Ken Ralston’s favorite enterprise? It wasn’t ‘Star Trek’

March 09, 2009 | 8:52 p.m.


This is the fifth installment in our series "Wizards of Hollywood," where we shine a spotlight on the masters of movie magic, the effects specialists who can dazzle us with screen images of liquid robots, giants and goblins, ferocious dinosaurs or just a special human soul who ages in reverse. Today, guest contributor Liesl Bradner interviews Ken Ralston.

Ken Ralston, the senior visual effects supervisor at Sony Imageworks, is currently the senior visual effects supervisor on Tim Burton’s "Alice in Wonderland," and he has extensive Starfleet experience (he worked on "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" and "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home"). He has also won four Oscars (for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Death Becomes Her," "Cocoon" and "Forrest Gump") and took home a special achievement Oscar for "Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi."  Surprisingly, he says his favorite screen accomplishment involved neither spaceships nor the supernatural.

My most memorable moment on film is in "Forrest Gump," the Washington, D.C., crowd scene at the National Mall and Lincoln Memorial by the reflecting pool, when Forrest gives his speech and finds Jenny in the crowd.

We only had two days for this scene. There was lots to do with not a lot of time. We had four or five camera systems shooting at different angles. We used live action motion control that can be repeated over and over locked in to one central computer.

It was 1993, before the technology existed to duplicate crowds. Without a lot of extras to work with, we put as many as we could in period costume.

We shot Tom’s element first, the scene where he’s giving his speech. We put the extras in foreground and close to camera as possible. We’d get a take we like then we’d back the camera up. When Tom’s part is done he goes into his trailer and we keep repeating the exact same movement over and over while physically moving the crowd back further and further. There were various shots within that scene, so each time we’d shoot separate elements of crowd.

There were some location problems too. We’d shoot for a while, go to lunch and, because it was so cold, the extras would leave, which made our job harder. Overall, it went very well despite half the group leaving.

The next day we shot the part when Tom and Robin [Wright Penn, in the role of Jenny] meet out in reflecting pool.

We augmented how the reflecting pool looked by adding a sky that made it more dramatic We were pushing limits of technology at the time, to get those interesting little pieces and nuances and blend them to make it work so the audience bought it.

— Liesl Bradner



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3 Responses to Ken Ralston’s favorite enterprise? It wasn’t ‘Star Trek’

  1. Mary C says:

    Visually the scene is wonderful. But content-wise it almost ruined the film for me. Here we have the issue that divided the Boomers like no other — their stance on the war — and the one time we hear our hero's view on it… we get a cop out. It felt like the filmmakers were afraid of losing half their audience by having Forest take a stand one way or the other, so rather than give us a genuine character moment they avoided the issue completely by not letting us hear what he had to say. Good way to make sure your film is beloved by a larger audience for sure, but such an easy way out to avoid letting us know more about the main character of the film.

  2. Sean Menzies says:

    Ken is one of the nicest guys I know in the film industry. I worked at Imageworks on Stuart Little and liked it there a lot, nice facility. Had lunch with Ken while Bob Zemeckis was shooting Beowulf and the sly devil never let on that he'd just done an audio commentary with Harryhausen on Warners release of the 1933 King Kong, though all I did was rave about how I couldn't wait to see it.
    On Contact, we did most of our fx with Ken and Imageworks. He's a great guy and I love hearing his side of things in the fx world, especially now. When I saw him during Beowulf, he lamented the loss of the old days (a mere ten years ago) when one built models and blew them up. That still happens in film, but not nearly as much as it used to. There is a reason the original Star Wars series still sells more action figures than the new set of just a few years ago: when kids, especially boys, see an actual Tie or X-wing fighter soar across the screen, it registers something in their minds that that thing actually exists and it's cool and they want it. But when a digital spaceship moves across the screen, it absolutely fails to have the same effect.
    A group of friends and I went to a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark a week ago and though most of them were barely old enough to see the film when it was first released, I heard one of them say, when Indy is covered with spiders in the beginning of the film, "And those are REAL!" out loud. He almost got applause for the comment. That's what audiences want.
    Thanks for your article!
    Sean Menzies

  3. Darrell says:

    Real beats CG almost every time!

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