Growing a Studio – Ken Ralston Talks VFX at Imageworks

The five-time Oscar winning visual effects supervisor reflects on his career at Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Ken Ralston

Watch AWN's video interview with Ken from FMX 2010, exclusively on AWNtv.

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.

Contact (1997). Image © 1997 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

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.

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.

The Polar Express (2004). Image © 2004 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

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.

Beowulf (2007). Image © 2007 Paramount Pictures and Shangri-La Ent., LLC. All rights reserved.

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.

Stuart Little (2000). Image © Columbia Pictures.

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.

Surf's Up (2007). Image © Sony Pictures Digital Inc.

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.

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.

Alice in Wonderland (2010). Image © Disney Enterprises Inc.

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.

VFX Supervisor Jay Redd (left) along with Ken (middle), location manager Robert Striem (middle right) and key grip Mitchell Andrew Lillian (far right) on a New York City building rooftop during the making of Men in Black 3. Image courtesy of SPI.

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.

Men in Black 3 (2012). Image: © 2012 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved. Images courtesy of: Sony Imageworks.

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.

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Barbara Robertson is an award winning journalist and frequent contributor to AWN and VFXWorld.  

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