“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” COUNTDOWN: 5 DAYS
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’ve been counting down to the film’s release with a month of daily coverage.
Ask Ken Ralston, the visual effects supervisor for “Alice in Wonderland,” what was the single biggest challenge posed by the fantasy film and, like the Cheshire Cat, the corners of his mouth pull back in a slow grin.
“What part of it wasn’t a challenge? All the characters in the film, all the weird combination of effects, and the always-lovely fact of too little time to finish everything — all of it was a giant challenge. To think of one thing that was bigger or more difficult than the rest, I can’t do it. It was one giant challenge.”
A king-sized challenge is appropriate for Ralston, who is visual-effects royalty at this stage in his career, with five Academy Awards for his work on “Forrest Gump,” “Cocoon,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Return of the Jedi” and “Death Becomes Her.” He is the senior visual effects supervisor for Sony Pictures Imageworks and before taking that post in the 1990s he had logged almost two decades at Industrial Light & Magic, where his work on three “Star Trek” films was especially acclaimed.
After working with elite filmmakers for years, it’s somewhat surprising that this was Ralston’s first project with “Alice” director Tim Burton. The connection was made by Richard D. Zanuck, the venerable Hollywood producer who worked with Ralston on the 1985 film “Cocoon” and has produced five films with Burton since 2000.
This film provided a singular challenge, Ralston said, because it is a hybrid of three sorts of filmmaking — live-action, animation and performance capture — and with such dizzying amounts of interaction and interference that it required NASA-like calibration.
“The great challenge of it was the fact that every shot in the movie and every scene is filled with a variety of techniques and ideas, so you can’t just plug something in and run with it,” Ralston said. “This is no one-trick pony, it’s a 1,000-trick pony. It’s all scattered around in weird ways. The huge challenge to make it all feel like the same world, to have smoothness to it so that Alice — who is normal, except for size-changing throughout the movie — is surrounded by Red Queen, the Mad Hatter and Knave — who are versions of humanoids – and then on top of that all the animal characters who are animated.”
Ralston said that was only the first part of the puzzle — then came the sculpting required to make those disparate pieces mesh without bumps and breakdowns.
“On top of all that, all three groups are for the most part in computer-graphic environments that are surrounding them. What’s entailed in making that feel like a unified moment, where they’re all on the screen and interacting with each other in a believable way, well, that was more than a little tricky. That’s really all it took to make ‘Wonderland.’”
– Geoff Boucher
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