VFX Supervisor Ken Ralston on Alice in Wonderland
Post-Production for a CG-Saturated Fantasy in 3D
After [producer] Richard Zanuck, it was me. When I heard that Tim Burton was going to do Alice, I thought, ‘Oh my god, how do I get on this thing?’ I’ve always wanted to work with him. I flew to England to see if we could communicate and we hit it off instantly. We’re very different, but we had such shorthand. We had similar bizarre taste. We’d seen the same movies growing up.
F&V: The same bizarre taste?
OK, here’s an instance. We were looking at one of our caterpillar shots and Tim said something about Zanti misfits. I just cracked up. Zanti misfits were little animated ant characters in an Outer Limits television show. There was something in the caterpillar’s face that reminded him. I stopped everyone and asked if anyone but me knew what he was talking about. There was silence.
Alice was a unique case. My influence was intense from the get-go because of the nature of the movie. I didn’t influence the script, but I brought on [production designer] Rob Stromberg, who had just been on Avatar, and I was involved with character design with Tim and Rob. Once we knew Tim’s thoughts and how the movie was evolving, we looked at the ideal way to put it on the big screen. Then, we figured out technically what we wanted to do.
I sort of created the post-production, and post-production influenced everything; the movie is really a post-production. It’s all visual effects. Even if it looks like live action, it was [stereo] 3D, so everything had to go through us. I was all over the place on it until the day we were done.
It was unbelievably complicated, but the whole team was creatively on fire. Every day was a freefall, but we were all on the same team and it was exciting and fun. We were so fired up that the last month or so, we were sad it was going away. Tim gives everyone creative freedom once he trusts you. It was a blast to have so much to do.
F&V: Why did you decide not to create an entirely CG film?
I don’t think that’s a tremendously successful technique for human characters. I’m all for hiring actors and using them on screen instead of creating replicas that can never do what an actor can do. We tried to use as much of the actors as we could. Once we had the designs, we’d figure out which techniques we wanted to use. The proportions on the Tweedles were not real, so there was no way to create them except with CG and put Matt Lucas’s face on them. That was a simple decision. For Stain, we went round and round because we didn’t know what his costume was for a long time. The Tweedles, Stain, the Mad Hatter, and the Red Queen are live-action hybrids and every other character is CG except Alice. Alice is human with radical scale changes. And that’s the point; that’s why we started going toward these live-action hybrid characters. Tim thought it was an interesting idea to use the live-action hybrids to ease her into the world. This place is strange to her. The hybrid characters are a bridge between her and the animated characters.
F&V: With so many CG characters, altered live-action characters, and different scales for the characters, what was filming like on set?
I always try to figure out a director as quickly as I can and design an approach that fits as closely to their working style as I can. Scale-wise, we made decisions prior to shooting.
In front of the cameras, we tried to give Alice the correct scale. If she’s eight-and-a-half feet tall, she’s up on risers so the eye lines are correct. We didn’t want the actors thinking in the back of their heads, “Where should I be looking?” and worried about the technical stuff. We wanted them looking at each others’ faces.
We went round and round about the Red Queen’s head. Her head actually changes sizes a bit, but you don’t know it. When we’d go in for wide angle close-ups, it didn’t look as big, and wider shots could make it look smaller. We designed our systems so that Tim had the flexibility to tweak until we ran out of time.
On set, we had actors in full costumes. We had [Tweedles] Matt Lucas in a green suit, and it goes on from there. To help everyone else, we had all the voice talent representing the courtiers, the cat, the white rabbit, whatever, in green suits to work with the actors. Tim could direct all that as he would any live action scene, except it was in a vast green limbo. Sometimes we had partial sets. The table for the Mad Hatter [Johnny Depp] was real.
We created simplified CG environments for every scene so that as the camera moved around, anyone who wanted could look at the monitors and see the actors in something that said, for example, they were in the woods. I was fascinated that Tim rarely looked at that. I think that he decided to trust us, and we all knew what it would look like in a simple way, so he looked at raw footage in green.
F&V: Did you do any on-set compositing?
We composited a Hatter shot to show a proof of concept. We took a shot of Johnny Depp, when he raises his head up from the table and leans forward, and turned that around in stereo while we were still shooting. I had everyone put the glasses on. I’m sure everyone thought I was nuts, but, after we put something substantial in front of them, they didn’t worry so much.
We tried to slap together rough versions of the shots as quickly as possible to give Tim an idea of the progression, and to give editorial something to put in the cut. Then all the way to the end, we kept sending improved cuts.
What’s great about Tim is that filmmaking is like a painting. You rough it in, start to add colors, start to give it shape. What you say today is not locked in stone. Ninety percent of the way through a shot, you may totally change how you feel about it. It’s so dependent. You take live action for granted. It’s lit. The actors are there. The materials you make a judgment on are there. Here, in post-production, as the film takes form with the lighting, the characters in their positions, the mood of the piece can change. It wasn’t like we’d have whole sequences done and change them. It was an ongoing dialog. How dark should it be? Where is the moonlight? Because you’re doing things in these little pieces, it can change way down the line.
F&V: What was the hardest part of the movie?
To make it feel like everyone was in that spot in Wonderland, talking to each other, reacting to things. It was so not there when we shot it. We would rough things in, and Tim would meet with us every day. He’s fabulous with animation. He stopped the animators from over-animating the characters except for a few guys. He didn’t want the animation to be so far removed from the live action that it was a different world. We tried to give the movie the foundation of reality but with a stylized look. There are whole scenes we shot with virtual environments and characters and with no live action, but it didn’t get to the point of being an animated film.
F&V: Do you see any particular trends in the use of visual effects?
The good news is that it’s an accepted art form for motion pictures; it’s an integral part of motion-picture making, if it needs to be. Even Forrest Gump, which I did way back then, is riddled with effects, though you don’t know it. Filmmakers can use visual effects or not. They can have control over the mood, environment, and atmosphere in ways that can be accurate to their original vision. A lot of directors are really savvy now about how to use visual effects. Digital tools are available that make it possible to do early comps and previs to help directors relax about what’s going into their movie. It’s a giant toolbox they can open and not feel terrified about not knowing what would happen in visual effects. They have control that maybe wasn’t there 10 years ago.
There was no other way to make Alice in Wonderland. [Laughs] I guess we could have used sock puppets ….