Growing a Studio – Ken Ralston Talks VFX at Imageworks
AWN: Which other projects were a little iffy?
Ken Ralston: For me, it was Contact. To give you an example. I was at the premiere of that movie with all the actors and later that night I went back to Imageworks to keep working on the film, trying to wrap up shots for the full release.
AWN: What about Polar Express and Beowulf?
Ken Ralston: Polar Express and Beowulf were bizarre experiments, but we learned and gleaned a lot from trying to pull them off. I don’t think we could have done Alice without having done Polar and Beowulf.
Polar Express wasn’t the film I originally thought I started to make. I thought it would be more painterly. Beowulf, I didn’t understand. I have a problem with motion capture, anyway. I don’t understand why it was important to make a motion capture film with actors. Why would we duplicate Anthony Hopkins when he’s on set? It makes no sense to me.
AWN: So you’re not a motion capture fan?
Ken Ralston: I used motion capture for Men in Black 3, but so much brilliant animation went into fixing that work. [Motion capture] is kind of a con job. It really is animation. We animated a lot of stuff in Men in Black 3 that looks like live action. We relegated motion capture to the background.
AWN: Which other films do you think were important in terms of the studio’s evolution?
Ken Ralston: All the movies are important for a lot of reasons. There’s the kind of work you’re being asked to do, and then there’s where you want to take it. You keep getting better.
Stuart Little was looked on as important for the facility. It marked a spot for us as a place that could do character animation. It was a huge challenge. Just making him feel like he was part of that wonderful stylized world was a huge challenge. We had wonderful atmospherics and compositing tricks. The animation is great. Stuart is real in that hybrid world.
People want to use the term “hybrid” as if it’s new, but it’s not a new idea. Walt Disney made hybrid films in 1920, or maybe earlier. That’s what Stuart was. It’s sort of what we did with Alice did, too – animals as characters. Stuart put us on the map in a different way. Luckily we had projects that required character animation.
AWN: Do you consciously seek out projects that will push the studio into new areas?
Ken Ralston: You have no control over what movies people are making. At times, it’s a crap shoot. When you accomplish a certain kind of movie you attract those kinds of movies. And, if you’ve done a great job on a film, you want to push and promote that. Yeah, we talked about wouldn’t it be great to do creature animation, something toony. But, it doesn’t mean we could generate the project. We have people here who can draw in talent and that can work for you if you’re ready. And like with Contact, even if you don’t think you’re ready for it, you have to go for it.
AWN: How has the relationship with Sony Pictures Animation affected Imageworks?
Ken Ralston: We had our concerns about whether we could work together. It hadn’t worked out in other facilities. But I thought it would be great to do if possible. Let’s start hiring people, start talking about story. You just kind of try to get into that realm and accomplish something.
I’m a big animation fan. I’ve talked about this before – I learned a lot watching Warner Bros cartoons, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, all the great Disney films. When I was doing motion control space ships, that all played a part. It helped in understanding movement, in characterization. I would tell people doing CG models, get some clay and sculpt something. See it in the physical world. Move lights around.
We do a lot of back and forth with SPA now. Animators jump from SPA back to us. It’s like a large, wonderful cauldron of information and energy that moves through the whole facility.
AWN: Do you have a favorite animated film among the ones Imageworks has produced?
Ken Ralston: Surf’s Up is probably my favorite. It’s really smart. Really funny. And there’s great character animation. It was another huge step for the animation team.
AWN: Are you interested in becoming more involved in animation?
Ken Ralston: What I’m comfortable with is live action movies, working with directors on set. Especially if it’s a cool location. It can be a wild experience, but that’s part of the gamble.