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April 01
2017

ISSUE

Spring 2017

2017 VES LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD WINNER KEN RALSTON: THE MASTER IS STILL THE STUDENT

Meryl Streep rehearsing a scene from Death Becomes Her. Ralston is watching to make sure everything she does will work in post when they twist her head around 180 degrees.

Meryl Streep rehearsing a scene from Death Becomes Her. Ralston is watching to make sure everything she does will work in post when they twist her head around 180 degrees.

By NAOMI GOLDMAN

When you ask VFX pioneer Ken Ralston to remark on receiving the 2017 VES Lifetime Achievement Award, he shakes his head and notes he’s struggled to find the words.

“Despite that graying face I see in the mirror, in my head,” he says, “I’m still that 14-year-old kid animating clay creatures in my folks’ garage, just having fun, figuring out problems.”

It is that humility, childlike sense of wonder and desire to tackle complex issues that undoubtedly propelled Ralston to become a game-changing force in the visual effects industry for more than four decades…and counting.

Ralston’s love affair with VFX has earned him legendary bona fides and five Academy Awards® in the process, including a Special Achievement Oscar® for the visual effects in the 1984 phenomenon Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi and visual effects Oscars for his transformative work on Forrest Gump, Death Becomes Her, the revolutionary Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Cocoon. He was also Oscar-nominated for The Rocketeer, Jumanji, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Dragonslayer, Back to the Future Part II and Alice in Wonderland (3D).

Ralston is currently Senior Visual Effect Supervisor and Creative Head at Sony Pictures Imageworks. Previously, he placed his artistic and technical stamp on the films at Industrial Light & Magic and played a pivotal role in advancing the company’s renown over the course of 20 years.

Ralston with the stop motion miniature of the Rocketeer. The building was never in the movie. Ralston says he used it in a series of shots to show Disney Studios how cool the puppet looked.

Ralston with the stop motion miniature of the Rocketeer. The building was never in the movie. Ralston says he used it in a
series of shots to show Disney Studios how cool
the puppet looked.

Ralston with legendary director Akira Kurosawa at a pre-production meeting for Dreams. Ralston says it was one of life’s great honors working for him.

Ralston with legendary director Akira Kurosawa at a pre-production meeting
for Dreams. Ralston says it was one of life’s great
honors working for him.

RAISED BY MONSTERS

“As a little kid I loved science fiction, fantasy and horror movies, and I started doing my own 8mm movies with my parents’ camera. I was initially really interested in make-up – so picture me with latex on my face and parents who had no idea what their peculiar kid in the garage was up to.

“I was trying to learn and have fun doing this, but at that time there was no information on anything. I was just fighting my way through it. The only thing that came close – and barely that – was the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. It was really through that magazine that I met some people who helped launch my career. Little did I know then…”

Ralston officially started his career at seminal commercial animation and visual effects company, Cascade Pictures in Hollywood, after submitting his 45-minute self-described “8mm opus” The Bounds of Imagination, which took a year of work to complete amidst his high school studies. At age 17, Ralston got a three-month gig doing stop-motion work on a short film and when it ended, he just stayed put. Ralston worked on more than 150 memorable advertising campaigns at Cascade in the 1970s in a dizzying array of capacities. He built sets, sculpted models, animated puppets, created optical effects and stop-motion animation for such iconic commercial characters as Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Dough Boy, and the Jolly Green Giant. “I would not be where I am now without the chance to touch every aspect of the work in those early days.”

He describes Cascade as a veritable incubator of VFX wizards, as Ralston worked with the dream team of Dennis Muren, VES, Phil Tippett, VES, Jon Berg, David Allen and occasionally Rick Baker. “We were just a bunch of young goofs, but I learned an awful lot. That’s where Dennis got the script for Star Wars and we all laughed – Ha! There’s sure a lot of work in that one…and next thing I knew Dennis asked me to be his camera assistant.”

“It’s thrilling to be connected to so many of these guys and to have worked with them from Cascade to ILM and on, and watching what our little group of friends has gone on to do has been fascinating. We’re brethren of the School of Hard Knocks.”

IDOLS AND INSPIRATIONS

“The person I idolized who really got me into the business was Ray Harryhausen. I saw The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad at a local theater and it really did something to me. I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but as movies came out over the years with something really cool to them I realized it’s just one guy doing all of this stuff, and I fell in love with how brilliant it all was.”

“In my head, I’m still that 14-year-old kid animating clay creatures in my folks’ garage, just having fun, figuring out problems.”

—Ken Ralston

At Ralston’s core is a profound respect and encyclopedic knowledge of art history. He speaks with great passion about the vital need to understand cinema and cites that as his top advice to people looking to enter any aspect of filmed entertainment. “If you are making a movie, you should understand what that is. You have to know your history to understand what worked and what didn’t so that you can apply it to what you are doing for the film.”

Ralston operates the Ceti eel for Star Trek II. Ralston designed the disgusting little critter and also shot all the inserts.

Ralston operates the Ceti eel for Star Trek II. Ralston designed the disgusting little critter and also shot all the inserts.

 

Ralston at the 2017 VES Awards Show. (Photo credit: Danny Moloshok and Phil McCarten)

 On his many influences, Ralston cites people and works he thinks may be unexpected from a visual effects practitioner. “I could mention a million: Chuck Jones and the animation work he did at Warner Bros., Willis O’Brien who did the original [King] Kong. This whole group of visual effects guys from the early days: the Lydecker Brothers who did great miniatures; stop motion from Jiri Trnka; the work of Doug Trumbull, VES, that knocks your eyes out; [directors] John Ford and David Lean. I started paying attention to the DPs like Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane); the work in Grapes of Wrath; the gorgeous and bizarre Night of the Hunter shot by Stanley Cortez. People don’t think of Citizen Kane in this way, but it is an amazing visual effects movie. And then just artists: Van Gogh, Bierstadt, Degas… All art does something to me. It opens up a lot of creative doors.”

Ralston holding the slate for an element from inside the giant space slug in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back.

Ralston holding the slate for an element from inside the giant space slug in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back.

STANDOUT CINEMATIC MOMENTS

“I’ve been so lucky with the types of movies I’ve been on, and beyond the work itself there are always amazing takeaways. Like coming full circle and paying homage to Tex Avery in Roger Rabbit after getting to know him at Cascade; going from being a Star Trek fanboy to working on the film – just the surreal dreams of a young kid realized. And what I remember most about Star Wars was the premiere – sitting with Dennis [Muren], having it come up, and the crew was literally blown out of our seats! I will never forget that feeling as long as I live, seeing what we had done, simply awe-inspiring. But I’ll tell you, watching each premiere it feels like your work should be on the screen for days because you spend so much time on it – it flies by!”

CALL ME THE RIDDLER

Reflecting on what makes working in VFX so unique and compelling: “Figuring out the complexities of each movie is always a thrilling challenge. In this world, you never stop learning. Meryl [Streep] falling down the stairs in Death Becomes Her and twisting her head around like that had never been done. Accepting a cartoon rabbit in the live frame had never been done. Every film comes with a grab-bag of work, and potentially every shot on the same movie is done with a different technique. Things constantly melt down in process and you’re never out of group problem-solving mode. What’s so much fun for me is that on any project I get to work with a huge, amazing group of talented artists and mind-meld. It’s like being in an artistic furnace.

“We were just a bunch of young goofs, but I learned an awful lot. That’s where Dennis [Muren] got the script for Star Wars and we all laughed – Ha! There’s sure a lot of work in that one, and next thing I knew Dennis asked me to be his camera assistant.”

—Ken Ralston

Ralston lighting one of the snow speeder ships for Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back.

Ralston lighting one of the snow speeder ships for Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back.

Ralston getting ready to shoot the asteroid damaged T.I.E. fighter in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back.

Ralston getting ready to
shoot the asteroid damaged T.I.E. fighter
in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back.

“I think it’s good to have projects where 30%-40% of it seems impossible at the time, because it keeps everyone on their toes; you work that much harder, and technology upgrades. I always say that at the end of each movie, I finally know how to do that movie.

“And while things have changed enormously since my Star Wars days, my approach is still the same, as is my advice: Keep technology from interfering with artistic expression. It’s the art of cinema. Never forget what you were excited by at that first script read because technology is going to try and beat that out of you. It’s vital to keep that enthusiasm in the work.”

THE LAST WORD

In bestowing Ken with the VES Lifetime Achievement Award, Board of Directors Chair Mike Chambers highlighted Ken’s intuitive vision and unparalleled mastery of visual effects, his creative vision and fierce technical expertise. In doing the honors at the VES Awards, Pixar Animation Studios President and longtime friend Jim Morris, VES underscored the indelible mark Ken has left on every film under his supervision and how he has changed the very landscape for visual effects and filmmaking.

Lucky for us that Ken found his way from his parents’ garage workshop. Because if you ask him what he’d be doing if he were not in VFX, he answers: “I would be face down in the gutter as I have no other skills. PS – I also doodle a bit.”

A t-shirt Ralston drew for everyone on the night crew on Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back. Says Ralston: “There were only so many camera systems at ILM, so our group of folks shot all night... then we handed over the equipment to the day crew. I bet the day crew never got a shirt!”

A t-shirt Ralston drew for everyone on the night crew on Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back. Says Ralston: “There were only so many camera systems at ILM, so our group of folks shot all night... then we handed over the equipment to the day crew. I bet the day crew never got a shirt!”


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