Academy Award-winner Ken Ralston was a leading pioneer in the specialized field of visual effects, creating some of cinema's most breathtaking moments for acclaimed filmmakers like George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis. Beginning as a founding member of Lucasfilm's effects division Industrial Light & Magic, Ralston learned his craft on Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977) before taking on a supervisory role for "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982) and earning a Special Achievement Oscar for his work on the third "Star Wars installment, "Return of the Jedi" (1983). He won the first of several Academy Awards for the movie magic he and his team cooked up for Ron Howard's "Cocoon" (1985) and another with Zemeckis on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988). After more Oscar-winning collaborations with Zemeckis on "Death Becomes Her" (1992) and "Forrest Gump" (1994), Ralston eventually left his home at ILM for an upper-management position with Sony Pictures Imageworks, where he orchestrated more visual magic for such features as "Cast Away" (2000) and "Men in Black II" (2002), as well as Zemeckis' technologically ground breaking fantasy "Beowulf" (2007). Three years later, he also helped director Tim Burton score one of his biggest box offices successes, providing spectacular visual effects for "Alice in Wonderland" (2010). Whether looking to explore the far reaches of the universe or create an entirely fantastical world of make believe, filmmakers looked to Ralston time and again to bring their visions to vibrant life.
Born in 1954, Kenneth Ralston was a special effects movie fan from childhood. Having already experimented with 8mm film and camera techniques as a teenager, he put together a 40-minute audition film which landed him a position at Cascade Productions in Hollywood. During his tenure at the influential commercial animation and effects company throughout the early 1970s, Ralston worked as a set-builder, model-sculptor, puppet animator and stop-motion photographer, animating such whimsical spokes-characters as Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Jolly Green Giant. Fate intervened when a friend, Dennis Muren, coaxed Ralston to lend a hand with the special effects on a small sci-fi movie being made by a young filmmaker named George Lucas. As an assistant cameraman for the Miniature and Optical Effects Unit, he contributed to the groundbreaking spaceship effects for Lucas' game-changing blockbuster "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope" (1977). Along with Muren, Phil Tippett, Joe Johnston and a handful of artists and engineers, Ralston helped create Lucas' in-house visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, where he would remain for the next two decades.
A few years later, Ralston returned for similar duties on the "Star Wars" sequel "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), a movie every bit as impressive both narratively and visually as its predecessor. As the man in charge of the incredible dragon effects for the medieval fantasy "Dragonslayer" (1981), Ralston garnered his fist Academy Award nomination for Visual Effects. He moved up in rank to Visual Effects Supervisor on "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982), another superior sequel for which Ralston designed the cringe-inducing Ceti Eel that was seen burrowing into the ear canal of an unfortunate Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig). It was as part of the ILM team that Ralston shared a Special Achievement Oscar for their work on "Return of the Jedi" (1983), the feel-good conclusion to Lucas' first "Star Wars" trilogy. Now one of the leading practitioners in his highly-specialized field, he was brought back for "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" (1984), before his visual wizardry on director Ron Howard's fountain of youth sci-fi fantasy "Cocoon" (1985) won Ralston and the ILM team the first of many Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects.
Ralston returned to the Starship Enterprise for more effects work on "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986) and then teamed with innovative director Robert Zemeckis to devise a believable world in which live action actors and surreal cartoon characters could coexist for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988). This wildly kinetic mish-mash of cartoon, comedy and mystery not only became a box-office smash, but earned Ralston yet another Oscar. Knowing a good thing when he saw it, Zemeckis hired Ralston and his ILM crew back for "Back to the Future II" (1989) and "Back to the Future III" (1990). In addition to his usual duties as Visual Effects Supervisor, Ralston served as second unit director for the first time on the nostalgic action adventure "The Rocketeer" (1991), directed by fellow ILM cofounder Joe Johnston. His third Academy Award came Ralston's way for his work on Zemeckis' "Death Becomes Her" (1992) and his high-tech wizardry in the director's beloved Oscar-winning Best Picture "Forrest Gump" (1994) garnered him a fourth statuette. Ralston helped give an already cartoonish Jim Carrey an alarming amount of added elasticity in the off-the-wall comedy "The Mask" (1994) and provided the computer-generated animals in director and fellow ILM peer Joe Johnston's jungle fantasy "Jumanji" (1995).
Immediately following the completion of "Jumanji" and after nearly 20 years with ILM, Ralston joined Sony Pictures Imageworks as Visual Effect Supervisor and Creative Head. In his new position he soon jumped into high-profile projects like the John Travolta vehicles "Phenomenon" (1996) and "Michael" (1996), as well as more traditional sci-fi movies like "Contact" (1997), based on the novel by Carl Sagan and directed by Zemeckis. Ralston paired with Zemeckis once again for another epic starring Tom Hanks, "Cast Away" (2000), prior to suiting up for the sci-fi comedy sequel "Men in Black II" (2002). When he turned to computer-generated imagery to tell his stories, it came as no surprise when Zemeckis again enlisted Ralston's help for the Christmas fantasy "The Polar Express" (2004) and once more for his adaptation of the Old English epic poem "Beowulf" (2007). Working for Disney and visionary director Tim Burton, he provided a wide array of effects for the quirky director's interpretation of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" (2010) and helped zap Will Smith back to the 1960s for "Men in Black III" (2012).
By Bryce Coleman
Director (Feature Film)
Visual Effects (Feature Film)
Film Production - Main (Feature Film)
Special Thanks (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Visual Effects (Special)
First film credit, as optical effects photographer on "The Empire Strikes Back"
First credit as special visual effects supervisor, on "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"
Left Industrial Light and Magic to assume presidency of Sony Pictures Imageworks
Signed to make feature directorial debut with "Jumanji 2"; left project in February 2000 over "creative differences"