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Revisiting 'Alice in Wonderland'

As the Oscar race for VFX heats up, Bill Desowitz reports back with a second look at Alice in Wonderland.

Check out the Alice in Wonderland trailers and clips at AWNtv!

The Red Queen's head was enlarged through brute force and blended back onto an hourglass-shaped body in a way that looks perfectly natural. Images courtesy of Disney.

Sony Pictures Imageworks threw a tea party last week for Alice in Wonderland, lest Oscar voters at large forget the studio's substantial work on the Tim Burton blockbuster that opened in March. Journalists were treated to individual sessions in an editing bay with treats and plenty of highlights showcasing the abundant CG characters and synthetic environments, which have always been Sony's signature trademark. Even so, the hybrid film clearly represents the studio's most ambitious achievement to date. With more than 1,700 shots and 35 characters from Sony (out of a total of 2,300), Alice offers a new synthesis of CG techniques. The interactive display, in fact, was the brainchild of Ronni Chasen, the veteran publicist that was brutally murdered late last month.

After a highlight reel, Ken Ralston, the overall visual effects supervisor, narrated a subsequent presentation that explained the significance of the work, culminating in the thrilling Jabberwocky climax. Dave Schaub, the animation supervisor, voiced a segment devoted to the making of Lewis Carroll's classic characters; Bert Van Brande, a CG supervisor, narrated a segment devoted to the Mushroom Forest environment; and Brian Steiner, another CG supervisor, voiced a Stolen Tarts compositing segment.

"Since all of Underland is virtually synthetic, it was decided early on to acquire the live-action performance in a greenscreen environment," Ralston explained. "In addition, many of the characters were a hybrid of live action and animation. Numerous motion capture tools were tested mainly as reference for what was ultimately handled as animation. The challenge was to find the balance where CG and hybrid animated characters blended together with the live actors to look like they were part of the same world. Alice falling down the rabbit hole… is a combination of a live-action Alice on wire rigs on a greenscreen shoot; the whole environment was created in computer (all the roots, all the dirt, all the furniture -- everything -- was CG)…

The Cheshire Cat's mouth had to deform over the entire face, the fur couldn't be too thick or too thin and he had to move ethereally.

"The Throne Room is still one of my favorite scenes and the interaction with the Queen and the frogs and all the other characters. In especially creating this Red Queen character with the large head, we shot her with a 4K camera and really, through brute force, enlarged her head and blended it back onto her body in a way that looks perfectly natural. And once we saw the head that big, we decided creatively to take her waist and do more of an hourglass shape so it balanced that giant head better than leaving her the way she was.

"The Tea Party scene is the first time that we meet the Mad Hatter and we had Johnny Depp's performance and then we enlarged his eyes so they were abnormally big. Also, in the scene, Alice is very small; we have a lot of animated characters; and also it's an interesting blend of a partial real set when everything blends into our CG world."

Meanwhile, Schaub emphasized the challenges associated with the Cheshire Cat. "The Cheshire Cat is an intelligent, mischievous character, with a sly grin that stretches from ear to ear. This presented a rigging challenge since the mouth had to deform over the entire span of the face. Fur had to be groomed in such a way that it didn't get too thick during compression or thin out too much when it was fully stretched from ear to ear. The design also required that the teeth be visible as part of the grin so the interior palette had to deform to follow the curvature of the smile. Early tests had this character grounded as a real cat, but quickly moved to a more ethereal style of movement. There's only a few shots where the Cheshire Cat is bound by gravity, and the rest of the time he floats in and out of existence in a very sleek and graceful way. The character is voiced by Stephen Fry and the challenge was to support the dialog with convincing body language for a cat without over humanizing the gestures. Instead of gesturing with his hands… little ear twitches and tail flicks were used as punctuation marks instead."

The Tweedles were a true hybrid utilizing Matt Lucas' eyes, nose and mouth but then keyframed for everything else, including the caricatured movement.

The Tweedles were a true hybrid with Matt Lucas' eyes, nose and mouth along with keyframe animation, again, using MoCap as reference. "The two roles are synchronized in editorial and a pre-comp is created that becomes the performance reference for animation," Schaub continued. "Ultimately, it's the photographic element of Matt Lucas' face that ends up in the final render… The director wanted a punchier, more caricatured style of motion for the Tweedles. While the spirit of Matt's performance remains intact, the execution of weight and physics was tackled exclusively in animation."

In terms of the Mushroom Forest, Van Brande explained, "Three-D previs models were used on set for realtime feedback. Concept art and a library of reference images helped to achieve the realism we were after. A large number of different mushrooms as well as plants were models and textures. A look was developed using in-house shaders and the Arnold renderer, which allowed us to [get more organic lighting]."

The Mad Hatter contains digitally enlarged eyes, which contrasts wonderfully with the miniaturized Alice.

Schaub also made an appearance to answer questions in person. He explained that Jabberwocky, for instance, not only paid homage to Ray Harryhausen but also to Bill Tytla's demon Chernabog from Fantasia's"Night on Bald Mountain" segment, especially when he emerges from inside his wings.

Schaub also recounted how Burton was having a difficult time explaining the precise curl of smoke he desired from Absolem, the psychedelic caterpillar. "He finally told us to use an incense stick as reference."

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.