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The Oscars: Ralston Talks 'Alice in Wonderland'

Sony's acclaimed supervisor discusses going down the rabbit hole once again along with the other nominees.

The mandate was to try and keep as much of the real actors in the movie as possible. Images © Disney Enterprises Inc.

Ken Ralston offers more analysis of Alice, which represents Sony Pictures Imageworks' most ambitious triumph to date: the ultimate hybrid film with a new synthesis of techniques.

Bill Desowitz: How special was Alice in summoning all the tricks of the trade?

Ken Ralston: At least for me, that's why it was such a cool project to be on. It really did need me to have all that prior experience before showing up, or I would've been having a bad time. Plus you could come up with ideas about creating characters like the Tweedles or the Red Queen that would look interesting and maybe have a slightly different quality to them.

BD: And having the confidence in your colleagues at Imageworks to try something new and accomplish it.

KR: And we're just lucky that we were given so much freedom by Tim to try new things and really the mandate was to try and keep as much of the real actors in the movie as possible that were supposed to be humanoid or semi-humanoid. The Tweedles was an extreme case. There's not much left of Matt but his face and using his performance as the basis for the animation. But everything, in between, from the Red Queen to Stayne; and the White Queen -- Anne Hathaway -- always seemed to be brighter than anything else. And for the Hatter, why would we do it any other way? We wanted to keep the actors we hired in the movie.

BD: It's all about creating a fantasy world in the spirit of Lewis Carroll that's visually exciting and believable and consistent.

KR: Exactly what you're saying is, for me, the most difficult thing about it. All effects movies are challenges, but Alice was extremely complex in just the mechanics. And to try to create the world, like you say, with the consistency and the look -- whether it was realistic or fantasy, or an interesting combination of both -- but felt like everyone really was in this spot at the same time.

The lesson for the animators was learning to hold back.

BD: Was it like coming up with artistic choices for each character?

KR: It took a while to refine what the look was. The Cheshire Cat just went on and on and on. But the animation of these characters really was a lesson for our animators not to animate. Because animators really want to go too far most of the time, and some movies really require it. And since we had this real transition of Alice human and other characters sort of human, then our CG characters, we at least wanted a fair amount of them not to be overly animated and cartoony. And it was an interesting time. Tim [Burton] kept pulling back so much on the animation of the frogs in the scene with the Red Queen. And then one day we were watching it, and the first frog that came alive when we cut it into the movie, we just cracked up, was one that was barely doing anything. Because really it's about hiding, and there's a lot of overly animated ways of doing that. And like the March Hare, for instance, more toony than a lot of them in the movie, but the one shot I always crack up is when Stayne shows up and he straights up his silverware and tries and acts nonchalant, and it was so funny when it came together. And it was great having a director with such a vast animation background in so many types of movies that came into play.

BD: What is your take on the year for visual effects and expanding the category to five nominees?

KR: There's definitely so many movies utilizing it.

BD: And Hereafter, with vfx in a more supporting role?

KR: I sat there at the bakeoff thinking it was definitely one of the best. And when you watch a beautifully designed sequence like the tsunami, it looked really interesting. God bless Clint Eastwood: that guy just keeps on going and doing great stuff. And Mike Owens.

BD: And Inception?

KR: Well, you know, what strikes me more than anything are the interesting concepts. It's really unique stuff. And the types of ideas used in the movie were just wild enough without going too far out there and still based in what felt like reality. It was very well done.

It was an opportunity to experiment with new looks and different techniques.

BD: Iron Man 2?

KR: Again, it just is amazing, especially from what I'm hearing about how that last sequence came together at the last moment. And it's really a hard problem to solve: the first one was very entertaining and what are going to do? And the lighting was really very cool.

BD: And Potter?

KR: Well, you know, Harry Potter has always really had good work in it and it gets better every year. Again, a franchise like that poses so many challenges and visually what are going to do? And despite having to create a similar world, it's amazing stuff: the animation, the lighting, everything. It's kind of fun to go back and look at the earlier ones and see how far they've come. You can achieve subtleties that you never could before.

BD: More and more, it's about selecting the appropriate technique.

KR: It's a good thing there's such a large palette to use and a toolset that's advanced so far. If you don't know what you're doing, you can go down a very long and expensive path on these movies.

In the end, it's about building a machine around a director's vision.

BD: And directors are a lot more trusting, and so you can show them shots earlier.

KR: That can be good or it can be bad. Sometimes holding shots hostage can be a good thing. But part of what my job is to design how to get through a movie per director because everybody's so different. And this was my first film with Tim, so it took a while to try and study his working habits and how he wanted to do things and then build a giant machine around that, which was going to produce the movie somehow in his unique approach. And the same with Bob Zemeckis or anybody else: and this gives you so many more tools to try and find what that is and help them get to where they want to go.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.