“Alice in Wonderland” Virtual Roundtable with Animation Supervisor David Schaub and Effects Supervisor Ken Ralston
by Neko Pilarcik
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Q: David, as visually stunning as Alice in Wonderland was, I’m curious as to what scenes or characters you’re most proud of with the film’s final cut. Could you enlighten me on that?
A: David Schaub: As the show evolved I would have to say that each scene and character had it’s own moment in the sun. When we put that much energy into the process of character development and try to make the most of each character, it’s hard not to fall in love with each one of them. In the end, the Cheshire cat is certainly a favorite, and one of the big surprises I think are the frogs. Those characters were always supposed to be “tertiary” characters as ornamentation for the background of the Red Queen’s castle. They were only built for a rudimentary level of detail, and where not initially rigged to do all the stuff they ultimately did in those close-up shots. There was a lot of special purpose rigging built for the face in order to pull off that level of subtlety once we got up close.
Q: Ken, were you satisfied with the use of 3D in the film? What was your favorite scene?
A: Ken Ralston: I was very satisfied with how 3D helped us immerse Alice into the world of Wonderland. As for a favorite scene, I love when Alice meets the Cheshire Cat. It works on so many levels.
Q: David, were you conscious of the expectations in designing such beloved characters?
David Schaub: Absolutely. An amazing array of design ideas were put in front of Tim during the development phase. In the end, he gravitated back to the original illustrations by John Tenniel. For the most part, I think that’s the style we ended up with in the film.
Q: Ken , obviously creating the animation and effects for this film was like assembling en elaborate jigsaw puzzle. What specific challenges did this pose and what advantages did it give?
Ken Ralston: In a simple way, there were so many separate pieces that just keeping them all straight was a challenge. An advantage is that there are so many tricks in every shot that it keeps the audience from knowing exactly what was done in any given scene.
Q: David, what was perhaps the biggest obstacle you had to overcome while filming Alice in Wonderland?
David Schaub: That looming deadline! Because it was to be a 3D release, our delivery date was inked in long before we knew the full scope of work. All we knew is that it had to be in theaters on March 5, 2010! There was no moving that date, and that meant that our animation schedule was 9 months from start-to-finish. No wiggle room. You’ll notice that actors are geared up for motion capture, and they also wear targets for an optical tracking solution as a backup should we need to go there. We went into this armed with as much as we could, and allowed for fallback plans as well. In the end, we went for a more stylized version of movement which was more of an animation solution, but we didn’t know that going in. We just had to be as prepared as we could for all the curve-balls that might come our way - and we certainly didn’t want to have regrets that we didn’t capture data when we had the opportunity to do so.
Q: David, what was the storyboard process like? Where the boards very detailed and specific? Or where they more loose and gestural, focusing on mood and general blocking?
David Schaub: Tim is a very visceral filmmaker… and does not like working with story boards. It is a very interactive process when it comes to animation, and a lot of our performance cues were taken from how he directed the actors on set. When it came to the animation process, it was the typical round of blocking, primary and secondary animation approvals.
Q: Dave, how much leeway were you and your staff given to add your own personal style of animation when there was also the look and visual style of Tim Burton being presented?
A: David Schaub: Tim was great at giving us lots of creative license to try lots of different things. He would always steer the work toward his particular sensibilities, and rather than completely scrap a performance that was working well in it’s own way - he would always find a way to make the most of the elements that worked and steer the ship forward without completely turning the ship around. I think it was a very rewarding experience for the animators.
Q: Ken, what all went into the epic climax of Alice in Wonderland?
Ken Ralston: The end battle was shot entirely on green screen. We designed the Jabberwocky as an homage to Ray Harryhausen’s work. There is a tremendous amount of animation and compositing. The sequence is full of many effects and animation tricks — fog, dust, debris — many, many small details that blend together to add a reality to the scene.
Q: Dave, could you explain the 3D animation process a bit for those who may not know that there are animators who add that 3D element to the experience? And how happy are you with the 2D version of the film even though there was that effort done by your 3D team?
David Schaub: When we are inside of our CG world - and if all of our characters were CG, then the process of animating in 3D is really no different than it would be on a 2D film. In the end, the scene is rendered through a left-and right-eye camera. It is a virtual world and everything is already set up with depth relationships. The tricky part is when we integrate live-action elements into that world - like Alice, for example. Before the CG characters can be animated in a scene with her, Alice must first be given “volume” so that the other characters can interact in a believable depth-relationship with her. Basically, a stunt-double version of Alice must be created and animated to match the performance as seen from the camera, then the photography is projected back on to that geometry to give her depth. With regard to “making” a 3D movie, we really only think in terms of 2D (for the most part), and make it the best 2D movie that it can possibly be. The 3D aspect adds depth and places Alice inside this weird and wacky world of Underland… but hopefully people aren’t thinking too much about the effect, but enjoying the ride instead. The goal is to make everything blend seamlessly.
Q: David, could you tell me a little bit more about the concept behind the Blue Caterpillar? What was the overall goal as an animator with that character? Any early ideas that were axed?
David Schaub: The caterpillar performance was truly dictated by how Alan Rickman voiced the character. You don’t even need to see the reference of his performance to feel the disdain in his voice. As with all of the animated characters, the goal was to tone the “animation-knob” way down. Tim wanted to impart an extreme level of subtlety in the performances so that the characters reside in the same world as their live-action counterparts. Again, we took our cues from how Tim directed his actors on set. Nothing is over-dramatized, and if a performance can be sold with absolute “stillness”, with a perfectly timed little dart of the eyes, that’s exactly what Tim wanted to capitalize on. That was a common theme for all of these characters - and the frogs come to mind in that regard as well.
Q: Ken, which of the actors was presented with the greatest challenge to achieve an effect, over the course of the shoot?
Ken Ralston: Mia probably was presented with the greatest challenge. Mia had to carry the weight of performing opposite many, many characters that were not at all visible on the set as you see them in the movie. It was also her first film like this, so she had a huge learning curve. She did fantastically.
Q: Ken, was there ever a moment where you couldn’t achieve what was being asked for, or is that a thing of the past?
Ken Ralston: Sure — for a variety of reasons, there are always shots that either don’t live up to the initial intent or due to schedule, physical resources or cost have to be re-envisioned. But overall, on this film, what you see on the screen came together even more robust than we first imagined.
Q: David, how much training was involved in putting the actors on stilts?
David Schaub: They spent several days hobbling around the set trying to get the hang of it. The primary reason for putting them on stilts was to get the eyeline right on set. You’ll notice that the movement of an actor on stilts LOOKS like an actor on stilts, so those performances were really used as a point-of-reference for animation. The animated version of the Tweedles for example, have a different feel about them than what was actually shot. That was a stylistic choice that evolved with Tim over the course of the show.
Q: Ken having worked with Robert Zemeckis, how successful do you think mo-cap is as a solution to animation problems, and are you happy with the speed at which it’s growing use in the industry?
A: Ken Ralston: MOTION CAPTURE HAS A PLACE IN SPECIFIC TYPES OF MOVIES. IT IS ONE OF MANY AVAILABLE TOOLS. ON ALICE, WE ONLY USED MOTION CAPTURE AS A REFERENCE. ALL OF THE CHARACTERS AND ANIMATION WERE ACTUALLY DONE THROUGH TRADITIONAL KEY FRAME TECHNIQUES
Q: David, Alice has - possibly unjustly - been lumped in with a number of other blockbusters that have ‘upscaled’ to 3D in post. How do you feel about the rush to the new technology? Do you feel some of the other films undermined what you had achieved?
David Schaub: We can always hope that the standards remain high. Of course there is always the possibility that the work turned out over the next couple of years will dictate how the industry goes as a direct result of how audience react to the 3D conversions currently underway.
Q: Ken, it’s easy to think ‘oh it’s all green screen’ but how complicated were the physical green screen sets you built?
A: Ken Ralston: They are deceivingly simple looking but the placement of all of the green props and elements were lined up exactly to the detailed CG designed sets developed by production designer Rob Stomberg. We also had to cloth stunt people, technicians, mechanical effects crew and anyone who was visible in frame but not a principal cast member in green. We shot on 2 large sound stages where portions of sets were constructed. And the green screen also had extensive reference markers so we could track the cameras and know where we were in space.
Q: David, how much more man hours are added with the hybrid characters as opposed to having either live action or fully animated characters?
David Schaub: The hybrid characters were particularly tricky - mostly from a technical point of view. We did not have to make a huge creative leap regarding performances because the essence of the performance is precisely how the actors performed their parts. Stayne was probably the trickiest in that regard because of his proportions. The trick was to replicate the essence of those performances - precisely as Crispin Glover performed - but also imparting a level of gracefulness to his moves which were often difficult to accomplish on stilts. Hours? Many hours! It is just another one of the many animation challenges that we were presented with.
Q: Ken & David: As technology has advanced to the point where basically anything you can think of can be created on screen, do you think audiences are suffering from “CGI fatigue?” How do you continue to wow audiences who have, in some ways, seen everything already??
Ken Ralston: CG is a tool like any other tool in making a movie. It can be used correctly or abused. When used correctly, it can enhance the film’s illusion and the audience experience. It is less about the technique and much more about how it is used. When used effectively to enhance a story, stunning visuals and the opportunity to explore something you have not seen is a rewarding experience.
David Schaub: The most important thing is to wow audiences with great stories and great performances. Yes, if a film hinges on spectacular VFX in order to keep the audience’s attention, then it is very easy to get “CGI-fatigue” on a grand scale. Everything we did in this film was in support of the story, and bringing Tim’s vision to life. It was never about creating some spectacular effect that no one had seen before… but the up side is that I think we ended up with some pretty unique things in the film that audiences have in fact not seen before!
Q: Dave, were there any traditional camera tricks that helped as shortcuts in the animation process?
A: David Schaub: There weren’t really any camera tricks that we could get away with on a film like this. The typical tricks that you could pull off in 2D would be revealed in 3D. For example, if you discover that a character is floating off the ground in your render, you could always cheat that contact with a contact shadow in the final comp. Since we are dealing with stereo cameras, all of those cheats reveal themselves in 3D; so we can’t get away with too many camera “tricks.”
Q: Do you find it frustrating as an audience member to see the films that are converting to 3D with far less attention to detail?
David Schaub: Sure. I would hate for the quick-conversions to give the stereo medium a bad wrap. If the audiences get turned off by the experience of a few poorly executed conversions, that could be enough to change the course of the future of 3D (stereo).
Q: Ken: This project mixes old and new techniques. Are there any new film making technologies on the horizon that you’re excited about or that you think will change the game in a big way?
Ken Ralston: I don’t know there is something on the horizon that will change the game as much as it is about applying the best technique to get the director’s vision onto the screen. Thank you for recognizing that we used a great variety of techniques. Change actually happens somewhat slowly in visual effects. Each film builds on what we learn from the last. While it may seem that certain films are a stunning breakthrough, the imagery is often the result of a steady progression accomplished over many years and through many films. Our technologies are continuously evolving.
Q: This is kind of off topic but I know the L.A. area is considered to be the heart of American animation, are there any other U.S. cities that are doing interesting things in animation?
David Schaub: Albuquerque, NM! I’m not kidding. Sony Imageworks has an facility out there, and a large chunk of this work was done out there. We are all connected via video conferencing, and remote desk-top dailies. We have also opened up an office in Vancouver that will operate in the same way - using ABQ as the model since it worked so well. More and more studios are going this way to take advantage of the tax incentives that are being offered. I love the idea - and I look forward to the day when animators can work remotely from anywhere. And as for LA… yeah, that would get the traffic off the freeways!
Q: Ken, any memorable moments on set with the cast?
A: Ken Ralston: Probably when Tim Burton was shooting crew members and overacting extras with nurf balls
Q: David, what inspires you as an artist? What kept you going and ignited your flame on the 2 year stint that was Alice in Wonderland?
David Schaub: I think great acting is always an inspiration. Tim got such great performances out of his actors, and we strived in animation to deliver performances with the same heart. I am always capturing little nuggets of performances in film, or something I might see on TV. I have a growing archive of great little nuances that I am always looking to impart in an animated character. Often it is just a perfectly timed glance and/or shrug nuance that has a magical quality… no words, just body language. That is the stuff that I find inspiring and hunger to find just the right place for those nuances in animation. So often, animated performances are overacted, over-gestural and overarticulated! That’s one of Tim’s pet peeves as well.
Q: Ken, as a guy who creates believable fantastic worlds for us to play in, what do you do in your ‘off’ time to have fun?
Ken Ralston: I love to take still photographs out in nature. Photography is my hobby and I love the outdoors.
Q: Ken, any final thoughts on Alice as we wrap up this roundtable?
Ken Ralston: Alice was definitely one of the best experiences I have ever had in my career. Working creatively with Tim Burton was incredibly satisfying. There were many challenges and we had an brilliant team that worked well together. I am very proud of the work and most importantly, it was fun. Thank you for joining us today!
Q: Dave, any final thoughts on Alice as we wrap up this roundtable?
David Schaub: There are so many great questions in here and I did my best to get to as many as I could. Sorry if I couldn’t get to yours, but I’m up against the clock (teacher said “pencils down”). Final thoughts? This experience on Alice was truly the most creatively fulfilling experiences of my career. It was a huge pleasure to work with Tim Burton, and an amazing opportunity to give life to the characters of Underland. It was also a crew of the most talented animators that I ever had the pleasure to work with - professional and talented on every level. While the schedule was grueling - 9 months in animation from start-to finish, we all realized we were a part of something special. You don’t get such wonderful opportunities very often, so everyone pulled together and gave it everything they had to make the best of this special time that we had. It was great to see the work pan out the way it did, and great to see audiences enjoying the wild and wacky world of Underland!
Neko Pilarcik Is a freelance animator and illustrator living in Chicago. She recently directed the animated short The Three Artists which screened at Cannes in 2008.
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