Are you ready for a trip down the rabbit hole? Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Disney are adding a strange new chapter to the Lewis Carroll classic with their “Alice in Wonderland,” a film that presents a young woman who finds herself in the world of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen. She is welcomed as a returning visitor — but is she, in fact, the same Alice who roamed the trippy realm as a child? Time will tell. Here at the Hero Complex, we’re counting down to the film’s March 5 release with daily coverage. Today, Hero contributer Gerrick Kennedy talks to character designer Michael Kutsche.
GK: “Alice in Wonderland” was your first experience working on a film. How did you fall into the world of Wonderland and Tim Burton?
MK: It was a huge leap for me because I’m from Germany. I’ve been a pretty successful illustrator but not in the field of movies, and I was doing illustrations for games — like the packaging. Two years ago I put all the work that I did online [because] I never really took good care about making myself public. When you’re working full-time you’re not really thinking about other jobs. One day I was working in my studio in Berlin and I got this e-mail from Sony Imageworks that was like we have this movie project and we found your portfolio would you like to work on a movie? This was a big deal for me.
GK: But you didn’t know you were “auditioning” to work on “Alice in Wonderland’?
MK: They said there were a couple of illustrators — kinda like a competition — so would you please draw a caterpillar. Like think of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” real actors with animated features. I did that in one day … I tried to do the best that I could. I got the job and finally met the vice president of Sony Imageworks [Debbie Denise]. She said what movie I’d be working on. She said it was Tim Burton and “Alice in Wonderland.” I was totally like fainting.
GK: What type of creative freedom did you have in your work? Burton has a very unique style. How did you adapt to that?
MK: I worked with visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston – this is the guy who did “Star Wars”! He said we were very early on in the production, we don’t have much direction, take some characters, get some ideas for it and go crazy. That’s what I did. In the beginning, I was a little over the top with it. A little too frightening.
GK: In your early sketches, the Cheshire Cat is more human-like and is slight and slinky, with hot pink stripes and an unsettling, toothy grin, and your Mad Hatter wore industrial goggles and had less whimsy…
MK: Because it’s a Disney production [some of that] didn’t really have that mass appeal. It would have shocked the kids. Tim Burton is a big fan of that book, and the original illustrator. Tim had his own drawings in his London office, so he wanted to have a little bit of a classic feel, so that the animals were more like animals with a twist instead of having a far-off fantasy. Sometimes he gave like a very quick sketch that was really helpful. I would take that and make it really detailed.
GK: With this being a reimagining, as opposed to a remake, how much of the original did you have in your mind as you did your designs?
MK: I was looking at the original drawings from John Tenniel and Arthur Rackham and I also looked at the clothing from that time to have the feel for this period so that it’s rooted in some sort of reality. We gave those characters clothing from that time.
GK: Everyone, of course, is focused on the 3-D element of the film. Did knowing that it would be seen in 3-D have any influence on your designs?
MK: Not for this one. I would doubt, maybe in terms of environment. In terms of design itself, even if you look at it in 3-D the brain kinda recognizes it. It’s more about the shape and the perspective.
GK: When did you first get into illustrating?
MK: I was always drawing, from kindergarten age. I didn’t really go to art school, I just self trained. At that time I always felt self-conscious that I don’t know too much, now I kinda find that’s what makes it a little more special. It’s not the taste of the professors or one of my [peers].
GK: You’re from Germany and a lot of the work on “Alice” was done in London. How did that work for you?
MK: I worked from home on “Alice” for half a year. I asked if it was a good idea to come to London. They put me on a plane, and took me to Tim’s office. They took me to the set so I could get a feel for the movie, and the production so that the characters aren’t disconnected. After awhile in Plymouth [where large portions of the film were shot] and in London, when the production moved to Culver City they moved me into a little trailer. They asked if I wanted to sit in the Sony building but I wanted to be as close to the set as possible. Of course I wanted to get a peek at what they were doing, so I had this little trailer in the backyard.
GK: People never see the step-by-step process of creative work, the process that went into it.
MK: Of course I read the script in the beginning, then they would send me an e-mail about a character that they needed urgently. I would start doing some sketches, scanning them and putting them in the computer and then making the color refinement. But I would also add some fur textures, little things so in the end it didn’t look like a painting on the computer. It had a more realistic feeling. When they decided on Alan Rickman to be the caterpillar I looked at photos of his face. It wasn’t Photoshopping photos of his face that wouldn’t work. So it had to be a design of its own, it kinda has the character of his eyes and the cheeks. Even if they didn’t cast characters, I always try to imagine who could it be, to try and get as much personality as possible. I think it’s crucial.
GK: You worked on a number of characters, also including the Red Queen and Knave of Hearts. Is there one that sticks out as your favorite?
MK: I think the caterpillar. But I also like the twins in a way, which that’s a design that Bobby Chiu did. As crazy as they are they kinda work together really well. I also think that because usually you have a big group of artists working on one character, because we only had like three people designing them (Kutsche, Chiu and Kei Acedera), they were really distinct. They didn’t get watered down. Like too many cooks [in the kitchen]. I think he was careful not to work with too many people.
Up next for the 32-year-old who said he didn’t “expect to stay in America this long” is character work on “Thor” and “John Carter of Mars,” slated for release in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
— Gerrick Kennedy
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Illustrations courtesy of Michael Kutsche