Curiouser and Curiouser

Animation supervisor David Schaub spills the beans on the painstaking task of creating 30 major characters for Tim Burton’s surreal adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Although there have been over 60 movie, TV and even videogame adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s unusual fairy tale, Alice in Wonderland, it’s safe to say that none of them has scaled the visual heights reached in Tim Burton’s latest 3-D spectacle. In fact, many may feel as if they have fallen down the rabbit hole themselves as they experience the surreal world conjured by the director and his team of vfx masters.

‘Tim has just a take on it that is unlike anybody that I know,’ says the film’s vfx supervisor Michael Lantieri, whose numerous cinematic credits include Artificial Intelligence, Jurassic Park and last year’s A Christmas Carol. ‘There were discussions over everything, including ‘Is it OK for the caterpillar to smoke?’ You’d be surprised how big a discussion that was and how they solved it.’ he told MTV News last month.

The film’s animation supervisor David Schaub (Surf’s Up, The Polar Express, I Am Legend) tells us that the key to the film’s achievements is artistry rather than some new fangled technology, although experiencing Alice’s encounters with the CG-animated characters and backdrops in stereoscopic 3-D will definitely be a huge reason to catch the movie in theaters.

Schaub says he and his team at Sony Pictures Imageworks had the tall order of creating the animation in nine short months. ‘It started with 800 shots, but eventually, it came out to be 1,100 shots in the end,’ he admits. ‘We had a team of 63 animators working on actualizing the characters filtered through Burton’s imagination. We had to create 30 different characters’a majority of them are animated, but there are also some hybrid live-action and CG combinations.’

Vanishing Tricks

One of Schaub’s favorite accomplishments for this film was creating the famous smiling Cheshire Cat, who is able to disappear at will and is voiced by veteran British actor Stephen Fry. It was one of the first characters assigned to Schaub and animator Ryan Page. ‘Ryan and I worked on it for six months before we brought on another four animators to join the team,’ he says. ‘We started off making him quite cartoony, because in the beginning we weren’t sure where Burton wanted to take the project. Fry’s voice is very expressive, and you want the cat to be the same way.’

Schaub says the trick was to focus on the essence of the cat, which is his creepy stare. ‘He glares at you and flicks his tail’you make it expressive in the realm of the cat, not on human terms,’ he says. ‘The cat also floats, and disappears and then reappears. Ken Ralston worked with Tim and came up with some great vaporizing effects. Each time he disappears, it’s done differently, but we have to tie all the elements together.’

Among the other tricks the team used was playing with the light reflected in the cat’s eyes to add a special spark of energy. They also had to devote a lot of thought to how to make a weightless Cheshire Cat twist and maneuver in the air, and determine how big his smile was going to be and how to express a range of emotions within that smile.

‘Animators have a tendency to strike strong poses to make it readable,’ explains Schaub. ‘Our emphasis was definitely on the subtlety. In some cases, it almost feels as if the character is not animated, but the humor shines through in the context of the overall performance. Sometimes, it’s a lot funnier if the animation is not overly gestural or theatrical.’

Matters of Size

In the case of Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the animation team had the luxury of building the characters with real-world help from Little Britain actor Matt Lucas. In addition to Lucas’ priceless facial expressions, Burton referred to the creepy twins from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for inspiration.

‘It was really perfect casting,’ says Schaub. ‘We had hedged our bets and prepared for almost everything, by building everything from photographic captures. For the twins, we used all of these extreme close-ups and mediums shots. At first, we really didn’t know how we were going to create the characters, but the twins quickly became another favorite of mine. Basically, we kept the essence of Matt Lucas’ face and got them to wobble around like a couple of Weebles.’

Of course, one of the many curious aspects of Alice’s Wonderland is the way people and objects appear bigger and smaller than they normally would in the world above the rabbit hole. For example, the Red Queen’s head (Helena Bonham Carter) has been enlarged to three times its actual size. As Bonham Carter jokingly tells The Daily Mail, ‘I can’t rely on Tim to make me pretty!’

The 7.5-foot-tall Knave of Hearts (portrayed by Crispin Glover) was another CG hybrid job. What the audience will see in the movie is basically Glover’s face attached to a giant CG body. ‘Crispin was walking around on the set in stilts, in order to get all the eye lines right,’ says Schaub. ‘When someone is walking around in stilts, even when it’s mo-capped, you still need to rework it to make the movements look right. Once you get past the first couple of shots, you quickly forget that he is a face on top of a CG body’not even the integration of neck and collar is practical’you really go straight from his head to the green-screen suit.

Animation fans should also keep their eyes peeled for an homage to the demon Chernabog from the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence of the 1940 Disney classic, Fantasia. Schaub says there is certainly a reference to that acclaimed work in the depiction of the monster Jabberwock (voiced by Christopher Lee), which haunts Alice in the movie. ‘Alice confronts this beast in the movie’it’s really a metaphor for the 19-year-old Alice’s demons and fears that she has in her life,’ he explains. ‘We wanted to make sure it’s not a simple dragon creature, definitely not a four-legged beast with wings, so we have him use his wings as arms. He cocoons himself in his wings, and there’s a big reveal’just like Night on Bald Mountain. As animators, our goal was to give him a high level of intelligence: This monster has to have an intense focus on Alice.’

Beyond Jabberwock, Schaub goes over a long list of other CG-animated characters that populate the mad world of the movie and have given the project’s animators and vfx artists some of the busiest nine months of their lives. Absolum, the wise caterpillar; Bander Snatch, the half-bear/half-bulldog monster; Bayard the Bloodhound, the Red Queen’s Dodo Bird, the White Rabbit, the Dormouse and the March Hare are some of the other awe-inspiring CG creations that contributed to pushing the budget of the movie to an estimated $250 million.

Parallel to all the visual razzle dazzle, Schaub believes that Burton intended to bring some emotional truth to the story of Alice and not use the 3-D technology as sheer effects extravaganza. ‘Tim’s background is in hand-drawn animation at Disney, and he has also worked extensively in stop-motion,’ he adds. ‘It really helps that he understands the process and has enormous respect for all the actors and the crew. He’s done this enough times now’that’s why he knows what he wants and it’s all in the service of a great story.’