The American Society of Cinematographers

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Alice in Wonderland
Page 2
Page 3
Presidents Desk
Sundance 2010
Production Slate
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Dariusz Wolski, ASC adds dimension to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, a blend of live-action cinematography, visual effects and 3-D post techniques.

Unit photography by Leah Gallo. Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.
As Tim Burton’s team plowed down the home stretch while finishing the 3-D fantasy Alice in Wonderland, director of photography Dariusz Wolski, ASC waxed philosophical about having a somewhat atypical role on a strange project that some might consider a distant cousin of Avatar. “This is one of those modern movies that makes it really hard to define the role of the cinematographer,” he observes. “It’s a film that really defined itself during preproduction. When we started, we had no idea exactly how we would make it.” 

The project’s schedule, budget, ambitious visual effects, unique design and stereoscopic-exhibition requirements, when combined, were not conducive to a traditional cinematography process — nor to adopting a native stereo-capture method. Burton and his collaborators decided that the imagery they had in mind could best be constructed through a continually evolving, communal effort in which boundaries between the camera and visual-effects departments were often blurred. Wolski and his crew captured actor performances on a series of greenscreen stages at Culver Studios in Culver City, and then senior visual-effects supervisor Ken Ralston and a team at Sony Pictures Imageworks set about blending that material with all-CG environments and characters, in some instances digitally altering the actors’ faces and bodies in the process. Key collaborators were the virtual art department, led by production designer Robert Stromberg; Sony Pictures Imageworks stereographer Corey Turner and visual-effects supervisors Carey Villegas and Sean Phillips; and the digital-intermediate team at Company 3, led by colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld. 

Burton recalls that the approach didn’t bubble to the surface until late in prep, and even then, he says, it “often felt like we were making it up as we went along, which is not the best way to do it. But because we were mixing technologies heavily and dealing with a short shooting schedule [50 days of principal photography], it was inevitable. It was fun to experiment and try different things, but it was a very strange process — almost the opposite of making a traditional film, in the sense that we didn’t see what we had until the end.” 

Although Alice shares some prominent similarities with Avatar, Burton’s film took a different track, not only because his project’s time and finances were comparatively modest, but also because he wanted to work organically with a sizable cast, which includes Johnny Depp (as the Mad Hatter), Helena Bonham Carter (as the Red Queen) and Mia Wasikowska (as Alice). Burton rejected an all-motion-capture approach but fell in love with the notion of exotic, all-CG environments and extensive scale and perspective manipulations within the frame. Thus, shooting the movie digitally on a greenscreen stage eventually ripened into the only feasible option.  

However, Burton also wanted what he calls “a vast movie.” He wanted to honor some of Lewis Carroll’s iconic imagery and yet “do [it] in a way that has never been seen before.” He elaborates, “We wanted to show that Wonderland has fallen on hard times a bit, and we also wanted to use color to establish each character — each has its own kind of color scheme, in a way. That informed our approach and gave us something to hang onto while dealing with greenscreen all day long.” 

Throughout prep, the filmmakers presumed they would shoot Alice in native stereo. Thus, Wolski spent several weeks testing the Fusion 3-D Camera System developed by Vince Pace and James Cameron and used on Avatar (AC Jan. ’10). Wolski says those tests taught him and Burton a great deal about composing imagery to achieve the correct depth, camera moves and perspective for a big-screen stereo presentation, but, at the end of the day, they concluded they wouldn’t have the time to set up the infrastructure necessary to shoot high-end native stereo. Because their “live” characters would be composited into a wide range of CG environments at Imageworks, the filmmakers decided to ask Imageworks to also apply its dimensionalization process — to transform the 2-D images into 3-D in post. “We studied examples of 2-D movies that had been turned into 3-D and agreed the results looked amazing,” recalls Wolski. “So, at the last minute, we decided to achieve 3-D in post. But the tests we shot with the Fusion rig were helpful, because they enabled us to understand the whole concept of convergence, how to design the space and so on. They helped us keep a 3-D image in the back of our minds while we were shooting.” 

After deciding on a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the filmmakers took a mixed-format approach to acquisition, mingling high-definition video with 4K digital capture and 35mm. Panavision’s Genesis was the primary tool, and the Dalsa Evolution 4K camera was used to acquire plates for some visual-effects work. The film’s opening and closing “bookends” were shot on 35mm to create a visual distinction between Alice’s world above ground and the scenes that occur after she falls down the rabbit hole.  

Wolski notes that at the time — late 2008 — Sony’s F35 was not yet available, so the only Sony HD system he considered was the F23. “I think the resolution of the F23 is better than that of the Genesis, but it has a smaller chip, and I found that wide shots were not as sharp as they were with the Genesis,” he says. “In the tests, I struggled with wide shots, especially when characters wore pale costumes and pale makeup in soft light. Shooting against greenscreen, you don’t have all the sharpness and detail that comes with shooting a real set. Under those circumstances, I thought the wide shots were sharper with the Genesis.”

Using two Genesis bodies, the filmmakers shot raw imagery at -½ Gain on the Tungsten setting, recording uncompressed to Codex Recorders. “At the end of each day, the master recordings on the ‘exposed’ diskpacks, so to speak, would go to the video-control truck, where there was an LTO [data tape] transfer station,” explains Wayne Tidwell, the production’s data-capture engineer. “Masters were laid off to LTO tape for archival and safety backup, and the discpacks were recycled once the data was verified. During production, I’d transfer takes from a scene onto an external Firewire drive using DNX HD36 files. We had about 15 to 20 FireWire drives cycling constantly to editorial.”

Working with a large set of Panavision Primo primes and two encoded 4:1 Primo zoom lenses (along with converted Leica lenses for the Dalsa), Wolski applied what he had learned from testing 3-D rigs. “With 3-D, it’s best to shoot on the wider end,” he says. “Our biggest close-ups were 75mm. I don’t think we went longer than that.” For scenes depicting Alice’s adventures in the rabbit hole — which comprise most of the picture — the camera was on a 30' Technocrane with a Libra head.    

One of the filmmakers’ trickiest tasks was determining how to provide plates for shots that showed size and scale shifts within particular frames; certain characters, and sometimes certain body parts, were designed to be different sizes from other elements in the frame. The Red Queen, for instance, has a head far too big for her body. Likewise, Alice is more than 8' tall in some scenes and tiny in others. Wrangling those scale changes was a big challenge and part of a larger paradigm for the movie — virtually every shot is, one way or another, a visual effect. In fact, Ralston, whose credits include such memorable technical achievements as The Polar Express (AC Nov. ’04) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (AC July ’88), calls Alice “the biggest show I’ve ever done,” adding, “It’s the most creatively involved I’ve ever been in this many areas of a major show.”

The team ruled out motion control for plates involving shifts in scale because that would have required shooting separate passes, and “Tim wanted to make sure the actors could play scenes together,” says Villegas. “We used a variety of methods to get eyelines correct on set, including platforms and stilts. Dariusz had the problem of not knowing how much headroom to leave on various shots because Tim didn’t know, for example, exactly how big the Red Queen’s head needed to be until we’d put it all together. So Dariusz decided to just shoot it the way he saw it and let us use our post solution.”


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