Growing a Studio – Ken Ralston Talks VFX at Imageworks
Sony Pictures Imageworks “creative guru” Ken Ralston is on break right now after supervising the effects for Men in Black III, which followed Alice in Wonderland, for which he received his seventh Oscar and BAFTA nominations for best visual effects. This year is Imageworks’ 20th anniversary. The award-winning visual effects supervisor has been a guiding spirit at the studio since the studio’s earliest days.
Jerome Chen and four other artists founded Imageworks in 1992. During the next three years, the artists created previs for Striking Distance, inserted secret agent Clint Eastwood into a presidential motorcade for In the Line of Fire, and replaced road section with a matte painting for Speed.
Ralston joined Imageworks in 1995 and the studio began to grow. The following year, he led the effects team that worked on Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 film Contact, notably creating a 4,738-frame sequence that took audiences from earth orbit to the distant reaches space in one continuous shot, arguably the longest visual effects shot at that time.
In 1998, visual effects supervisor Scott Anderson brought home Imageworks’ first Oscar nomination, for Starship Troopers. During the following years, artists working at the studio would receive six additional Oscar nominations for best visual effects and win two Oscars, one for best visual effects and another for best animated short film. In addition, two animated features created at Imageworks would receive Oscar nominations for best animated feature.
The studio is proud of several “firsts.” Among them, the first fully-realized CG animated character to star in a live-action feature (Stuart Little, 2000). The first full-length CG feature released in IMAX 3D stereo (The Polar Express, 2005). And, the first studio to receive, the same year, Oscar nominations for best visual effects and best animated film (2007).
Sony had recruited Ralston from Industrial Light & Magic, where, during a 20-year career at that studio, he had won five Oscars. We asked Ralston why he made the decision to leave ILM, move from Northern California to the LA area, and join a start-up studio.
AWN: Why did you make the leap?
Ken Ralston: I wasn’t looking for a particular change. It was like the cosmos does things. One day I got a call from Sony. When they asked if I was looking for a change, I said, ‘No, no, no. The last thing I want to do is to set up a place.’ But, I hate to say no without knowing more. So I flew back and forth and talked to people. It’s so funny. I know they thought I was the greatest negotiator, but I just didn’t want to do it.
AWN: What convinced you?
Ken Ralston: They made me a really nice offer. I thought, ‘Oh, well, what the heck. It would be so different. Let’s do it.’ There was no real plan. It just formed into whatever it was. I sort of marvel that I could sit back and be totally neutral and things pulled me one way or another without me doing anything. But, believe me, I’m glad I did it.
AWN: What was it like at the beginning? What did you do first?
Ken Ralston: It was hard and painful for the first several years. When I first went there, I had everyone come into a screening room. I told them I wasn’t there to do things their way. I was there to do things my way and turn this studio into a world-class visual effects facility. That was the whole point of the drill. But, it was quite a ride.
AWN: So, it wasn’t a smooth ride from then to now?
Ken Ralston: Wouldn’t have that been nice. Nothing was smooth. I’m so happy with the crews we have and the dedication by the people at Imageworks and the gambles I took and everyone took to get this studio to be what it is now. Without that, we would have crashed and burned. There are moments in the history when we just had to take steps that seemed impossible.
AWN: What was your first impossible step?
Ken Ralston: It was when Bob Zemeckis wanted to do Contact. I had to have meetings with everyone. I had established a level of work at ILM and I wasn’t sure we could get to that bar. It was raised so high. And, we had Starship Troopers already in the house. But I said, OK. Sure.’ We were either going to make it or not, and if we didn’t that would be the end. We had to prove ourselves in a big way. And thank god, we did.
AWN: Why did you decide to take that risk?
Ken Ralston: I would rather take a show that’s a little iffy. For me, you have to keep growing quickly and in big ways to accomplish the work. The only way to grow is by being challenged in terrifying ways. If you get there, you learn so much. I like crews to be scared.