interaction of the characters within those worlds and to help you feel like you are there…and not distracting you from the story.”
POST: Did other houses work on the film?
RALSTON: “We did most of the effects work. Other houses were helping on the 3D conversion, although Café FX did some shots. A movie like this is very hard to break up into vignettes or sequences that aren’t tied together because of all these characters — you are designing and developing and lighting and finding exactly how they should look. It’s hard to pass it off to someone else because no one has the same proprietary software to make it look the way you want it to.”
POST: How is the 3D conversion process?
RALSTON: “We are in the last throes of everything. In fact, we still have a couple of 2D shots to final in the next couple of days. It’s all happening in parallel. They are all done at the same time when possible, so when scenes are finishing and shots are finaled we’re moving them right into the 3D realm. We couldn’t wait to start it or it would never get done.
“It’s difficult, but working very well. We actually shot tests in 3D and Tim and I were debating the difficulties of that on a movie this short and the complexity technically, and also making it all come together later in a satisfying way. Basically, for most of the movie we are surrounding our actors that we are shooting greenscreen in a CG environment and building both eyes, left and right. So if we do a conversion on them and plop them into this CG world, I don’t think you will ever know we are doing this. It will look exactly like if we had shot it real 3D. It just won’t take as long.”
POST: Is all the 3D work being done at Imageworks?
RALSTON: “We are doing a lot of it here. InThree helped dimensionalize the ‘bookends’ of the film, as did Sassoon Film Design. Legend3D helped with the Wonderland part.”
Disney’s Alice in Wonderland hit theaters March 5.