Visual Effects Mix Makes “Wonderland” Magical

Cannes Film Festival

Walt Disney Pictures


Four-time Oscar recipient Ken Ralston knows a thing or two about special effects.  The Sony Imageworks senior visual effects supervisor was a founding member of Industrial Light & Magic.  Ralston’s been recognized for his groundbreaking VFX work on movies such as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Forrest Gump," and "The Polar Express."   Despite his expertise on groundbreaking VFX films, Ralston found working on Tim Burton’s "Alice in Wonderland" a unique creative challenge.

"There are so many different approaches, it makes it hard to figure out what the effect is.  We mixed and matched a lot of different ideas," said Ralston.  "I found it exhilarating, working with such creative energy."

Assisting Ralston with the visual creations for “Alice in Wonderland” was a crew of master effects artist that included visual effects supervisors Sean Phillips and Carey Villegas, animation director David Schaub, and stereographer/technical animation supervisor Corey Turner. 

The animation team’s first step was to sketch looks for the main characters until Burton found a depiction of the character that he liked.  This continued throughout production, as animals and creatures were added into various scenes.

After reviewing nearly 30 concepts of the Cheshire Cat, Burton settled on a sketch that was just the right combination of cute and foreboding with an enormous, toothy smile.  This massive smile created a number of mechanical problems when realized for the screen.  The animators had to deform the cat’s palette so the teeth would retain placement during its wide grin, and the fur had to be manipulated to prevent it from bunching up along the mouth.

In addition to creating realistic looks for the Cheshire Cat, the animators also had to develop movements that properly represented it.   They began by mimicking movements of actor Stephen Frye, who voices the cat.  Burton felt the movements were too extreme.

"The tendency is to humanize its motions, but Tim wanted the stillness and creepiness of a cat," said Schaub.

While feline movements could be studied for the Cheshire Cat, other characters required more imaginative solutions.  The team used the beat of a metronome to help define the motion of the Bandersnatch.  The Jabberwocky, whose look was inspired by the creations of Ray Harryhausen, was designed to move more like an insect than a typical dragon.

The VFX crew expected to create many characters through motion capture.  However, Burton didn’t like the look of the tests.  The animators and VFX team then worked to create hybrid characters.  Characters such as the Tweedles required a completely animated body.  Once the animation was completed the VFX team then graphed the real eyes and mouth of actor Matt Lucas onto the face.

"However, when the Tweedles were very small, they were entirely CGI," said Phillips.  "They were only blended when it was a mid shot or more."

Even actor-generated characters such as the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen and Alice had a number of animated elements introduced to their performances. 

"We had to bridge the gap between live action and animation and providing a characterized realm," said Villegas.

One of the most challenging was the Red Queen who’s enlarged head had to be in correct proportion of the body throughout points in the script were the characters grow to excessive heights then shrink to miniature versions of themselves.

"First, we worked with costume designer Colleen Atwood to create a collar that would enhance the head," said Villegas.  "Then we shot on 4K high resolution.  We’d go back and shoot her scene with a lower grade camera, changing the quality.  We then blended the 4K footage with added frames from the lower grade footage, allowing us to manipulate the aesthetics of the scenes, adding dimension to her head that wasn’t there." 

The majority of the six week shoot occurred on green screen stages in Culver City.  When all the different layers were added together, Phillips brought in the matte artists


"Matting was added behind the animated characters," said Phillips.  "We got more realism than if it was all CGI for each leaf, each branch, and each detail."


The final stage was to dimentionalize everything for a 3D version of the film. 

"We used many techniques for stereography, just as many as were used in CGI," said Turner.  "There are all different kinds of approaches used in the deep background."

Turner and his team first calculated the surface of all the planes in the movie geometrically, so that they would have an understanding of each setting’s “constant surface” and would be able to more effectively play with dimentionalizing these surfaces.  In addition to manipulating the convergence of foreground and background, a common practice in the creation of 3D films where the technicians can pull objects forward or push them back, 2D rotoscoping was utilized for characters like the Mad Hatter.  Elements such as the Hatter’s eyebrows, hat rim, and hair texture were highlighted and the placement was set on screen, making it appear to be pulled forward to the eye.  Additionally, luminescence keys were used to highlight and brighten areas of the matte backgrounds, allowing them to pop forth in the 3D version.


To help the actors understand what they should expect from the 3D version, Turner used models and render drawings to explain how the 3D elements would work.


For more information about “Alice in Wonderland,” please visit:


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