2012 Summer Movie Guide

Visual Wizards

TFK chats with the award-winning visual effects team behind Men in Black 3, now playing

May 25, 2012
Wilson Webb © 2012 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.

Agent J (Will Smith) and a young Agent K (Josh Brolin) get ready to chase down the dangerous alien Boris the Animal on their monocycles, in 1969.

The Men in Black are back in action this summer with another alien-busting adventure! This time around, trouble comes to Earth when Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escapes from a maximum-security prison on the moon. The dangerous alien has only one thing on his mind: revenge on K (Tommy Lee Jones), the agent who shot off his arm in and put him in jail after an epic showdown in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 1969. Now his plan is to go back in time to kill the younger Agent K (Josh Brolin). To save his partner, Agent J (megastar Will Smith) must also journey back to 1969. But can he stop Boris the Animal before it’s too late? 

Will Smith isn’t the only star in Men in Black 3. In fact, trilogy wouldn’t be the box-office success it is today without all of the weird and wild aliens featured in the movie. For the action-packed third film, we have visual effects masters Ken Ralston and Jay Redd to thank for bringing the crazy space creatures to life. TFK spoke to the visual wizards about their work.

TFK:

What does a visual effects supervisor do?

KEN RALSTON:

Our job is to create images and shots for a film that can’t be done in any way other than digitally. For Men in Black 3, we had the challenge of making the creatures come to life and recreating scenes, like the one at Cape Canaveral in 1969.

JAY REDD:

We use lots of different tools in our job. We use computers, we do drawings, and we work with the costume department. Sometimes we work with the people who run the cameras. We work with people who do stunts. We work with people who build sets. Nowadays we use lots of computers to help us do the animation. More than 130 people were on the effects team that helped to make this movie. Ken and I supervise them and hopefully lead them into a place where they can make cool images.

TFK:

In a movie like this that has so many visual effects, where do you even begin?

RALSTON:

We read the script first and by doing that we can pick out the scenes that we’ll be involved with. For this film there was some crossover between what we were doing and what Rick Baker [who designed the look of all of the aliens] was doing. We also talked with director Barry Sonnenfeld and started creating artwork of the scenes we were doing, like the monocycle-chase scene or the Cape Canaveral scene. A lot of discussion goes on between all of the departments.

REDD:

We take pictures of locations and look at photographs for reference. Drawing and photography are a big part of the process.

TFK:

How long does it take to complete the visual effects in a scene?

RALSTON:

Each scene is so different. There are some scenes in the movie that took a year and a half to do. Others are quicker. It all depends on the complexity of each individual shot.

REDD:

One of the more complex shots we worked on is the time-jump sequence where Will Smith’s Agent J character jumps off the edge of the Chrysler Building [in order to activate his time-travel device]. That was a shot that we started talking about designing almost two years ago, in the summer of 2010. We just finished creating that scene a few weeks ago.

Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) questions an alien in the present day.
Wilson Webb © 2012 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.
Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) questions an alien in the present day.

TFK:

Jay, you’re an amateur astronomer. Did that help in creating the Cape Canaveral shuttle-launch scene and the lunar-prison scene?

REDD:

Yeah, I’ve been a space geek since I was a kid. I constantly want to make things as accurate as possible. But on this film, it was fun to try to be both historically accurate and imaginative.

TFK:

Can you talk about the research involved in recreating scenes like that?

RALSTON:

Well, for the Chrysler Building scene, I jumped off the Chrysler Building to see what that was like—

TFK:

I hope you had a time-travel device on you!

RALSTON:

Unfortunately, I did not. [Laughs] I’m joking. Jay and I went up to top of the Chrysler Building, where the gargoyles are. The team filmed a lot up there [to help them create a map of New York City]. We did location scouting at Cape Canaveral too. We got to see the grounds and the gantry [the support framework for the space shuttle].

REDD:

We’re pretty lucky in that we get to go to a lot of cool places that not a lot of people get to go.

TFK:

What was the coolest place you got to visit for this film?

RALSTON:

For me, it was the Chrysler Building.

REDD:

The Chrysler Building is one of my most favorite buildings in the world. I love art deco designs. It was also a huge, huge dream come true to go to Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral. All of this historical stuff was there, and we got to see the space shuttle. We didn’t get to see the shuttle launch, but to be able to climb up on top of that big tower and look down on the space shuttle is really a special experience.

TFK:

What was different about working on Men in Black 3 than films you’ve done in the past?

RALSTON:

It was fun to do animation on a film in which the most important thing is humor. It was fun working with Barry Sonnenfeld and figuring out how to create action that was more humorous than intimidating and scary.

REDD:

I agree with Ken. It was most different in that we were working on something that was whimsical and fun. The world of Men in Black is strange and unusual and surreal. Working in a weird world is really fun because you get to break the rules all the time. You don’t have to be exact or totally accurate, so I like all of that.

TFK:

What’s harder: bringing to life a fictional alien creature or bringing to life something that you can find in the real world?

RALSTON:

They’re both really hard. One of the weird things about doing a humorous creature is that in the reality of the movie, it has to feel real even if it isn’t at all. You have to make the audience believe that these creatures are really there interacting with the actors, and that can be really difficult. It’s a fine line. You want to make it funny, but if it’s too silly, you start to not believe it’s really there and doing all that stuff.

REDD:

Exactly. To create something that’s real, we have lots of references. We can look outside and say, “Oh, the shadow is this color, and the bricks are that color, and the rocket looks like this.” But when you’re creating something from nothing, where you don’t have any references, it’s challenging. But it’s also more exciting in a way.

TFK:

After all of the long hours and hard work, how does it feel to finally see the finished film?

RALSTON:

Relief! These things go on a very long time. You spend a lot of your waking hours thinking and talking about the same shots over and over, trying to get them as good as you can. So part of it is simply relief that you were able to get things done in the time that you have. And also, if it’s a movie like Men in Black 3 where you still crack up after seeing a scene so many times, you feel really happy. I’m very happy with the movie.

REDD:

It takes a lot of people to make a film happen. We have a great team. What’s been fun about this movie is that it’s been really collaborative.

TFK:

All of the aliens in the film are so wacky, especially the little alien that lives inside Boris the Animal’s hand.

REDD:

The weasel is pretty gross.

RALSTON:

We call it the weasel for some reason, but it looks nothing like one. That was a fun character to work on because even though he’s very scary looking, we made him do some pretty silly things. Like when he tries to get the frosting off his back [after hiding in a cake], he shakes off the cream like a dog shaking off water. When he rubs under Boris’s beard, you can hear him purring like a kitten.

TFK:

What’s your favorite alien character from the movie?

RALSTON:

It’s one that you probably wouldn’t even notice in the movie. It’s a throwaway alien in the background. Rick used some old 1950s and ‘60s sci-fi films to base the 1969 aliens off of for fun. My favorite alien is one Rick based off an old movie called Invaders from Mars. It’s just walking through a scene in the foreground, and it just cracks me up because it’s so obscure.

REDD:

My favorite alien that we made is the weasel. The weasel is really cool. He’s not cuddly at all, but he’s got a lot of personality. He’s a little bit like a cat and a little bit like a spider. He’s interesting. That’s what I like about him.

 

Men in Black 3 is rated PG-13. The movie is now playing in 3-D and IMAX 3-D theaters. Also starring Emma Thompson as Agent O and Alice Eve as Young Agent O.


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