Growing a Studio – Ken Ralston Talks VFX at Imageworks
AWN: Do you tend to work with the same directors?
Ken Ralston: No. I had never worked with Tim Burton before Alice, or Barry Sonnenfeld before Men in Black II. You hope you meet directors you can connect with and get along with. You spend a lot of time together.
AWN: Do you play a part in most of Imageworks’ projects?
Ken Ralston: I’m the creative guru at the company even though I still supervise shows and battle the battles. During the course of doing a film, I talk to the crew, probably more than they want. I point out things cinematically. I try to educate people, what movies are about, what motivates the film, what is important in the film, why the DP shot in a certain way. I hope that by osmosis they’ll pick up enough to help them grow.
AWN: Do you work with the people in the satellite facilities in Vancouver and India?
Ken Ralston: The men and women who run sequences, battle those battles, are more involved than I am. On the other hand, during Men in Black 3, Jay Redd and I sat in a dark room all damn day long and I don’t know where the people were who were connected to me. I like personal contact, and that part has inevitably changed. But, the way these video conference calls work at this point, everyone can see everything, talk to each other at the same time. I’ve adapted. Still, when there’s an animation question, you want to get up and do some movement and show body language.
AWN: How has technology affected you in other ways?
Ken Ralston: I find Arnold really cool. I was wary of Katana at first, but I have done great work with it. But, I am so not a technical guy. I am deliberately not that because it can take over your life. I just kind of move forward and think in a less technical and more artistic way.
AWN: You’ve now been at Imageworks 17 years, almost as long as you were at ILM . . .
Ken Ralston: It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long.
AWN: And, Imageworks is a large studio now. Do you think size matters?
Ken Ralston: The great thing about a large established facility is that you can feed off each other in ways smaller groups can’t. It’s hard to keep the level of work up at a smaller facility.
AWN: What do you predict for the future?
Ken Ralston: I think Imageworks will keep moving in the same kinds of directions. Animation will stay strong. You never know. You might get an extraordinary project, something you don’t expect, that takes you down a road you don’t know.
Ten years ago, if Alice had come in, I would have been petrified. But, a little impossible is a good thing. It forces you to grow. In the course of each film, you know what the facility can do. Getting better and better is our goal.
AWN: Have you been affected by visual effects work moving overseas?
Ken Ralston: Not really. It makes the competition tougher and more exciting at the same time. It’s amazing to see the work being done overseas. It’s great. There are talented people all over the place. I just love seeing good work.
AWN: It sounds like you love what you’re doing.
Ken Ralston: As silly as it is, it’s very hard work. Crazy hours. Personalities that make you want to strangle people. But that’s life, isn’t it? At the same time, there are so many interesting creative people doing things you cannot, believe me, do any other way.
AWN: And, you’re happy you made the move all those years ago.
Ken Ralston: If you’d talked to me two years in, I probably wouldn’t have said so. It hasn’t been easy, but everyone worked hard and achieved a lot. The big overall viewpoint is that I’m really proud of everyone here. The level of work we have achieved and are achieving now. It’s so wonderful to see the different kinds of work going through Sony Pictures Animation and Imageworks, the competence, the artistry, the discipline that people are putting into the work. This is not simple stuff to do and they’re doing the best version of it.
--Barbara Robertson is an award winning journalist and frequent contributor to AWN and VFXWorld.