Ken Ralston put Alice in her wonderland
Ask Ken Ralston, the visual effects supervisor for “Alice in Wonderland,” what was the biggest logistical problem posed by the fantasy film and, like the Cheshire cat, the corners of his mouth pull back in a slow grin. “What part of it wasn’t a challenge? All the characters in the film, all the weird combination of effects and the always-lovely fact of too little time to finish everything — all of it was a challenge. To think of one thing that was bigger or more difficult than the rest, I can’t do it. It was one giant challenge.”
A king-sized test is appropriate for Ralston, who is visual-effects royalty at this stage in his career, with five Academy Awards for his work on “Forrest Gump,” “Cocoon,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Return of the Jedi” and “Death Becomes Her.” The Hollywood veteran is now working on a new “Men in Black” film, but he is still reflecting on the great success of “Wonderland,” which was released in March and became a billion-dollar worldwide hit for Disney.
Ralston said that because it is a hybrid of three sorts of filmmaking — live-action, animation and performance capture — and has such dizzying amounts of interaction and interference, it required NASA-like calibration.
“The great challenge of it was the fact that every shot in the movie and every scene is filled with a variety of techniques and ideas, so you can’t just plug something in and run with it,” Ralston said. “This is no one-trick pony; it’s a 1,000-trick pony. It’s all scattered around in weird ways. The huge challenge to make it all feel like the same world, to have smoothness to it so that Alice — who is normal, except for size-changing throughout the movie — is surrounded by the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter and Knave — who are versions of humanoids — and then on top of that all the animal characters who are animated.”
Ralston said that was only the first part of the puzzle — then came the sculpting required to make those disparate pieces mesh without bumps and breakdowns. “On top of all that, all three groups are, for the most part, in computer-graphic environments that are surrounding them. What’s entailed in making that feel like a unified moment, where they’re all on the screen and interacting with each other in a believable way, well, that was more than a little tricky. That’s really all it took to make ‘Wonderland.’ ”
The movie, after “Avatar,” is the most frequently cited inspiration for the current 3-D craze in Hollywood, which leaves Ralston with mixed feelings. He confesses he is a skeptic when it comes to the stereoscopic format, especially when it’s handled in a clumsy way or is an afterthought to the filmmaking process. “In the case of ‘Alice,’ it did allow us to tell the story in a more interesting way; it added to the weirdness of it all, the bizarre place,” Ralston said.
Ralston is the senior visual effects supervisor for Sony Pictures Imageworks, and before taking that post in the 1990s, he had logged almost two decades at Industrial Light & Magic, where his work on three “Star Trek” films was especially acclaimed.
After working with elite filmmakers for years, it’s somewhat surprising that this was Ralston’s first project with “Alice” director Tim Burton. The connection was made by Richard D. Zanuck, the venerable Hollywood producer who worked with Ralston on 1985’s “Cocoon” and has produced five films with Burton since 2000.
Burton worked in the animation department of Disney early in his career and was a gifted artist with (no surprise) a flair for the peculiar and the evocative. “I know his sensibility, and we take what he shows us and go with it and then come back to him, and sometimes we actually go too far with it. It gets ‘too Tim Burton’ for Tim Burton. It’s always a great journey with Tim, and this movie and the places we went, it’s one that really will stick with me.”