The M/C Interview: FX guru Ken Ralston creates magic in ‘Alice In Wonderland’

03.04.10 7 years ago

Walt Disney Company

It’s obvious that my review of “Alice In Wonderland” touched a nerve with people, which is strange because most of the responses to it were from people who haven’t seen the movie yet.  I’m going to write a little more about the film and the critical responses tonight, but for now, I’m excited to run this particular interview.

It’s not often you meet someone who rewired you as a human being, but I think it’s safe to say that Ken Ralston is one of the people directly responsible for me being who I am at this point.  He’s been an FX legend as long as I’ve been a filmgoer, and the work he does continues to push the cutting edge each and every time he works, it seems.  That challenge is one of the things that defines him, and he certainly faced a whole new batch of difficulties bringing the world of Lewis Carroll to life for director Tim Burton.  We got a chance to sit down at the Hollywood Rennaisance Hotel as part of the “Alice In Wonderland” press day, and he more than lived up to expectations.

Drew McWeeny:  I have literally grown up watching your work.  The movie that changed my life and made me want to be a filmmaker when I was 7 was “Star Wars”… and it was really from that moment…

Ken Ralston:  I”m feeling so old.
DM:  …from the moment the Star Destroyer rolled overhead it was like, okay, whatever this is, I want in.  Over the years, you have been on the front of almost every major sea change in how effects are handled in films. And several times I think you have pushed the cutting edge to the point of breaking.
KR:  Yes.
DM:  Whether it be “Death Becomes Her”, a movie that I think is really underrated in terms of how pivotal it was at trying new things, or “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or “Back To The Future 2” which I still think is ground-breaking…
KR:  Thank you.  I do, too.
DM:  This film is a hybrid of sort of how performance is moving forward and pure animation, since it”s not a full performance-capture film.
KR:  Not at all.
DM:  But it”s also not a typical green-screen film.  When I interviewed Matt Lucas this morning, I talked with him a bit about the process and having been so dependant about prosthetics in the past, and how he played this role.  I was fascinated by the way he worked, and by the choice to make Crispin”s body fully CG, which is… I”m still not sure…
KR:   It”s kind of nuts.
DM:  I”m still not sure what I was looking at.  So it seems like you guys really tried some things in this movie that I”ve never seen before and some techniques that are very experimental.
KR:  We”re so lucky they turned out.  Yeah, it definitely… I found it a fascinating conglomeration of tricks.  And I think, as far as I”m concerned, put into a film in a way that I”ve never done before… I”ve never seen before… and obviously we didn”t say, “You know, we”ve got all these techniques, let”s stick them in a movie.”  No, no.  Once the movie started taking shape and Tim and I started to figure out, “Let”s talk about what we want to be doing here,” we started to realize, “Hmm, this could be an interesting collection of ideas to sell you on the idea of Wonderland.  What are we going to do that hasn”t been done before?”  And not that you normally try to push that envelope but it just seems to happen with me.  “What will make you believe you”re there?  What”s going to do that with all the different problems that we have to solve?”  And so that”s really… it”s the movie that dictates how these things come together.  And then on top of it, I was so happy to be working on a Tim Burton movie because I”ve always wanted to do that.  And this was the one.  I heard this was happening and I went, “Oh my God, I”ve got to get on this somehow,” and luckily we hit it off right away and it”s that vision and us collaborating in such a cool way, I think, that just kind of led us down this path.  Believe me… we didn”t have a set of ideas right away where we were going.  It just sort of took form over months.
DM:  Well, it seems like before I saw the film I didn”t understand that it was… I would argue you”re as key a collaborator on the film as there is.  This is a movie where he really had to depend on you to pull off a lot. Let”s talk about a couple of the characters in particular and how you approached them.  The Cheshire Cat is completely animated.
KR:  Yeah.
DM:  Is that based at all on any performance from Stephen Fry, or was it simply vocal?
KR:   It”s pretty traditional.  I mean it”s basically… I requested to have all the actors videoed basically while they were doing their voices. And some were doing more while they were doing the voices and some weren”t.  And Stephen basically… I mean there”s a lot of stuff that we were thinking about but it really was working with Tim on that character.  That was a big one for him to figure out.  Listening to that voice and thinking, “Who is this character?  What is this guy?”  And so it was more of an animator’s task. A traditional animation approach really.
DM:  He almost seems like a Miyazaki character, the way he”s been realized.  Especially the way he floats and moves.  There”s a real grace to him.
KR:  There is.  He”s kind of a beautiful, sensual, terrifying, can”t quite trust him kind of a character, which may be is true of a lot of the characters in the movie.  And you”re not quite sure what”s on his mind, which is actually a thing we had talked about early on.  You want to think, while you”re looking at our animation and all the stuff we have to do, that there”s something else going on back there.  He”s talking to Alice but he”s thinking of something.  He”s planning something.  He”s got something else on his mind.  He”s coming across and he”s putting something on or over her.  And it”s always twisting and poking Alice to make her change during the course of this movie.  And he”s one of many who do that.  Yeah, that was a fun character.
DM:  So with the Knave, how was the decision made to use Crispin”s head but not the body?
KR:  Okay.  Well…
DM:  Because that fascinated me more than almost any choice in the film.
KR:  Trust me, at the beginning of it, we didn”t know what he was.  At one point, when this film… when I first heard about it, it was going to be a motion capture movie.  They came to me because I did “Polar Express” and was involved with “Beowulf,” and Tim and I both went, “No, let”s not do that.”  We weren”t crazy about that technique.  And it didn”t make sense for this movie.  As we started to develop the movie, Crispin”s character… it took forever to design, to figure out who he was.  So it was, “Is he going to be in full costume? Is he going to be even more stylized?”  Originally he was going to be even more extreme in his proportions, but we hit on the fact that we didn”t want a CG head.  We didn”t want to CG him.  “Let”s keep his head.  Let”s design an outfit.  Keep his head so we have a real Crispin performance instead of a representation of an actor,” which drives me nuts, but so it”s like, “Great, let”s do this.  We’ve got his real face.  He”s doing all the subtle shtick.  And we”ll put whatever we finally design for this guy on the head we’ve already got.”  Well, that went through a huge process and we went through tons of concept work.  In the end, because Tim was also having a hard time getting his head around it, he did a great thing. He had Colleen create the costume.  Made the whole thing.  We had a stand-in… this was after we shot everything… no, it was during the… I think it was during the first shoot.  And so this guy comes on wearing this whole thing and that”s what we used as a basis for this character.  We shot the hell out of it and then created a CG version of it. And really when you see what Crispin’s proportions are, this character is seven feet tall, and he has slightly elongated… kind of more frightening proportions.  His arms are a little too long.  His legs are really a little too long.  I don”t think a lot of people may quite understand why he feels a little weird and creepy, but sort of a Jack Skellington, for lack of a better you know comparison, kind of look.  And that”s kind of where we ended up, but wow!
DM:  Yeah, it does work on you in subtle ways.  Like it took me, I would say, two or three scenes with Crispin to decide, “I don”t think that”s him at all.  I think just the head”s him.  I think everything else is not.” So it”s a subtle effect that it has on an audience.
KR:  Yeah, as nuts as the movie is, it”s actually riddled with subtleties that I hope work on the level we wanted it to with folks.
DM:   Now, in the other direction, you have Helena where the head is a parade float.
KR:  (laughs)
DM:  And then you have the body which appears to be hers.  How did you shoot her?  How was that performance built?
KR:  Again, it was in the concept stage where we weren”t sure of… I had a lot of things to consider and so did Tim.  And the first thought is, “We’ve got no time to do this prep.   We have no time to shoot.  We have no time to do the post for a movie of this scope.  Okay, who”s the Red Queen?”  And we started to think of maybe a CG body and maybe not.  And we started to go through it and finally, I think it was a combination of some concept work that came through, especially something that Michael Kutsche had done.  If you know Michael”s name at all, he”s amazing.  Then talking… you know, talking about what Helena wanted to do, we finally decided, we”re going to shoot her in full makeup, full gear with a 4K camera so we can enlarge her head and not ruin the quality of the head by making it so large and just fight our way through it.  And not only is her head that huge, but we also went in… once Tim saw that, he started…. Tim has really… his style just runs through a lot of his movies.  We brought her waist down to this strange hourglass shape, which really isn”t… maybe you never even knew it, but she”s pulled in artificially so the head and everything balance in a very interesting way.
DM:  But you did all that to the actual Helena footage that you shot?
KR:  Yes.
DM:  That”s pretty incredible because it never feels like you”ve twisted her.  It feels like it”s an organic thing, like she…
KR:  That”s the reason I think.  It”s also trying to blend everything with a lot of different looking characters that all kind of mix in the world.  It”s not the same trick from one thing to the next.  And again, it worked great because all of her stuff she”s doing and the way the costume works is important for that character.
DM:  I was laughing the other night after the screening.  Some of the cast was in the lobby and they were talking, and I walked past Michael Sheen and he was wigging out a little bit.  “Did you see the Rabbit”s hands?  Did you see the Rabbit?”  And for him there was a real sense of discovery.  Like he didn”t realize what performance it was all going to be until he had had that…
KR:  Nobody knew.  Of all the actors, I”d love to know what each of them… well, actually, Matt sent me an e-mail this morning.
DM:  Matt was lovely.  I talked to him today.
KR:  He is such a wonderful person.  And his character is so extreme.  He knew what he looked like, as far as our concept work, but I knew when he finally saw it he would just flip out.  It”s the same idea.  It”s trying to… you have a normal Alice in this nuts world, so what makes her feel like she”s part of it?  Tim had a really interesting concern, which is the one we”ve seen in other films.  You can”t just plop somebody in there and surround them with a bunch of weird shit and believe that they”re sitting there.  You have to do a really nice blend.  Here”s this and then we have some humanoid characters, but they”re all mutated one way or the other, and then the Tweedles even more so.  There”s not much left of Matt in there as far as his face is concerned but it”s his face.  But then you go to the full CG character and it was a nice sort of mix of elements to kind of help you just accept this whole crazy thing.
DM:  It”s been strange.  All the various video companies that have any version of “Alice in Wonderland” from you know, whatever era are all being sent out in the last two weeks because they want them all back in the marketplace.  So I watched the 1933 one with Gary Cooper.  That is the creepiest…
KR:  Isn”t it?
DM:  That is a freak show.
KR:  That”s the one, when I heard I was doing “Alice in Wonderland”, I went, “Well, I want to find that and watch it again,” because when I was a kid, I’ll never forget watching it and just going nuts.
DM:  And I still don”t know exactly what it was.  There are human eyes but puppet mouths and it looks like they”re right on top of each other.  It”s….
KR:  One of the makeup guys from that movie, I met many years later at Cascade Pictures when I was there, who came by to show us techniques for doing molds and stuff like that.  And to do that work at that time was genius.  Absolute genius.  I agree with you.  It”s not a great film but it is terrifically bizarre. And for its time, it broke a lot of ground.  It did some great stuff.  Hardly anyone knows that movie.
DM:  I”m glad that Universal”s putting it back out then because, at the very least, maybe people will pick it up and play the comparison game.  That”s the hardest thing I think with this.  Obviously when you”re doing “Back to the Future” or you”re doing “Roger Rabbit” or you”re doing something that”s the first time somebody”s doing it, you have latitude.
KR:  Yes.
DM:  Here, there is so much expectation put on these characters.  People have such an attachment to them.  Even something as simple as how do you approach The Mad Hatter…
KR:  Mm-hmm.
DM:  … becomes a huge, huge concern because it”s been done a million ways already.
KR:  Yeah, and some really good ways.
DM:  Because you have Johnny, you want as much of Johnny there as possible, but there”s still twists and tweaks and things you”ve done to him, aren”t there?
KR:  Yeah, well couldn”t you tell?
DM:  The eyes are…very…
KR:  The eyes are really 3 or 4 times bigger than normal.
DM:  That”s the most unsettling thing.
KR:  Once you see them a few times, it feels totally natural. The story for me is we saw him like that for a long time and then towards the end of the movie, every once in awhile an element would pop up, usually by accident, where the eyes wouldn”t be in yet, and it”d be like “WHOA!  They look too small, what did you guys do?”  It was very disconcerting because you buy into it so easily, plus he”s got the contacts which help in that ridiculous hilarious makeup.  It just adds to the bizarre quality.  But also he gives you another step into the world.  It”s Johnny but not quite and in that makeup you”re not quite sure what you”re watching.
DM:  So in the final film, are you…do you feel like you got, because you said there was a very telescoped process… do you feel like you pulled off everything that you were trying to pull off?
KR:  No one ever says that.  There”s always something you want to do.  I always say the same thing to every crew, too, on every movie I”ve ever done, which is “We”ll know how to do this movie at the end of this movie.”  Because while we”re doing it, it feels like half of the work you”re trying to do, which makes it exciting, you”re not sure how to do it, and it”s a scramble.  To answer your question, I think we accomplished pretty much 98% of what we wanted to do.  And when I put it in the context of all the other variables in it, I”m so proud of this film.  I”m just very excited by it.  There are always things I tweak.  If you gave me a chance, all I”m going to see on this film is every shot”s going to come up and I’d go, “Oops, that pixel”s goofed up.”  But no one sees that stuff.
DM:  The only director I ever got flustered when I met was Robert Zemeckis.  It was right after I moved to town.  It was 1990, so it was right on the heels of both of the “Back to the Future” sequels.
KR:  Oh boy.
DM:  And I really… I flipped when I met him.  I had like a little breakdown and he actually said “Calm down”.
KR:  (laughter)
DM:  Because I was so impressed and I still am impressed by how hard he pushes himself as a storyteller and how hard he pushes the tech.  Like he knows what he wants to do and he doesn”t care if it”s possible or not.  He pushes it.  There are still things in “Back to the Future 2” that I don”t know anybody has tried to do again because of how crazy they are.
KR:  Some of it is pretty crazy, yeah.
DM:  They”re going back this year to do the BluRay versions.  Do they ever contact you guys when they do the final BluRay package?  Especially on a film that technical?
KR:  Yeah. I just… well I just didn”t do it, but during this film I did the BluRay of “Gump”.  I haven”t heard about “Back To The Future” yet, but I bet I get a call at some point.
DM:  Because you want to make sure that it really… those composites were so tricky, like Biff in the car and the stuff where each half of the frame is a different moving camera element… it really seems like you”d want to make sure all of it plays in high-def.  I hope they get around to “Death Becomes Her” as well, which seems to me like a real training ground for some of what you did in this, like the mix of the animation and the….
KR:  It definitely was.  I always say every film”s a training ground.  Every film takes me further.  I just know more.  I”ve tried more.  I”m more comfortable with things that I wasn”t comfortable at all with when I started it, just like this film.  So it just adds to the amount of things you can pull out while you”re designing your next project.  That”s all.  I always feel the same way.  I said the same thing about Bob”s movies and Tim”s especially; it always needs to be like 40% impossible.  It has to be.  Otherwise there”s no reason for me to be on it, first of all, it seems.  I wish there were a few I could coast on but that”s what keeps it exciting and new.  I mean, I can”t think of doing the same old thing over and over.
DM:  I just watched a demo reel the other day for a small house called Stargate Studios.  They do a lot of TV stuff, and I hear people sometimes say, “Oh, I don”t like CG”.  I don”t think people realize how many digital backlots they see these days.
KR:  They don”t.
DM:  How almost completely it”s become part of the language of film.  And a lot of that, you guys helped pioneer.
KR:  Yeah, I mean we were a bunch of goofs, sort of, you know, all adding to this crazy environment that we”re in now.
DM:  The invisible effect stuff I find fascinating.  Like “Cast Away,” where people would swear to God that what they saw was all shot on an island on a location.
KR:  Yeah.
DM:  Do you take more pride in the invisible effects or do you love the outrageous or does it really matter?
KR:  I love it all.  I love it all.  I mean, there”s a lot of fun to be had doing insane crazy stuff that”s right in your face, too.  I grew up loving that stuff when I was a kid, so why would I not want to do it now?  And then also like with “Gump” or “Cast Away” or some of those things, I have a lot of fun doing that stuff too.  There”s stuff in “Gump” I”m sure nobody knows is an effect still.  I mean, they”re just not going to think about it.
DM:  It”s crazy, because I saw an early test-screening of “Gump,” and that was educational.
KR:  Oh, wow.
DM:  To see it really kind of held together.
KR:  Was that in San Jose?
DM:  Ah, no.  It was one here.
KR:  Oh okay.
DM:  But it was really, at that point, stuff was still very rough.
KR:  I”m sure.
DM:  The mouths weren”t fully rendered, and some of like the Kennedy scene was very…
KR:  (laughter)
DM:  It was great because when I finally saw it finished, the appreciation for how far you guys brought it in that period of time was profound because you”re then like, “Oh my God.”  I really wish on some of these films, studios now have BluRay branching and could put some of these rougher versions on the disc just so you can look at things and see the progression.
KR:  I”m on with you.  On “Gump,” I don”t know if they did it, because I always wanted to do it.  I haven”t looked at the BluRay thing, but there are scenes cut out of that which are all about, you know, Martin Luther King, and they were all cut out of the movie.  And we went a fair distance on, you know, on some of the shots.  It”s very interesting work.  But anyway… this”ll probably be the same thing, you know?  There are scenes that were cut out of this movie that I”m sure will end up on DVD at some point.
DM:  Well, I want to thank you very much, Mr. Ralston.  Like I said, I”ve really been looking forward to this.
KR:  Oh. well, it”s a pleasure.
DM:  Well, thank you sir.
KR:  Yeah, thank you.
I turned off the recorder and stood to leave, and we talked for a moment about how my kids don’t care if effects are new or old, how they just enjoy effects and buy into the reality of what they’re watching.  We talked about how they’ve been watching Harryhausen films on BluRay, and Ralstron confided in me that the Jabberwock in this film is his Harryhausen monster. 
I’ve got another “Alice” interview coming later tonight, although technically, it should count as two since it’s Matt Lucas, who plays both Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee.  That’ll be up a little later.
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