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October 03
2022

ISSUE

Fall 2022

VFX SUPERVISOR JANELLE RALLA: BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN ART, TECHNOLOGY AND FAMILY

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Janelle Ralla.

Visual Effects Supervisor Janelle Ralla.

Visual Effects Supervisor Janelle Ralla.

Ralla celebrates co-winning Outstanding Compositing in a Feature Motion Picture for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at the 2009 VES Awards. Behind Ralla is co-winner Paul Lambert.

Ralla celebrates co-winning Outstanding Compositing in a Feature Motion Picture for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at the 2009 VES Awards. Behind Ralla is co-winner Paul Lambert.

After taking time off to establish a balance between her family life, which includes a five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, and professional career as a visual effects supervisor, Janelle Ralla is back in action again. “Right now, I’m working on two films. Both studios are being incredibly kind, respectful and flexible. After the pandemic we all went through so many ups and downs. It’s like, how many creative ways are there to make a movie? We have come out the other side with a lot more flexibility. Last year I reassessed my career when I started to see how much it was affecting my family and the loved ones around me, and I realized that it wasn’t worth the fight anymore. I stepped away from visual effects.”

The opportunity to work with filmmaker Marc Forster again and actor Tom Hanks was what finally brought Ralla back. “Marc is one of my favorite directors to work with. I helped him set up Marc Forster’s next film project, including setting up the shoot in Pittsburgh with the kids in tow, crewing up the show, including hiring an amazing Co-VFX Supervisor, Leo Bovell. Now we’re in post with team members, [the] filmmaker and editor in different parts of the world.”

There is more of a push over the last few years for productions to hire a female visual effects supervisor. “I found myself often getting those calls and felt like saying, ‘What about my résumé?’ I like to see the push for equality but don’t think that a female should get a job just because she’s a female. It should always be the best person for the job. The focus needs to be on outreach, training and mentorship, all from the ground up. No person should be pushed into a role because of gender. Being a good mom and also a good VFX supervisor is tough. As an industry, we need to make efforts to create environments, especially in regards to work hours, that allow people to not have to make a choice between career and family, particularly in the U.S.”

Ralla showcases one of her contact sheets during a presentation as part of the Foundry All-Star event at SIGGRAPH 2017 in Vancouver.

Ralla showcases one of her contact sheets during a presentation as part of the Foundry All-Star event at SIGGRAPH 2017 in Vancouver.

Movies were not an obvious career choice for Ralla, who was born in Sonora, California, and grew up in nearby Angels Camp where her family has owned a local grocery since 1935. “I was working in the grocery store from the time I was nine. I loved it. We were so free-range back then. Angels Camp is an old mining town. You would ride your bikes out to the fields and hunt for crystals, and go checkout mine shafts. Super dangerous!” When it’s mentioned that this sounds like something out of a Richard Donner classic, she laughs. “Totally! I love The Goonies. I played a little basketball, did a lot of softball, snowboarding, skateboarding, swimming, and was really into art. I would take a photograph of someone, then draw them with pencil and give it to them. I wish I had a couple of those because I remember them being pretty good, but I gave them all away!”

A defining moment occurred in 1999 when Ralla watched The Matrix. “At the time I had just found out what visual effects were and had started to learn LightWave. Up until that point my brain was so deep into itself, but when I saw the movie I realized that there were other people like me! I felt I was where I should be.” A conversation with a classmate in a junior college Photoshop course in San Diego led to an illegal internship where the unpaid receptionist taught herself how to organic model in LightWave. “It was a whole new world for me,” revealed Ralla. “I was on a chat program called ICQ in the middle of the night, working round the clock because I was so excited to be learning 3D, messaging with former colleagues who were working at Threshold Digital Research Labs in Los Angeles and asking them, ‘What’s a transparency map?’”

Eventually, Ralla left for Los Angeles and was a generalist responsible for a wide range of effects, animation, texturing, lighting and modeling for a Mortal Kombat and Starship Troopers Animated TV series. A career turning point occurred when Digital Domain Commercials had a job opening for a LightWave artist. “I was still a teenager when I started at Digital Domain. They had me on little projects like an MTV intro and an after-school Coca-Cola ad. I was doing well, so my manager placed me on an American Express commercial working with Eric Barba.” Barba served as a mentor over the years. “Eric thought I was good at compositing my own CG passes to make them look better. I was using Digital Fusion at the time. He encouraged me to learn Nuke. My Nuke scripts were simple. I would be creative with the elements doing whatever was needed to make the final image look real. This approach worked well in the commercial world. I was moved into the Flame suite and would sit there on many David Fincher projects. Fincher would up the gamma on the monitors, go frame by frame toggling the red, green and blue channel calling out pixels to be fixed. His eagle eye taught me to make my composites seamless.” Barba also encouraged her to pick up photography. “He said I had a good eye but needed to better understand how the images were captured. I needed to learn about lenses, optics composition. I took his advice, bought a camera and started taking pictures.”

Balancing parenting and supervising visual effects work while on set of Captain Marvel. Ralla talks with stuntman Jeff Habberstad while holding baby Bodhi, who came to visit that day.

Balancing parenting and supervising visual effects work while on set of Captain Marvel. Ralla talks with stuntman Jeff Habberstad while holding baby Bodhi, who came to visit that day.

Ralla was part of the Digital Domain team that re-created legendary rapper Tupac Shakur performing as a ‘Virtual Tupac’ for the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, for which she subsequently won the Cannes Titanium Lion Award in 2012.

Ralla was part of the Digital Domain team
that re-created legendary rapper Tupac Shakur
performing as a ‘Virtual Tupac’ for the Coachella Valley
Music & Arts Festival, for which she subsequently won
the Cannes Titanium Lion Award in 2012.

A contact sheet demonstrating the various poses of the projected hologram of Tupac at Coachella. It took Ralla and the Digital Domain team six weeks to create the almost six-minute “performance.”

A contact sheet demonstrating the various poses of the projected hologram of Tupac at Coachella. It took Ralla and the Digital Domain team six weeks to create the almost six-minute “performance.”

A major visual effects task for Ralla and the VFX team on Captain Marvel was de-aging Samuel L. Jackson for his role as a young Nick Fury.

A major visual effects task for Ralla and theVFX team on Captain Marvel was de-aging Samuel L. Jackson for his role as a young Nick Fury.

Working for Method Studios in 2010, Ralla put together contact sheets while making the Spike Jonze film I’m Here.

Working for Method Studios in 2010, Ralla put together contact sheets while making the Spike Jonze film I’m Here.

The first movie in which Ralla acted as the Production Visual Effects Supervisor was 2 Guns in 2012. Ralla is pictured here working on the film in Iceland with director Baltasar Kormákur, Executive Producer Jeff Stott and Assistant Director John Wildermuth.

The first movie in which Ralla acted as the Production Visual Effects Supervisor was 2 Guns in 2012. Ralla is pictured here working on the film in Iceland with director Baltasar Kormákur, Executive Producer Jeff Stott and Assistant Director John Wildermuth.

Ralla found her love for digital humans as the Compositing Supervisor for Digital Domain on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. In preparation for Benjamin Button, David Fincher directed an Orville Redenbacher commercial where the popcorn man was brought back from the dead. “He threw every problem we might encounter on the film at us for that commercial,” remarks Janelle. “It was a painful lesson in what not to do when we made the film. We learned from the Orville experience and setup that a new digital human pipeline centered around new anim and lighting tools and ‘checks,’ automated Nuke scripts that were run for every department to check and QC the work.” She went on to supervise effects for the Tupac “hologram” at Coachella. The five-minute Tupac performance was accomplished with a small team of less than 20 artists in around six weeks. It was another highlight of her career.

A contact sheet of four of Ralla’s favorite shots showcasing the Oscar-winning visual effects for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Ralla says, “It was a career highlight to create this charming young man in 2008.”

A contact sheet of four of Ralla’s favorite shots showcasing the Oscar-winning visual effects for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Ralla says, “It was a career highlight to create this charming young man in 2008.”

More recently, she oversaw the de-aging of Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel. “My passion is keeping characters out of the uncanny valley, starting with casting the right VFX teams, to thorough prep, successful shoot execution, and then pulling it all together in post using the data and reference as the foundation for photorealistic-seamless work. Comp is the cherry on top. Every shot and every frame in the pipeline need the same level of scrutiny. Even in these times of machine learning and AI-based workflows, it still takes a human eye to create a convincing digital human character, although maybe not for long given the technological advancements happening these days.”

Ralla reflects, “I find that the older I get, I realize that it’s so much about relationships and collaboration. It takes so many people to make these projects whether you are working for a vendor or studio. On the studio side, you’re interpreting what the director wants, collaborating with the heads of departments, overseeing the visual effects and casting your vendors correctly. The vendor’s side is a whole different beast because you’re working with teams of artists and focused on the fine details of every department. For now, I like being on the studio side while also having the opportunity to work with multiple companies and visual effects supervisors and their teams at the same time.”

“I feel we, as the visual effects team, have a great responsibility to the project to stay on our A-game the entire time because our work, our craft is what completes the imagery on the screen.”

—Janelle Ralla, Visual Effects Supervisor

Ralla and the VFX team conjured a futuristic vision of a “greener, brighter, cleaner” Los Angeles for 2013’s Her.

Ralla and the VFX team conjured a futuristic vision of a “greener, brighter, cleaner” Los Angeles for 2013’s Her.

“My passion is keeping characters out of the uncanny valley, starting with casting the right VFX teams, to thorough prep, successful shoot execution, and then pulling it all together in post using the data and reference as the foundation for photorealistic, seamless work. Comp is the cherry on top.”

—Janelle Ralla, Visual Effects Supervisor

Putting the facial capture rigs through their motions during prep for the Marc Forster-directed film All I See Is You, for which Ralla was Visual Effects Supervisor, in 2016. Ralla is currently working with Forster again on a new Tom Hanks film.

Putting the facial capture rigs through their motions during prep for the Marc Forster-directed film All I See Is You, for which Ralla was Visual Effects Supervisor, in 2016. Ralla is currently working with Forster again on a new Tom Hanks film.

A major visual effects challenge for Ralla was creating a CG baby within a womb for a British Heart Foundation PSA directed by Chris Milk in 2014.

A major visual effects challenge for Ralla was creating a CG baby within a womb for a British Heart Foundation PSA directed by Chris Milk in 2014.

Ralla speaking on the digital humans panel at the VIEW Conference in 2019. Fellow panelists included computer graphics researcher Paul Debevec, Weta Digital VFX Supervisor Guy Williams, Lola Visual Effects VFX Supervisor Trent Claus and VFX journalist/author Ian Failes.

Ralla speaking on the digital humans panel at the VIEW Conference in 2019. Fellow panelists included computer graphics researcher Paul Debevec, Weta Digital VFX Supervisor Guy Williams, Lola Visual Effects VFX Supervisor Trent Claus and VFX journalist/author Ian Failes.

Before serving as a visual effects supervisor on 2 Guns, Ralla was a compositing supervisor on Contraband, which was also directed by Baltasar Kormákur. “By the end I was in the mix of finalizing shots. Then I was asked to come back for 2 Guns, and it was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. We shot in New Orleans and New Mexico. Because I didn’t know any better, it was just me most of the time. Dadi Einarsson was also a visual effects supervisor, but more on the Framestore Iceland side of things. It was intense. Those locations were really hot. Some of the visual effects weren’t as planned out, as we didn’t know it was going to be that way until shooting happened. It was figuring things out on the fly and being creative.”

Spike Jonze has been a long-time supporter and has partnered with Ralla on Her, Apple’s Welcome Home, Kenzo World, I’m Here, Aziz Ansari: Right Now and Beastie Boys Story. “Spike likes to figure out how to do it practically. If you’re not able to tell him in prep exactly how the visual effect is going to be shot and look, he won’t even entertain it. Spike often does iPhone shots so you have a template of what he wants.” Ralla assisted Ryan Gosling with his directorial debut Lost River. “Ryan is the nicest guy I have ever met and knows what he wants. The effects for his film were surreal and vibrant. He was blown away by the process and excited the whole time. I enjoyed doing that film for him.”

A contact sheet for Kenzo World, a 2016 short film by Spike Jonze. Upper left, Ralla talking with Jonze, First Assistant Director Thomas Patrick Smith and Production Designer K.K. Barrett about launching actor Margaret Qualley through the eye for Kenzo World.

A contact sheet for Kenzo World, a 2016 short film by Spike Jonze. Upper left, Ralla talking with Jonze, First Assistant Director Thomas Patrick Smith and Production Designer K.K. Barrett about launching actor Margaret Qualley through the eye for Kenzo World.

“Every shot and every frame in the pipeline need the same level of scrutiny. Even in these times of machine learning and AI-based workflows, it still takes a human eye to create a convincing digital human character, although maybe not for long given the technological advancements happening these days.”

—Janelle Ralla, Visual Effects Supervisor

Episodic beckoned in the form of the historical FX miniseries Mrs. America, which streams on Hulu. The directing duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck met Ralla while working on Captain Marvel. “It was like a history lesson reading the scripts and learning about Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and others from that time,” notes Ralla. “The different thing about TV is having multiple directors, editors and DPs. You have to make a good first impression and earn trust quickly. It’s important to make yourself accountable.” With the dominance of blockbusters, a prevailing question is whether uniqueness has given way to a fast-food approach to visual effects. “It is a concern, but there are so many unique projects. I always tend to gravitate towards things that are unique and haven’t been done before.”

Over the years, Nuke has remained her tool of choice. “I still use simple scripts. I make contact sheets, load in reference, do mock-ups and create style frames. It was always easier for me to explain with pictures.” Sketching portraits has helped to develop the eye needed to produce believable digital humans. “One of the best parts of visual effects supervising for me is looking at something real, comparing it to the render and dissecting what is off.”

A rare quiet moment during reshoots for Black Widow in 2020 while nine months pregnant.

A rare quiet moment during reshoots for Black Widow in 2020 while nine months pregnant. (Photo: Matthew Lloyd)

Working safely on set on a mocap session during the pandemic – with remote actors and remote directors.

Working safely on set on a mocap session during the pandemic – with remote actors and remote directors.

There is no shortage of talented individuals in visual effects. “This industry blows my mind. There are so many geniuses. I’m constantly absorbing as much as I can from the talented teams around me,” Ralla states. “I’m always trying to find that balance of wrangling in my intensity and passion for the project and the imagery versus creating a fun and easy-going work environment. I feel we, as the visual effects team, have a great responsibility to the project to stay on our A-game the entire time because our work, our craft is what completes the imagery onscreen.”

“I’ll never forget watching Benjamin Button with my grandpa on Christmas day at the old Los Angeles Theatre downtown. I explained to him that we made Benjamin on the computer. When Benjamin came on screen, he would squeeze my hand and loudly say, ‘Hot damn!’ I still cry thinking about how special that was.”


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