Ken Ralston and Jay Redd are the guys behind the beautifully stunning and elaborate visual effects in Men in Black III. Ken Ralston has won five Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, including a Special Achievement Oscar for the visual effects in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, and regular awards for his work on Forrest Gump, Death Becomes Her, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Cocoon. He was nominated seven more times, 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. Jay Redd is a visual effects supervisor and an amateur astronomer, which added a dimension to his work on the Apollo 11 rocket launch scene. Jay has also worked on the Academy Award nominated animated feature, Monster House as well as such films as Babe and Stuart Little. Their newest movie, Men in Black III, is now playing in theatres everywhere.
I recently had the chance to speak with Ken Ralston and Jay Redd about Men in Black III. They discussed how they became involved in the special effects industry, the changes in technology, digitally recreating entire neighborhoods as well as the lead actors, their favorite effects to work on, and astronomy.
Here’s what the talented visual effects artists had to say:
Latino Review: How did you two first become involved in the special effects industry?
Ken Ralston: For me I really don’t know why I was interested in it but when I was a kid I would see films that Ray Harryhausen did the special effects for like Sinbad and things like that and it seemed to connect with me somehow and it got me interested in it even though there was no information on it going on in the business. Just trying to figure out how that was done. It was a very slow, ongoing process learning about it. Then trying to connect with people that were interested in it, and eventually that lead to a job doing visual effects commercials many years ago. That’s how I first got into the business.
Jay Redd: For me the first thing I remember seeing, I think Jason and the Argonauts, which is another of Ray Harryhausen’s work, or it was 2001: A Space Odyssey, I can’t remember which one I saw first. I went to some theatre with my parents and saw them. It was really about the mixing of art and technology. Those things fascinated me as a young child. I was fascinated with creating different worlds and storytelling using visual effects. Of course I didn’t know what they were as a kid. Close Encounter of the Third Kind was a huge influence to me. I went to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and actually saw that it was a real place but it looked totally different in the movie and that was something that really clicked for me as a kid.
Jay, how did you first start working on visual effects in movies? Was it something that you had to work you up from?
Redd: It was definitely working my way up. In the eighties I was doing a lot of photography and playing around with manipulating those photos even though this was before Photoshop. At around 1990 I started looking at the film industry in Los Angeles and really wanted to be there and a part of it so I started working on a portfolio while I was going to school full time. I ended up submitting my work to a company called Rhythm and Hues and they hired me two weeks later and I started out doing commercials and then ended up working on Babe, which is my first feature I ever worked on but I worked on commercials for a number of years before that. It was a long process. I don’t come from a strict background of computer science or filmmaking or fine art, it’s really a mix of all those things.
Ken, you’ve been working in visual effects for quite some time now. Going back to the original Star Wars films. How has working in visual effects changed for you over the years, and where do you see it going in the future? Are we now at the pinnacle of special effects or are there still some things that can’t be done now that you’re confident you will be able to do in the future?
Ralston: A lot is different. A whole lot! From Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and things like that, a lot of what I was doing was using miniatures and motion control stuff. The digital age basically does give us a lot of flexibility and a lot more variety of ways to help blend our work into the movie. It tells the story in a better way. There are subtler nuances and things you can do with digital effects that you could never do with models in front of a blue screen. For me I’ve loved doing the miniature stuff and hands-on kind of work where you’re grabbing the model and lighting it with real lights. I really enjoyed that part of it. I do miss that aspect, the tactile nature of the film and the effects work that I used to do. Where is it going? I never know that. It’s sort of depends on the filmmakers and the storytellers who are asking us to work on the movies. So if they write crap, we’ll work on crap, and if they write something that’s innovative and fun and cool like I think Men In Black III is, then boy those are the movies I try to steer myself towards. You can tell when you see the script if you want to be anywhere near it or avoid it or jump into it and hang on to it for dear life. It really is the storytellers who motivate the direction that it’s going. No, we’re not at the pinnacle yet, we can’t do everything. I hope we never can because when that happens who cares.
Jay, as I understand it you’re very into astronomy. There’s a recreation of the Apollo II rocket launch in the film. What was it like for you to work on that scene? Did you get to communicate with NASA at all to get the authenticity down?
Redd: That was a really cool part of the movie. I am an astronomy buff or a nerd, whatever you want to call it. I’ve been interested in that since I was a kid. To actually be able to go to Cape Canaveral was great. I went with a couple NASA people on a tour. I had a couple of contacts there that gave us material on the Apollo Launch and the on-air recordings, and film footage. It was really nice to be able to work with them. On the authenticity side of it, we wanted everything to be able to look real and feel real but it is a Men in Black movie and Ken had to warn me a couple of times about not worrying so much about it being completely accurate and to have fun with it.
One of the most stunning things in the movie is how authentic the scenes in 1969 look. It also seems like it must have been one of the biggest challenges for you guys because there are so many shots where everything in the shot has to be of that period. Can you tell me the role that you guys played in those scenes? Was it mostly digital recreations?
Redd: It was kind of a mix. There are a lot of streets in New York. Coney Island had a lot of re-dressing by the production design crew. That department had some facades that were put in there. But we had to remove signs digitally, especially during the monocycle chase. We had to remove some of the neon and the awnings. A lot of it really comes down to dressing things properly like having period cars; it really helped seal the deal.
Ralston: We created some of the period cars digitally, and some of the entire neighborhoods, but it was really about creating some action that wasn’t really figured out until we were done shooting the movie and we were back doing post. As the scenes came together we realized that we need some different types of action scenes like in the monocycle chase. Well we didn’t have any background plates that made sense with the new ideas so we recreated entire lengths of neighborhood, the elevated train area and our monocycle, along with our digital doubles of all the actors doing all the action. It was more done out of trying to recreate some action rather than to help out the 1969 idea.
Michael Stuhlbarg’s character, Griffin, obviously had some special effects added to him, but as I understand it there were digital recreations of Agent J and Agent K, which were obviously so good that I have no idea which parts you guys used the digital recreations. Can you tell me why there was a decision to digitally recreate the lead actors?
Ralston: Well, we knew from the beginning that there was some action that probably would require at least both Agent J and K in 1969 to do some stuff but as a protection we realized we might also need Griffin and we might need Boris the Animal. It all started with the monocycle chase and Cape Canaveral. There’s digital doubles in the prison scene, especially when Boris is leaping across the lunar surface. That’s basically a digital Boris. We weren’t quite sure what some of the things we were going to be doing when we started shooting so as a protection we made the decision to do some highly detailed digital doubles to protect ourselves later and luckily we did because we used them all and we used them in some pretty crazy scenes.
I wanted to know what was your favorite effect in the movie to work on?
Ralston: It would be the time jump scene off the Chrysler building because it is so insane.
Redd: I also like that scene a lot but I think Cape Canaveral. There’s so much cool stuff in this movie and there’s a huge array of effects that it’s hard to pinpoint on one scene. I think the most challenging piece was Cape Canaveral. It took a lot of people to make that rocket launch look as good as it did.
Men in Black III is now playing in theatres everywhere!