Veteran Sony Pictures Imageworks VFX supervisor discusses Disney’s latest fantasy-adventure, the largest and most sophisticated project of his career.
To fans of classic literature, let alone the history of film and television adaptations of his works, the very notion of author Lewis Carroll fills the imagination with magical scenes of eccentric characters and enchanted worlds filled with an odd and whimsical assortment of all manner of absurdities and silly happenstances. With the recent release of Disney’s Carroll-inspired fantasy-adventure, Alice Through the Looking Glass, a follow-up to 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, director James Bobin and producer Tim Burton faced the daunting challenge of dazzling audiences with yet another Wonderlandian vision that felt both comfortably familiar yet excitingly brand new – the very essence of an Alice adventure is its ability to take us to brand new worlds of unparalleled visual splendor and inventiveness.
Tasked with bringing Bobin and Burton’s vision to the screen were overall VFX supervisors Ken Ralston and Jay Redd, both Sony Pictures Imageworks veterans, who teamed up previously on Men in Black 3 (2012). I recently had a chance to speak at length with Redd, who also worked on Monster House (2006) and both Stuart Little films (1999 and 2002 respectively), among others. He shared his unique insights on the sheer enormity of the film, the complexity of the sequences and how the various teams handled the film’s design and production tasks despite a never-ending sea of challenges.
Dan Sarto: Let's just jump right in. Tell us about your role on the film and the scope of your work responsibilities.
Jay Redd: Sure. I was film’s visual effects supervisor, along with Ken Ralston. Ken did the first show [Alice in Wonderland (2010)] and was brought back to do this one. He asked me to come along for the ride this time. Because it was a massive show, it was done mostly at Imageworks -- we had almost 1700 shots, with 400 plus shots done over at Double Negative. When we started looking at the show, we knew it was going to be gigantic. There was more variety in this one than the first one. You could safely say it was bigger -- there were more varied environments than in the first film.
We weren’t just revisiting the first Alice. It'd been six years since the first film. Different director -- Tim Burton was producing but not directing this time. James Bobin, who had just come off of the second Muppet Movie [Muppets Most Wanted (2014)], after also doing the first Muppet film [The Muppets (2011)], was chosen to helm the second Alice film. Ken and I had a couple initial meetings with James and really liked him. He was energetic, very British, a fast talker and super passionate about the Lewis Carroll world, the world of Wonderland and Alice, particularly. Our first meetings with him were really energizing. It was exciting because he was really into the material. His office was filled with Alice stuff -- he's got a first or second printing, I think, of Through the Looking Glass on his desk so it's like, "Okay. This is cool. He's going to be fun to work with."
We started taking meetings while the script was still being written, of course, because it seems like that's how everything is going these days [laughs].
DS: That’s a nice way to put it.
JR: Everything was changing. It's probably no secret. There were still changes going on. We saw the Linda Woolverton script. James came on and added some new ideas. One of those ideas was the character of Time, which was turned into a person instead of just an idea. That's a big difference in this film. We're introduced to a new character. Lots of puns, lots of innuendos and a lot of fun possibilities for dialogue and visuals on what Time is about. So Time, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, becomes a character.
Right off the bat, James presented us with some ideas…well, Time lives in a castle. What's that castle going to look like? We took a meeting with Dan Hennah [the film’s production designer] who had come off The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films. Dan is wonderful. Gave us some initial sketches. We started taking some ideas further with our modelers. Started exploring, making the world that Time lives in as a sort of gigantic clock, the grand clock of all time. It is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. We were playing with some Esher-esque ideas and designs. That was one big landscape presented to us. So Time's castle is a huge piece in the film.
Since there's Time, obviously, there's got to be time travel. Right? Of course. You can't have Time as a character without wanting to move around in time, right? So that becomes part of the plot. Alice falls into Wonderland and discovers that Hatter is missing his family and has started to go a little bit more crazy than he already is. Alice is determined to save Hatter, essentially, so she goes to visit Time to ask if he can help, because she was told that if she captured this particular device called the Chronosphere, it will allow her to travel back in time. Now, not once in the movie does anyone travel forward in time. You can't go to the future. It was always only about going back.
This contraption was a whole other design challenge for us. The key question became, "How are we going to make time travel different?" Ken and I both immediately said, "We don't want to be doing wormholes. We don't want to be doing Back to the Future." Ken supervised Back to the Future films so he knows all about that. We don't want to do things we've seen before, like just disappearing into the air. Is it a combination of things? Is it something new? And how do we get from one place to the next? So there were all these big ideas that weren't written in the script at all.
What makes our job amazing and really scary at the same time, is that we're presented with one-liners in the script that say, "Something amazing happens here. Alice moves from one point to another point, in a beautiful, fantastical way." [laughs] That's our direction.
JR: Yeah. It's a blessing and a curse. That's what makes it exciting and really challenging. We immediately started looking at every movie ever made about time travel. The irony is that Ken and I had come off Men in Black 3, nine months previously, which was another time travel movie. Luckily, that time travel was handled very simply in that we didn't travel through wormholes and what not. But since this is Wonderland, it's all about visuals and this fantasy world that no one's ever been to before. So we get to have fun with it.
The Oceans of Time was another massive, massive set piece for us. There was this idea put out, maybe even mentioned in the script, about the oceans of time, which is kind of poignant and poetic. But is it literally an ocean? What is it? Oh my goodness, I can't even tell you how many ideas we had. There were dozens and dozens of ideas. James presented to us that he wanted memories to be part of the visuals. And how do memories show up, except as images? Images from the previous film. Images from the current film.
So we had this chicken and egg scenario where we needed to be able to put memories that had just occurred into the movie as Alice travels back in time, right? Let's say she is in Time's castle, she steals the Chronosphere, then goes back in time just moments from what we just saw. You watch her travel back in time and the further she goes back, the more distant these memories become. There is no future. She can only go one direction.
This presented a great challenge for us regarding how we gather and create all these images and how we show them, making it clear to the audience that these are moments that they're either familiar with, that they've just seen, that may be from the first film, or may be different angles or viewpoints of that same action. There's play on perspective here about who saw what at what time. That posed an interesting challenge.
Over a year or so, we finally arrived at this idea where these memories literally lived inside the ocean. And this ocean is an art directed ocean. It's massive. The waves are minimally 80 feet, 100 feet, 200 feet. They're gigantic. So we worked with our amazing FX team, led by Joseph Pepper [the film’s FX supervisor], the best team I’ve worked with at the company, to come up with a way to build waves and oceans, to previs and navigate through all this, and to be able to work with our animators, led by animation director Troy Saliba.
First of all, how do we even do this sequence? How do we navigate in previs what this is going to be? Remember, we're doing this while we're shooting. The script is still changing. I had to build rigs for the set for this Chronosphere, to live on a six axis rig that we're shooting against bluescreen, kind of but not exactly knowing what our choreography is. We're shooting a bunch of elements as we're still figuring out this design, to give us freedom later in editorial. This is how the movie went. There was a lot of figuring things out along the way.
Another big challenge on this film was, what is the threat? What is the antagonist? Time, the character, is kind of setup as an antagonist because there's a race against time before Hatter dies, basically, from severe depression. He's sick from missing his family. But that's not really the main antagonist. The main antagonist is the disintegration of Time. There's a rule set out in the beginning of the movie that says you're not supposed to encounter yourself in the past. Your past self cannot see your present self because that would break things down. Obviously, right? We all know this. That rule is setup in the beginning.
Alice hasn't been to the past much at all so she’s chosen to go back. But there is a moment where the Red Queen steals the Chronosphere to prove a point that her sister lied to her. She goes back in time and encounters herself as a little girl and that is the moment that time disintegrates. Well, visually, how were we going to show that? People disappearing? No, we've seen that before. Things crumbling? No, doesn't sound right. So we thought, "Let's cover everything in ice!" And then four weeks later, Frozen came out. Oops! Can't do that. That's also a Disney movie so we're not going to do ice.
What if we...let's see...this inflection point, this moment where these two characters encounter each other because they're the same person…well, we thought, what about ash? Ash seems lifeless. Ash seems scary. If you suck the life out of everything, the world dies. History stops. Things cease to exist. We wanted to come up with things that felt desperate but also felt kind of aggressive. We needed something in the world that felt like it was going to attack the things we care about, right? Not everything could just change at one time. That's also boring cinematically. Basically, you want to have something that happens at the point of inception, the single point where it starts and then spreads throughout the land, throughout the world, throughout the universe.
I don't honestly remember where this idea came from but I'll tell you how it happened, how it came to be. I started gathering a bunch of images of dust and things like Pompeii, volcanoes, mud slides, all this stuff that looked like destruction and decay. Then we started looking at rock formations. Ken and I went down to the Natural History Museum here in L.A. and started looking at all these different mineral collections. We came across crystals, spiky shapes, metals, patinas and rusts. We really started loving this idea of rust because rust has so much character and different colors and textures. And we thought, "Wouldn't it be cool, if instead of just covering everything in this gray rusty stuff, which isn't very visually interesting, a rust patina was actually part of it?" If you covered something colorful, the paint would become part of the rust. The grass might be green rust.
We thought, "This is just very cool." I'm on the phone with Joseph, sending him references of patina and rust and stuff I'm finding online. I said, "Can we come up with a quick way to run textures across our digital characters from the first Alice," because we were still building characters for the new movie and updating everything. We put a test together where we picked some of these photos and did a dirty texture bomb to see what things looked like.
Meanwhile, I'm starting to find images of underwater shipwrecks. I remember seeing images of the Titanic with all these mineral and coral growths coming off the metal and flagpoles on the starboard side, and how cool that looked. It had a direction to it. When you see the movie, that's the influence, these kind of drifts and spikes. The spikes become aggressive. We're covering everything with rust but on top of that, we're completely obliterating the original surface details. It looks scary and painful.
These big spikes grow off people and trees and on the grounds and push through doors and break architecture because we need them to feel bigger than if they were just covering things with soot. It needed to feel heavy. It needed to feel sentient, in a way, so it would travel, be aggressive and take things down. Rust was a big undertaking. Now, combine all this stuff together. You've got rust, but as time continues to break down, rust has to destroy the Oceans of Time and get into all of those memories that we see. That's how it travels and destroys all of history.
So what does a rusting ocean look like? Oh, God. We're kind of like, "Oh man. Right." You've got a massive ocean that is stormy, with huge waves, and it's got to freeze and rust over but not look like it's freezing. This is why we spent two and a half years on this movie because there was all this design work to do and a ton of tools to build to help visualize and art direct all this stuff. We had to create tools for Troy's team to help the animators do a lot of this wave animation as well as pretty high level previs and postvis work at the same time. Those were huge challenges for the film.
Those were big things, the big bullet points, of my responsibilities and the work we did.
DS: It sounds like the visual design phase continued throughout the production. You're working with the director, your own teams and a production designer. Was your team doing previs, or did you use a separate group? Tell me a little bit about the makeup of the folks that you worked with to get all this visualization and development done.
JR: Sure. It was big group of people that changed over time, too. I would say that the whole Ocean of Time and rusting [design and development] really fell into our lap, meaning Imageworks, Ken and me. That was really our side. It was a concept we had while we were shooting. We didn't have final previs. We didn't have final looks or tests of what the Oceans of Time might look like or what rust might look like while we were shooting.
Three days from the end of the principle photography, I was sitting in a cargo car out at Longcross Studios, while we're shooting a 150-foot boat rig in the cold and rain, showing James a proof of concept of what rust would look like rusting over Alice. That was three days before the end of the shoot. We had already been in pre-production and filming for a year.
There's a lot happening while we're shooting of course. We were working with Dan. We're talking about having to recreate the Wit's End village. We are building Time's castle. We are building the Grand Clock of all time, which is made up literally of hundreds of thousands of gears, Gothic spires and art nouveau flourishes. It's a very strange design concept but works really well. And, it is massive. We're also developing some render tools for all these services to be able to deal with the future idea of rust, knowing that we're going to have to do that at some point. Lots of atmosphere. We’re starting lots of matte paintings because we already know some of our environments. We're building the Chronosphere. We're coming up with effects tests. All of those things are happening while we're shooting.
Ken and I are in London because we have two and three units going on -- we're split between first, second, third, and little splinter units. We're on a few U.K. locations, running around like crazy. Meanwhile we have our teams in Vancouver and Culver City, led by Theo Bialek and Craig Wentworth. We had two digital effects supervisors on the show because it was so massive and there were so many environments and things to look after. Again, Troy Saliba was doing character work as well as a lot of design work. Imageworks did a ton of design work on the show. Dan gave us a fantastic foundation of environments to work with.
There were a lot of characters that hadn't been designed yet. Time has a team of what we call the Seconds, which are these steampunk Victorian-style robots. Everything's powered by steam. Design-wise, we cut everything off at the late 1860's. Then you add the Wonderlandian magic, you can get away with all sorts of stuff. Like time travel, for instance. There are no electronics anywhere. Everything is steam powered. Even though there are little lights here and there, we figured little incandescents are Okay. Hopefully, it's not too anachronistic.
Meanwhile, while we're shooting, we are also doing some previs, as well as on the fly, we're coming up with stuff two days before we're shooting it. We had an external previs team as well as some really good people we found in England who were working with us. We were able to previs some things for the Chronosphere particularly which was great.
DS: You alluded to some new tech on the animation side and on the rendering side. Can you tell us a bit more about the new tools you developed?
JR: Huge things. We did a lot of work on greenery: trees, grass, flowers, and the ability to do quick landscaping. Brian Steiner was the head of our landscape design and development on the tech side as well as the artistic side. I've done a bunch of movies with Brian. He's fantastic. Greenery was a big part of this because we were creating massive forests.
In this film, we visit the Mad Hatter's Tea Party before everyone's gone mad. In the first film it's [the Tea Party] all broken down, quite monotonous, sad and gray. You don't really see green. In this film, we've gone back in time before the tea party became gray. So, everything needed to be lush, full of trees and moats in the air and dust and atmosphere, big toadstools, big flowers and tiny, little flowers. It's got everything. It had to be lush and of course, crazy saturated. That was an area that we focused a lot on. The ability to quickly plant, literally, and design exactly where we wanted things to be.
But, we also had to be able to render this stuff in Arnold. Arnold's pretty great at crunching chunks of geometry. But we’re talking about millions and millions and millions of leaves and grass and everything. The rust was probably the biggest -- I hate to give it that stamp -- challenge for the show to conceptualize. How do you have something grow quickly, aggressively, that's coming out of nowhere so it doesn't look like stop-motion? There's a fine line between looking like clay that was animated in stop-motion and having it feel a little bit like liquid because it needs to spread and move around. Also, how do you hold on to texture stability when you're changing your geometry every frame? That's something to consider, as well as the dust effects and things on top of that.
What you're ending up with again is immense amounts of geometry at render time. What we didn't want to do is have artists spend a bunch of time all day, managing different layers that they're rendering. I may go in and look at dailies and say, "In that upper quadrant and spiky area, that chunk up there? Can we get four new spikes?" I would draw and annotate where I'd want to see them. We'd see a character test rusted over and say, "We need to take those two spikes out of the forehead. It doesn't look right." We got into really detailed work on the rusting.
When designing those kind of tools to have flexibility, art direction capabilities are always the challenge. You can let simulations run and do whatever they want and they'll do whatever they want. But it's usually not what you want. That's always that challenge. The waves are the same thing. We needed to be able to crest waves and have them fold over at the right time, not have them appear right in front of the camera within four frames and then disappear. Those toolsets were all big new builds for us.
DS: When you look at the scope of these films, they seem to be getting bigger and bigger, more and more complex. Does the current sophistication of production technologies make your job that much more difficult or does it…
DS: …free you to finally start doing work that you’d hoped for years to be able to one day achieve?
JR: It really does free you. Honestly Dan, it’s funny because we were talking about this while we were making this film. A lot of us have been doing this for quite a while. A bunch of people on this movie have been with Imageworks for 10 plus years, me included. We're able to look back and say, "Remember 10 years ago when we couldn't even do this?” or, “Remember when we imagined doing this and now we don’t even think about it?" or, "Remember when it was so difficult and now it's a plugin?"
So on the one hand, yes, there's a lot of freedom in being able to say, "Wow. We can do whatever we want." But the schedules are changing a lot. We had a healthy development schedule on Alice. I'm not really complaining about that. But it almost doesn't matter how much time you have. It feels like it's never quite enough. We all come from this world where, "Oh, we're playing video games." Everything's fast and real-time and you can just do it and it should be easy to change. It's in the computer, blah, blah, blah. There's this misconception that you can turn this Titanic on a dime anytime you want.
The challenge to me, more than anything these days, is the demand for quality on a tight schedule -- the demand for quality on something interesting and new that you have to produce faster than you've ever done before. On the one hand, it's a great challenge to have, but it's also a curse because you want to do your best work and not have one of your hands tied behind your back. The budgets are good but the time is so short. There are the constant demands of what the studio wants to see and how much they want to pay for it. Everybody I know in the business right now is saying, "There's never enough time. There's never enough time." I don't think there ever has been but it just feels like there’s more of that concern now.
I have to hand it to our teams. On this show, we shot some pretty wild stuff on-set. And when I say wild, I mean wild! Like an idea would come about, "Oh my gosh! Let's get this shot!" that we had never planned for. [We shot] Some bluescreens that we are not super proud of. Some rigs that weren't great. Things happen on-set. Sometime you get an idea. You don't necessarily follow exactly what you've planned in the production meeting two days before. Somebody's got a new idea, etc., etc. We shot some stuff that I wouldn't want to show anybody.
But, we bring it into the studio, and you get our compositing teams, and matchmove teams, our paintout teams and our whole 2D team onto it to get that stuff looking amazing and my jaw hits the floor some days, thinking about how this was repaired or how we were able to make this work…like getting the lighting on an insert shot that was shot a year later with a different DP, making that work in the scene.
You have to be ready for anything now. The set has become more wild. Directors want artistic freedom. Directors don't want to worry about the tech stuff. That's supposed to be my job and Troy's job and Ken's job. We're supposed to be worrying about that stuff so that we can protect the director, enable them to do whatever they want. Some directors do that. They don't care. They appreciate and love visual effects, but they don't want their hands to be tied behind their back. That's the challenge these days; getting everybody to stay on target and plan with the time that you have and use that time wisely.
We had chunks of this movie put on hold right in the middle of working on it. We had a really demanding schedule. This is the biggest movie I've ever done. Looking back on it, everything else is going to feel a little smaller right now. We also worked with Dneg on their massive sequences too. They did a great job. They had really different things to work with too, like the opening sequences on the boat. You'll see a sequence in the middle of the film where they're matching to our forest and sharing our assets. That's a challenge as well. You've got to start sharing things across companies, trying to make everything look consistent.
What's happening is a studio says, "Oh, we want to do 1200 shots but you've only got three months," where normally you would have nine months to a year. So, they stack it deep instead of wide. "Spread it across six companies and you guys figure it out and we're going to manage it and we're going to make everything look great," and it's like, "Oh. So I'm looking at other people's dailies and another team and my own and three other..." It's a huge demand. It's really difficult. That's a long answer to your question but even though we have such tremendous creative capabilities today, we are constantly impacted by schedule, schedule, schedule.
DS: Work hard, work fast, do work no one has ever done before. No sweat.
JR: Yeah. The thing I like about the Wonderland world is...sometimes we call it a live-action cartoon. That's not an excuse to say, "Don't make it look real." But we can make things look real. That's actually less interesting to me right now then building something that's a challenging fantasy, that feels real but feels different. That's the thing I really tried to dive into on this movie -- what kind of fantasy world we can bring to life and still have feel tangible. It wasn’t easy. We had a lot of good times and a lot of pressured stress times too. But I'm really proud of our team at Imageworks and at Dneg too. They all pulled together some really difficult and challenging work.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.