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VFX Soup: Ken Ralston, Jay Redd, VFX for Men in Black 3

COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : VFX Soup: Ken Ralston, Jay Redd, VFX for Men in Black 3
CreativeCOW presents VFX Soup: Ken Ralston, Jay Redd, VFX for Men in Black 3 -- Cinematography Feature


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Five-time Academy Award winner and visual effects pioneer Ken Ralston was Visual Effects Supervisor on Men in Black 3. Ralston, who is Senior Visual Effects Supervisor and Creative Head at Sony Pictures Imageworks, was also recognized with an Academy Award-nomination for his work on Alice in Wonderland 3D. During his tenure at Sony Imageworks, Ralston has collaborated with director Robert Zemeckis on Beowulf, The Polar Express and Cast Away. He also received a Special Achievement Oscar for the visual effects in the 1984 Star Wars: Episode VI -- The Return of the Jedi. Other film credits include the Back to the Future trilogy, Jumanji, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and several Star Trek films.

Jay Redd, also Visual Effects Supervisor on Men in Black 3, has spent more than a decade at Sony Imageworks during which time he was Visual Effects Supervisor on Monster House and The Haunted Mansion. Previously he was Digital Effects Supervisor on Stuart Little 2 and honored with the VES Award for Best Character Animation in an Animated Film. Redd is also credited with helping to create the title character for the first Stuart Little film. Before Imageworks, Redd spent four years at Rhythm & Hues where he worked on Waterworld and Babe.


Jay Redd is Visual Effects Supervisor and has spent more than a decade at Sony Imageworks.
Ken Ralston is Senior Visual Effects Supervisor and Creative Head at Sony Pictures Imageworks.
Creative COW spoke to Ralston and Redd about their work on Men in Black 3.


Ken Ralston:
I started on Men in Black 3 about two years ago. Literally, the week after I finished Alice in Wonderland, Barry Sonnenfeld came by and wanted to see some of the 3D work and animation we'd done on that movie. Imageworks ran some footage for him and then he came by my office, and I talked to him about doing the 3D and animation. Before he left, he begged me to do MiB3. I was so burned out from Alice that I thought, you've got to be kidding me. Then I read the script and loved the variety of the work and the funny absurd humor and thought, why not, it could be a lot of fun.

Jay Redd: I'd just finished doing three Looney Tunes CG shorts, Rabid Rider, Fur of Flying and Coyote Falls, and was in between things. I got a call from Ken Ralston by way of Imageworks Executive Producer Debbie Dennis, who asked me what I was doing, and said, how about working on MiB3? A few weeks later, I was over at Imageworks reading a script.

KR: The most fun part of any movie is before you start shooting. Once production begins, there's an insane schedule. Pre-production on MiB3 was a blast. [Special make-up effects artist] Rick Baker and I go back to when we were 17. We'd done odds and ends but this was our first project together. He was doing the make-up and a lot of creatures and we brainstormed about possible ways we could create these creatures. Jay and I would meet with Barry and talk about approaches to do the Cape Canaveral scene.

But this is the most fun of all, we were working on the giant fish, and I was doodling and coming up with ideas.



Multi Oscar© winning master of make-up effects Rick Baker on the set of Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK 3.


JR: The pre-production phase is when it's constantly new and exciting and surprising. For this movie, pre-production melted into production, which melted into post. We kept designing and experimenting even after principal photography was over. We were still working on the final creature designs even a few months ago. It doesn't feel like there were walls between pre-pro, production and post.

KR: More than one person was working on design. Bobby Chiu, an artist we also used on Alice, did some concept designs for the basic design of the Alien fish. Rick Baker did a lot of designs on the show including a CG creature we called the Weasel. It doesn't look like a weasel but it's a creepy looking creature. I also did some design, once my not-so-good doodles were handed off to others who did it better.


A volleyball was used on set to represent the alien Tony’s head. Middle, The animation team created a digital version of Tony's head. Right, The final shot contains a cg head for Tony the alien, created by artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks. Please click individual images for larger views. © Imageworks



JR: The early 3D camera tests took place in the early summer, even before I got on the project. The conversation of whether to shoot native 3D or do a conversion happened early on in the process. Principal photography started in September 2010, when it was still warm in New York City. We shot some early blue screen elements for Time-Jump tests with Will. We didn't go back and start shooting officially until October, and then we had a winter hiatus, which allowed us to redress the entire set for the time-jump sequences and that was very time-consuming. We started up again in February and then finished in early July. By the time principal photography was over, we'd seen four seasons go by.

KR: When it came to deciding how to divvy up the effects work, I wanted to keep all the heavy lifting in-house at Imageworks. The group here is very talented and the minute-by-minute decisions made in the dailies room is critical to getting the show done.

Of the total of 1,214 shots, Imageworks did approximately 650 of them. We then broke off different sequences and shots that were easier to give to a vender. For example, I couldn't just break off a piece of the Cape Canaveral sequence and give it to someone else; it was too big and complicated to do that. You end up spending so much time managing, no matter how good the facility is.


VFX breakdown Apollo 11 from Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK 3. Images courtesy Imageworks.
Please click individual images for larger views.



Prime Focus, Method Studios and Cantina Creative all did great work. Method and Prime Focus helped with wire removals, set cleanup, sky replacements, cosmetic fixes, simple comps and some light CG. EFilm helped with some blemish removals, and Cantina Creative completed all the "display graphics" such as the Big Orb, Orb workstations and Time Jump Unit graphic readout.

JR: By letting each facility focus on specific things, it allows them to be successful in a great way. To pick facilities, we looked at the kind of work that each facility excelled at. A lot of it is looking at past work and seeing who's interested and capable in doing certain types of work. Some are great at set extensions, some at effects. Prime Focus ended up doing the majority of the 3D conversion -- and they did some great matte paintings for the part of the movie that took place at the beach at Cape Canaveral.

KR: One of the reasons why you have to be very careful about the shots that you allow other facilities to do is to make sure that the work can match what we're doing. There is a definite overlap in shots where other houses put elements into shots.

JR: Joyce Cox, VFX producer and Eric Scott, VFX producer at Imageworks were also behind the scene to keep things flowing so Ken and I didn't have to think about it too much.

KR: Every day, along with our team, Jay and I would watch everybody's shots and talk them through. Working with Imageworks' shots as well as those from Method, Prime Focus and Cantina, Jay and I didn't leave the dark screening room for 10 months.

JR: We did a variety of work on MiB3. In fact, it never felt like we had a repeat shot. Every shot of Cape Canaveral looked different. During the Monocycle sequence, every single shot was different. There was always something new in every scene, which meant there was no economy of scale. There was every kind of mix between live action and CG also; in fact, everything you can come up with in terms of techniques is in the movie and all of it was complex. The diversity of the effects was cool but it was also difficult to keep contained. It made it interesting for us in that we got to do new things but also challenging.





KR: (laughing) That's for sure. There was a lot of creature work. We have the Alien fish, the weasel, and we also did some additional work on some of Rick Baker's creatures. Boris, for example, is a combination of Rick's and our work.

It's always the same thing. I'm not big on software and technology. It's vital, I understand that but I can give the work to a lot of people and some will look terrific and some won't. It's not about the technology, it's about the quality of the people involved, and the artistry. When you're making the technological monstrosity that's a VFX film, dealing with those artists is one of the best parts.

One of the other challenges in the movie was the amount of material that is happening so quickly. The movie has a lot of very fast cuts, and just because the cut is fast doesn't mean it's less work. There were fast cuts that were just as hard as the longer ones.

JR: Every shot had to be sculpted enough to make sense. This movie moves around a lot and there are lots of short shots and they all need to be taken care of so that the whole makes sense.


Tommy Lee Jones stars in Columbia Pictures' action adventure comedy MEN IN BLACK 3.
Tommy Lee Jones stars in Columbia Pictures' action adventure comedy MEN IN BLACK 3.


KR: Fast shots can be forgiving but it still makes for more total shots for us. With a fast shot, an audience can't perceive subtle problems it may or may not have and since you're on a time crunch, you have to weigh how much time to spend on it. With the horrible world of new technology, you can watch one of these fast shots very slowly, going back and forth and see all the subtle problems. Barry would look at it that way, and then he'd see it in context, at its normal speed, and say Oh forget it. Not that we're trying to be sloppy.

Part of the artistry is to know when to stop. There's a point where the audience can't see the small tweaks, and I needed my team of artists working on things that are more important.

Because Barry was first a Director of Photography, he knows what's important and what's not, and it's great working with people like that.

JR: It was refreshing to work that way. One of the bigger sequences is a Time-Jump back to 1960s New York City. When Will Smith jumps off the Chrysler building, we made changes in the landscape to some degree. If you're a New Yorker, you'll wonder where we are (laughing). We made the composition more interesting and changed things around...it's like a Barry Sonnenfeld version of New York City.


Tommy Lee Jones stars in Columbia Pictures' action adventure comedy MEN IN BLACK 3.
Tommy Lee Jones (left) and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK 3. Photo credit: Saeed Adyani


KR: It's definitely not a documentary

JR: Our crew's living quarters was a couple blocks away from the Chrysler building so we got to know that area very well. We went to the top of the building to shoot reference material. It was beautiful up there -- another perk of what we do -- and when we looked around, we talked about some of the buildings that were kind of ugly that we pulled out afterwards.

KR: When it came to digital doubles, Jay and I felt early on that to protect the movie, ourselves and Barry, we had to do detailed digital doubles for Will Smith, Jemaine Clement and Josh Brolin. We felt we had to have them in our back pocket because we were sure a need for them would come up after we started shooting. And we did use them, not in close-ups, but they are featured more than we thought. When Will jumps off the Chrysler building, in the longest shot in that sequence, the only part of him that's real is his head. Everything else, including the simulation of the cloth blowing in the wind is all CG. As these things are, it's a jumbled puzzle of techniques to make the shot work best.

JR: Sometimes we replace an arm or leg because a different action needs to work cut to cut. For the character of Boris, we split his head to work with Rick's make-up and our digital manipulation over his make-up. It's a big mix of techniques from shot to shot.

KR: There were no miniatures although it could have been. We discussed whether or not to use them thoroughly. Based on the shot design that started to happen and the technical problems we knew we would have, we made the decision to go with CG.

JR: It was about having explicit control.





KR: For my personal taste, it was great to work on a movie that was funny. It's absolutely a surreal looking film and deliberately so. Barry always talked about wanting the artifice of it being a movie to be part of the movie, and that's a great thing for it to be. It was fun to work on and fun to be in dailies with Barry. He kept us laughing and we kept him laughing. It was cool that way.

JR: One of the challenges was that the last Men in Black came out in 2002, and the first one in 1997. Here we are 25 years later and not wanting Men in Black 3 to look so different that it didn't look like part of the family. Luckily, Barry, Rick Baker, everyone on it could make it feel like other films and yet make it new.





VFX breakdown of Shea Stadium from Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK 3.


KR: The way we composite and light are all different, but we still paint out buildings, do matte paintings. The space nerd in me wants to be technically accurate but, for me, it was enjoyable to work in a whimsical way. In a Men in Black world, it has to be a roller coaster, and Barry encourages us by saying, Let's go make it dopey.

JR: This movie was not shot natively in 3D; it went through a conversion. Both Ken and I have done 3D movies and, to be clear, I don't really like 3D so much with the color compromises and the dark glasses. But the conversion process by Corey Turner, the 3D Stereographer on our show, broke a few rules but made it look great. In fact, I like it more in 3D than 2D. It adds to the whimsy and the fun of the whole thing, and it's really immersive. I'm a convert to conversion.







All images © 2012 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.

Title image: Keone Young (left) and Tommy Lee Jones holding "Spiky Bulba" in Columbia Pictures' MEN IN BLACK 3.

Photo of Ken Ralston, Sony Image Works Portraits
Photo by Eric Charbonneau ©Berliner Studio/BEImages. All Rights Reserved.



Comments

Re: VFX Soup: Ken Ralston, Jay Redd, VFX for Men in Black 3
by juan banchero
One of the challenges was that the last Men in Black came out in 2002, and the first one in 1997. Here we are 25 years later and not wanting Men in Black 3 to look so different that it didn't look like part of the family. Luckily, Barry, Rick Baker, everyone on it could make it feel like other films and yet make it new.

wait a minute... 1997? ...25 years?... ... OMG... HE IS 10 YEARS IN THE FUTURE!!!


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