Although he already has five Oscars for special effects, Ken Ralston found Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland his biggest challenge. John Hazelton reports
Over the course of a career which has already brought him five Academy Awards, visual effects veteran Ken Ralston has worked on more than his share of challenging projects, including three Star Wars films, three Star Treks, three Back To The Futures, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump and The Polar Express.
Even for Ralston, though, Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, one of 15 in the running for this year’s visual effects Oscar, proved a demanding job.
“For me, Alice was a bigger challenge than most, if not all, of the films I’ve been on because there were so many different types of visual effects through the whole movie,” says Ralston, who served as the film’s senior visual effects supervisor and who holds the same title at Sony Pictures Imageworks. “At the same time it was also a cool challenge to jump into something that big and with limited time.”
The crux of the challenge was blending the effects elements — green screen work with live actors, virtual sets, CGI animation and part-animated, part-human characters — into a coherent whole. “It was a huge deal to find the little area where everything felt like it was part of the same world at the same moment,” Ralston explains.
Among the characters that were particularly tricky to pull off were Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, whose appearance was manipulated to reflect the character’s mood, the Red Queen, played by Helena Bonham Carter with a head which the film’s effects team had to expand to twice its normal size, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum, both -portrayed, thanks to digital wizardry, by Matt Lucas.
Crowd scenes including extras and principal players who had been shot at different times provided another test. “Those were monstrously confusing and challenging shots,” Ralston says.
The film’s conversion into 3D added another layer of complexity, requiring the team to blend effects giving the illusion of three dimensions with animated characters that could be designed in true 3D.
Ralston says, however, that the conversion also lent believability to the settings. “Creatively it was an additional tool to help an audience feel that Alice was actually spatially in some of these weird worlds we were creating. It was actually a nice tool to have along with the other things we can do.”
Though they had never worked together before, Ralston and Burton developed an easy working relationship. “It was great getting those little doodles that he would do to convey a certain emotion or a sensibility,” Ralston says. “It’s a unique way to work with somebody. Tim has an amazing vision and luckily for me we really understood each other, we had a real shorthand in talking to each other. Creatively he got us all fired up and every day was an exciting experience with him.”
The director, Ralston adds, “loved the experience of everyone throwing ideas at him and then he would whittle it down to things that made sense for him.
“For me what was great fun was I was basically lighting the set, designing a lot of it with [production designer] Rob Stromberg and just having a really interesting creative hand in the film that I don’t always get.”
For his part, Ralston helped Burton by shielding the director from the technical intricacies involved in the making of mega-budget fantasy film.
“Part of my job was to keep him from being squashed by the giant technological machine that was needed to create this movie,” the visual effects chief explains. “I think he would have run out the door screaming if he’d known everything that was going on.”
Ralston, who was visual effects supervisor at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic before joining Sony Imageworks, adds: “It’s really about getting to know my director and trying to create a way of doing the movie that will work best with how he wants to work. And then on top of that keeping the artistic and emotional intent of the movie intact.”