By Christine Holmes
Sony Imageworks VFX supervisor Jay Redd’s journey with Alice Through the Looking Glass began at the end of 2013, a full two and a half years before the US domestic release. A seasoned veteran in the visual effects world, Redd partnered closely with director James Bobin, Imageworks VFX supervisor Ken Ralston, production designer Dan Hennah and crew to bring this vibrant adventure to life.
Time itself plays multiple roles in this new chapter to Alice in Wonderland. We see Alice return to Wonderland — or “Underland” as it’s referred to in the film — to help her friend the Mad Hatter find out what happened to his family many years ago. She sets out on a solo quest to find the Chronosphere, a small object located in a castle at the center of a giant clock. The sphere that controls time is being guarded by a new character, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, called Time, a true personification of time. When taken from the clock and activated for time travel, the Chronosphere brings Alice to a new location where all the moments in Underland’s history are displayed within the waves the Oceans of Time. Disrupting the Chronosphere ultimately causes consequences as Time and time to begin to break down.
Redd was kind enough to talk to postPerspective about the challenges of representing Time, the character, and the concept of in this film.
Did it help your initial process to have had a visual language already established from Alice in Wonderland?
I would say it served as a foundation, but part of what was exciting about working with James Bobin on this one was that he wanted to make it feel really different. The time travel element allowed us to go back into Underland before things became sad — before the Jabberwocky attacked the village, before the Red Queen was in power, before all of these things. It allowed us to expand on the palette to be much more saturated and vibrant, and I think you can see that as compared to Alice in Wonderland.
How did you begin the challenge of representing time in both human form and in an entirely new time travel world?
The character Time is not in any of Lewis Carroll’s books, and in one of the early drafts of the script, time itself is just a concept. Then James Bobin brought the idea that time is a character. Personify time and create an actual character. The idea of the back of his head being clockwork came from James as well. He wanted Time to be part of the clock. There’s a moment in the film where Time says, “I am he and he is me.” The clock and Time are the same thing, so when we see Time open his chest, there’s a miniature version of the clock in there as well.
The idea of the Oceans of Time was just one line in the script: “Alice traveled through the Oceans of Time.” Then Ken Ralston, James, myself and our team had to figure out what that looked like. James was very adamant about wanting to include images. Pardon the pun, but over time, we experimented with a number of different looks and ended up with this ocean setting that surrounded you — the characters and the audience. You would go in and out of the ocean to enter moments and different times in history.
With the moments depicted within the ocean waves, it felt like there was a very painterly style employed there. What was the thought process behind that decision?
Those images actually came from original shots from the first movie. We started with footage — either completed shots from the first movie or footage from other scenes in this sequel. We couldn’t complete some of the Oceans of Time shots until we had finished the others. So that became a weird schedule for us. We processed the footage for moments to make them feel like they were in the water. We didn’t want the moments to feel like you were going to a drive-in theater like they were just projected on the wall or surface. We wanted them to feel volumetric — to have volume and feel thick and deep —100 feet in the air. It’s a really interesting process that all had to start with 2D processing from our compositing department, which required slowing down the footage to make it feel bigger, and more present.
To add scale?
Yes, exactly, scale. Sometimes a shot used for these moments would only be one second, but we needed three seconds. So we would slow it down, process it and use our own optical flow processes from our 2D workflow that would then feed into our water simulations. Then, in 3D simulations, those moving pieces of footage, using the vector data from the optical flow, would actually move the water and the wave spray around. When you see the Jabberwocky swing its head, it’s actually affecting the surface of the water. That’s why it has that painterly, or liquid, feel to it. I’m really impressed with what our team did in 3D. That’s the stuff you really can’t see as clearly in a 2D flat projection theatre when you’re there. In a 3D theatre, it really comes alive. I’m happy you picked up on it because it was a lot of work.
Those are some of my favorite moments, especially in 3D.
Awesome! Mine too. The Oceans of Time is so much bigger in 3D projection. That little Chronosphere you see, that’s the thing that tells you how big everything is. We can play with the size of the Chronosphere. You can make the Chronosphere bigger and everything feels smaller. Or you can make the Chronosphere smaller and animate it in a slightly different way and suddenly the Oceans of Time is huge. There’s a really interesting relationship between the size of the Chronosphere, how fast it’s moving, how fast we’re moving, and the scale of the world. That was something that took weeks to figure out in animation. If you move too quickly through a large environment, it doesn’t feel that huge. That’s something we wanted to play with and, of course, keep the pacing of the chase sequence to keep it exciting. Those are the kind of things that take months to figure out.
What about the creative evolution of the effect used to represent time breaking down in a tangible way in Underland?
We knew Time’s castle had to get completely rusted over, or frozen over. After a trip to the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, Ralston and I came upon obsidian rock with a kind of mineral growth on it. It was a bright orange and red mineral deposit that had started growing across these crystals. It probably took a million years to happen. We both looked at each other recognizing just how cool that was.
Fast forward a few months after meeting with the effects lead, and the rest of our team about covering the entire world with rust. Ken and I were shooting in London and had been doing dailies with our team for a few weeks, and even while we were shooting we were creating this reference imagery. We all gave this stuff to our team, led by Imageworks senior effects/simulation supervisor Joseph Pepper. A few weeks later he had put together a very rough test.
After the first viewing I said, “At some point we’ll want to get spikes and dust in there, but don’t do that right now, just keep it simple.” Well, Pepper and team went further with the next test. It’s Alice running down a hallway in the castle — granted this is all digital — and there’s this rust aggressively chasing her. Her hair is flopping all over and she looks back, and there is rust shooting up the walls, down the stairs, and through all the arches. A piece of stone breaks off and all this dust is falling and then the rust catches her by the ankle and freezes her in a second and a half, putting her in this physically impossible shape where she’s balancing on her toe reaching for a window. A lot of chaos and excitement! Ken and I looked at that with our jaws dropped. It really showed us what was possible with this idea.
The last week of shooting at Shepperton Studios was that moment where we knew rust was going to be something really cool. We made a couple small changes to the test and showed it to James Bobin. I was looking at his face when he watched it. It kind of sunk and I thought, “Oh crap.” Then he said, “Wow. That’s scary.” We knew we hit it! There was a kind of nervous chuckle and then he said something like, “Yeah, that’ll scare the kids.”
What was the most challenging shot in this film?
The toughest shot was the real movie version of the one I just described to you, when the rust comes over the clock cog and big gear, grabs Alice by the ankle, then climbs up her body and freezes her face all the way to her fingertips as she’s trying to drop the Chronosphere back into the holder. That was one of the most difficult shots of the film.
In fact, we reshot the live-action element of Alice a year later because we wanted to do a slightly better version of it to expose more of her ankle and her body. What we were doing was blending from a full live-action version of Alice to a full photoreal digital double. That’s the kind of shot that every single department touched, from paint and stabilization in the 2D world to wire rig removals, from full on modeling to all the textures of the costumes.
Then there was the lighting, the castle — all the effects — very detailed timing and art direction and controlling of the animation of the rust coming around her face, crossing her eyes, nose and arms at a certain time. There was also the subtle affecting of the cloth so it added weight when the rust went over her arm. It’s incredibly dense and detailed digital work. Our team developed a lot of specialized and cool technology for that. A lot of new animation tools, rendering tools and FX tools to make that happen — definitely pushing boundaries for us at Sony Imageworks.
Christine Holmes is a freelance artist and manager of animated content. She has worked in the film industry for the last six years.