The Illusionists — Ken Ralston

by Graham Edwards

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Ken Ralston

CINEFEX — When did you first get interested in movie magic?

KEN RALSTON — As a kid, I was always interested in monster movies and monster makeups, and I read Famous Monsters like a lot of us bozos did way back then. Then I started to see the films of Ray Harryhausen. I didn’t know who he was, but I knew there was something amazing about what I was watching. I can still remember being in a little theatre watching The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad — I think it was a reissue on a Saturday matinee. I was mesmerized by it, just obsessed. It changed the wiring in my brain and off I went in my awkward, clumsy way. That’s what really kicked me into gear.

CINEFEX — Your career was well-established long before the digital revolution, with films like Star Wars, Dragonslayer, Cocoon. What was it like making the transition to the new technology?

KEN RALSTON — It was more frustrating than you might think. The technology was so complicated and awkward. In those early days at Industrial Light & Magic, you had to fight for the smallest amount of space to do digital shots in a movie. And you couldn’t do that many because it was too difficult and just took too damn long.

CINEFEX — You’ve worked a lot with Robert Zemeckis over the years. Have you got any anecdotes from the set of one of his films?

KEN RALSTON — Here’s one from Death Becomes Her. You know the shot where Meryl Streep pulls her head way up, and her neck stretches, and then her head snaps down? One of the things I asked Meryl to do was wear this kind of a beard that was the same color as her hair. It was basically a hairpiece to help us fill in the area around her neck later. Of course, Meryl wanted to know why she was doing this. Bob said to her, “Whatever Ken wants, just do it. You can trust him with your life.” That kind of trust is incredibly important because, when you’re in these weird moments trying to get the raw material to do the work you have to do, you sometimes have to ask for some really stupid things!

CINEFEX — When you have an ongoing relationships with a director, does that help the trust to develop?

KEN RALSTON — Oh, yeah. As the years went on, Bob and I developed a shorthand that was great. It also helps you feel free to try new things. If the director’s confident about what you can do, maybe it opens up different shot design ideas. Younger supervisors, or people without the kind of credits I’ve been lucky enough to get, may have to beat people over the head to do the right thing.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists