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Production Designer Robert Stromberg Conjures Lewis Carroll


Robert Stromberg's production design on Alice in Wonderland called for a variety of techniques.

For the thousands who work below the line in Hollywood, the ongoing goal is to become attached to prestige projects, which not only garner due attention, but also awards consideration.  Very rarely, these choice projects come forth repeatedly, much less back-to-back.  Case in point, production designer Robert Stromberg faced the enviable task of co-designing James Cameron’s Avatar with Rick Carter before being approached for the assignment of serving as sole designer of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

“I was at the tail end of Avatar,” Stromberg said. “I have known visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston for 15 years.  He was the one who was talking to Tim initially and recommended that we get together.  That led to a meeting with Tim and Ken in London at Tim’s house.”

Reference painting for Hare House.

Ultimately, the final rendering of Alice became a cross-pollination of many techniques.  “Part of my job was to understand what it was that I was doing, what Tim was going for, and what his style is,” Stromberg said.  “I watched his films to see what he was doing in each of them.  I dug into the [Lewis Carroll] books, took that information, and went forward designing each environment.”

According to Stromberg, the most exciting part of the process became the first four months of pre-production.  “Tim bought the house of Arthur Rackham, one of the original Alice illustrators,” Stromberg noted.  “We were in the house throwing down ideas and coming up with a sense of what this film is going to look like.  It was cool to be working on it in the house of the guy who illustrated it.  For every idea that ended up in the film, there were 10,000 that didn’t.  We came up with wild ideas and designs and understood what we wanted it to be.”

With Burton’s definitive gothic tendencies, Stromberg knew that the fantasy sequences would have a darker tint than previous live-action or animated versions of the story.  “In a weird way, what we created was light and dark at the same time,” he described. “ The initial questions are, ‘are we making the fluffy bunny tail version of this or something with more theatrics to it?’  You start talking about the Red Queen ruling this land, which was beautiful and has now become decrepit.  What used to be a beautiful English garden is falling apart.  That was a conversation about the first time we see Underland.  We had to get moving on the shooting schedule.  When we came back to LA, it was hitting the ground running.”

Design sketch of the Red Queen's Castle

Stromberg’s initial task was to get both a traditional and digital art department up and running.  “Then, it was a month of building up and hiring people and injecting into these artists what was learned in England,” he explained.  “Slowly, it became apparent to everybody what the vibe was.  Then you’re home free.”

The Red Queen's Castle at night.

Once pre-production was locked, Stromberg did not have the luxury of additional development time.  “We were chasing a train,” he said.  “We had to immediately lock down what the shooting schedule was.  While a scene was happening on a certain set, we were developing what would be shooting two weeks later.  The difference is that we didn’t have the ramp-up time that a big-sets movie would require.  In these types of movies, you are already involved in visual effects while you are still shooting.  In times past, you prepared to shoot the film, shot it, then did the visual effects in postproduction after.  Now, it’s a little bit like working in a blender.”

On the groundbreaking Avatar, Stromberg said that the revolutionary part of his job was not only that James Cameron was making the movie in a virtual environment, but also that Stromberg was art directing in a virtual environment real time.  “That required a higher level of digital set work,” he stated.  “My job was to help Jim not only see what these environments are but be there on the day to compose elements in a scene for a virtual camera.  It was a very unique way of making a movie.  It was exciting and terrifying at the same time.  Rick Carter [the co-production designer] and I had to be in sync.  We couldn’t have any huge disconnects whether it was my team building the physical sets or his work.  The collaborative nature was different in a lot of ways to Alice, but it was that experience that enabled myself and Ken and the Imageworks team understand what the world of Alice would look like.”

Design sketch of the Red Queen's dungeon.

As with Avatar, many of the designs in Alice were going to be achieved with computer-generated imagery, with a small percentage that would be built practically.  However, there was one key element in Alice’s schedule that did not mirror that of Avatar.  “The issue was time,” Stromberg revealed.  “We didn’t have the luxury of the shooting schedule that Avatar had or the time to build big sets.  We built green sets so that actors could have contact with physical surfaces.”

Serving as the bookends of the story, the opening and closing of Alice was photographed in Plymouth, England on an expansive estate with the main house being manipulated with matte paintings.  “The bookends of the movie were shot first and are completely live-action,” Stromberg said of the strategy of the production.  “In order to acclimate the crew and Tim in to working in green screen, we shot the live action first, and as we got to Underland, the doorway and stairway slowly led the entire crew to get used to working in a green environment.”

Once the character of Alice tumbles into a fantasy world, Stromberg’s concepts were largely created with Ralston’s team of computer-graphic experts.  However, Stromberg’s group was responsible for building practical rooms covered with green screen representing the eventual sets.  “All of the set decorations and tables were built,” said Stromberg, “and anything that the props were placed on was real.  The walls were lined up to be the right shape but they were green.  The innards of these places were real but the things that weren’t immediately involved in the actors were green screen.”

In an exception to the method of realizing Alice, one of the first scenes in Underland, Stromberg built a 1:1 room for star Mia Wasikowska to work in, and an oversized version of it in which she appears to be extra small.  “The modelmakers at New Deal Studios built an exact replica of the room as a miniature,” said Stromberg.  “We ended up stuffing Mia in this actual miniature – an old-school trick that ended up in the movie.  When she first arrives through this bizarre door and comes down a rock staircase, that is also a physical set that leads us into a digital world.”

To most effectively shoot the film in anticipation of the numerous digital set enhancements, Stromberg applied a number of methods to create what was going to eventually appear on screen.  “Physical illustrations that represented what we were going to shoot that day were done,” he said.  “3D versions of the sets were created as digital illustrations with camera tracking into which we could composite the actors in real time with Maya.  I also had a physical model team building versions of each set so that Tim could go to a model and see through a lipstick camera that showed the actors and crew what the blocking of the scene would be in a miniature.”

With Ralston’s direct supervision, a team at Sony Pictures Imageworks lined up each scene in Alice using digital version of the sets and backgrounds.  “We could move the physical camera around, track in a digital environment and composite,” said Stromberg.  “When you see pictures of production and you see green screen, on movies like this or Avatar, the movie is, in a lot of respects, nearly finished design-wise before you shoot anything on a green screen.”

Of the physical shoot, Stromberg noted the importance of every crew member understanding the overall design intentions of the film.  “You can’t rely on fixing it all later,” he stated.  “Since Avatar, I’ve noticed that postproduction is becoming much more part of pre-production.”

In addition to the digital incarnations of the sets, Stromberg pointed out that Alice covered every type of visual effects problem that a filmmaker can imagine.  “For Ken, it was a tremendous headache as far as scaling, using only parts of a real actor,” Stromberg recalled.  “Crispin Glover’s head was the only thing used in the final image of his character.  Ken also had to maintain the scale of the Red Queen to her body.”

Some aspects of the film were partially practical with digital set extensions.  In the Mad Hatter’s tea party sequence, Stromberg built the table, prop and chairs, with and the surrounding ground area.  “The remainder was a set extended digitally beyond the range of the actors,” he explained.  “The dungeon and Bandersnatch room where Alice retrieves the sword were partial sets.  We wanted to maintain some sense of realism throughout the entire movie but give the postproduction people some real lights and shadows to look at.”

In the climactic Jabberwocky battle, when Alice makes her way up the ruined staircase, the visuals became the filmmakers’ tribute to stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen.  “It made it meaningful, but it was very challenging to make those big wildly moving pieces work,” Stromberg said.  “There is a certain artifice to the entire movie, but it had an element of a fantastic nature that I thought was satisfying, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle or Fantasia.  The entire movie was a huge challenge to try to design.  At the end of the day, you get a certain satisfaction to completing scenes like that.”

Next for Stromberg is yet another prestige project, Oz, the Great and Powerful, in which he is similarly creating the Land of Oz.  “It’s another huge epic mountain to climb, but I can now see a couple of mountains in the rear view mirror,” he said. “Oz will involve a lot more physical sets than Alice.  At the same time, it could have the epic scope of Avatar.  It’s using everything in the past, combining ingredients, and coming up with something new.”

When asked if there are any future assignments he would refuse, Stromberg chuckles, “I don’t see myself ever doing a romantic comedy.  There is something about these monumental challenges that is obviously attractive, and I feel like it’s important to keep challenging yourself.  I want to see how far we can push it.  Like a musician, every song isn’t the same, and that’s okay, but with Avatar it opened up and gave inspiration and hope to all of us, and I was right there.  I remember a time before computers.  To get from that to the early ILM stuff to the types of films we are making now, I feel it’s still in its infancy.  I can only imagine what will be possible 20 years from now.”

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