With five Academy Awards to his name including one for VFX for Return Of The Jedi, VFX supervisor Ken Ralston is an industry veteran bringing vast experience to a myriad films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the Back To The Future series, Jumani, Death Becomes Her and now the Alice series.
After working on Alice In Wonderland as VFX supervisor in 2010, Ralston tells us all about his return to Underland for Alice Through The Looking Glass and how Sony Picture Imageworks created the VFX for Alice’s new adventures.
It’s been six years since Alice in Wonderland!
I can’t believe it! But okay!
Feels like just yesterday that the film came out right?
I have such a lousy sense of time so when I hear that it’s like “Really that long? Okay!”
When Alice first returns to Underland in Alice Through The Looking Glass it does feel like you’re meeting up with an old friend again. For you how different was it, having worked on both films?
You know in a lot of ways I guess it wasn’t because certain approaches were still kind of, in a general way, there, whereas we had to create so much of the world and shoot it in a similar process with a giant blue screen and actors in front of it – not all the time, we had some nice sets also. It’s also trying to be a little bit different because James [Bobin, director] wanted to give it a little different take, you know his own take. But we had to be true to what the characters were and all that. So it was a very strange thing, technically, to go back and try to find better ways of re-creating the same characters that we did in the first one. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum we did it a little differently but the impressions are still the same, it was just a better way to achieve what they were going to look like. It was a long process, and then it was fun of course to do anything new in it, like Time, and a lot of the new environments like Time’s Limbo Castle – it was a lot of fun creating that.
Speaking of Time’s Castle, can you run through the industrial look of the Castle and the bright Underlandians room for the living, where the ticking pocket watches contrast against the dark deceased Underlandians room?
Just for the overall castle, it was Time, it was a giant clock-ish environment. It’s a hodgepodge of architectural looks. It wanted to look gothic and huge beyond your wildest dreams. The contrast is the little tiny study that he’s in which is all warm and cosy, and was supposed to be absurd based on the [look of the] rest of his castle. For deceased Underlandians, we just figured – well how dark can we go? We just kept it moody and strange, and cosmic in a way so it feels like you’re out in space more than anything else. Then of course the living, which is more of a heavenly idea. Anyway, it was actually a very simple approach but it went through a lot of design ideas on how to create these very strange, surreal worlds of the castle. It had to be striking when you went into it; it had to look completely different.
Time’s Castle is inhabited with these steampunk helper robots, each made up of individual moving, clockwork parts making up each minion. Can you tell me the thinking behind these robots?
It went through a lot of thinking that’s for sure! The help maids, or rather the Seconds – [we thought] he can’t do this by himself so he’s going to need these little machines that he’s created. So it’s got to look kinda funky, kinda old, like Jules Verne had built these machines. They also had to be comic relief for him to play off of, especially Wilkins, and give him something to work off of. And then it was actually much later in the day when the idea of the Hour came up, and then we started exploring that. So they would turn into Seconds To Minutes and that’s a threat to Alice to try to stop her from stealing the Chronosphere. Then the Hour shows up and helps them out. But it just kept building and also it was a good use of, as the script was changing a little bit, it was a good way to keep the tension going and build the threat without having to bring in new villains and characters that would achieve the same sort of thing. It was, technically, horrific to do all of that – especially in the final creation of the Hour!
Were there many parts to the Seconds and Hour, and did you have many people working on the robots?
Oh sure, I mean I think that’s true of every frame of the movie. There’s always a lot of people, it’s never just me and Jay Redd [co-visual effects supervisor], and the wonderful animation by Troy Saliba [animation supervisor] – actually Troy came up with a lot of those ideas for those characters. It’s just a huge technical force and artistic force battling away, figuring out, first of to make it work and then rendering in time for the movie release! I couldn’t tell you how many parts were involved, maybe Troy could. When these things are mentioned I try not to think about it as it terrifies me!
Was there any worry or pressure in building the new character of Time for the film series as he didn’t exist in the original source material?
I wouldn’t say worried, I’m not afraid of those things. To me those are fun challenges, to create something that feels like it’s part of that environment and like James Bobin said when he was brought on to the project, “Well Tim [Burton] used up both books in the first Alice!” So it kind of left him with nowhere to go except some new ideas so that’s why it went in those directions?
Where did the idea of personifying Time come from?
I don’t think Time was in the first script. I think he showed up as [we needed] new characters and I think James came up with the idea – you’re not sure what he is, is he the bad guy? And then you find out that he isn’t. You find out he really isn’t and he’s just trying to protect the world in his awkward clumsy way. I think James came up with that, I think it went through a lot of changes in the script with a lot of characters and I think that was a lot more original approach than what the original script had.
Earlier on you mentioned that the approach to working on Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum was a bit different to the first film.
It was really about how to apply Matt Lucas’ face to the CG characters that would help to map it onto the heads in a true 3D sense because we actually cheated on a lot of that in the first movie, so we had to come up with a look that was a very young Tweedles – and young everybody for the [sequences in the past] – so we had to make it look like Matt but we did alter his face a little bit and give him slightly different characteristics. Matt came up with a lot of the action that they were doing. It was really just trying to make that keep in a world that was really what these guys were and technically we had so much work to do – what’s a faster way to create these Tweedle guys faster? So we spent some time at the beginning of the movie figuring out technically how to do that.
Did you develop any new or key techniques to go with existing parts of your workflows?
We actually had to go into the old characters and bring them up to date so that the new technology we were using could work with them, then for the new stuff we had to be on the same level. The biggest challenges were the Oceans of Time, which were such a complicated abstraction to come up with and at the end of the movie where the rust shows up and starts covering everything and annihilating everything. Those were two huge challenges that had to be met, on top of everything else in the film. R&D for those two areas went on for a very long time!
How was the team divided up for Through The Looking Glass?
Basically we split it up mainly between us and Double Negative, mainly the Vancouver guys. You kinda do what I do and go through the script and try to see if there is a logical place to do some splits and section things off without impacting the work that both teams are working too much. Because crossovers, no matter what you want to do, if we’re doing the Tweedles in one shot and you’re giving them to another company to do in the next shot it’s not going to look the same no matter how hard you try – it just doesn’t happen because everyone does things a little differently. So I looked at the whole beginning scene with Alice on the ship and the whole storm scene was the perfect thing to hand off to somebody else, the end of the movie also went to DNeg where it all wraps up and they’re in the harbour, she gets on the ship and it’s a happy ending. Then there’s stuff in between that kinda got split up here and there. You try to find areas that won’t impact both of us, both companies, we send stuff over and they send stuff to us. I try to minimise it that’s all, without it impacting everybody and making the film look different.
There were some truly beautiful shots in the film that looked seriously complex. For you, what was the most challenging shot for the film?
If this would be for a single shot, I think, one of the Oceans of Time shots. There were so many in there though that were difficult it’s hard to pick the one that was most challenging. It’s probably the scene where the Chronosphere is being chased by the rust, from the point of view of the rust. It’s right when they go to the castle and it’s travelling all through Underland and it’s going towards the Castle at the end of the shot – it’s a very long shot to boot!
Alice Through The Looking Glass is on Blu-ray now.