Finley and China Girl and Puppet Cams, Oh, My!
For Oz the Great and Powerful, director Sam Raimi was in very good hands once again with Sony Pictures Imageworks and VFX supervisor Scott Stokdyk, who helped him with his Spider-Man trilogy. But then this was a horse of a different color, you might say, because Raimi had never built an entire world before and had never tinkered with 3-D.
Yet it was decided early on that they would veer toward the practical whenever possible and shoot in 3-D (using Red Epics and 3ality Technica 3-D rigs) rather than do a post conversion as part of the design process. That is why they built massive sound stages and revolving sets in downtown Detroit (Raimi's hometown) and only supplemented with blue screen when virtual work was required. As for the 3-D, they could control the convergence and create proper depth and volume in keeping with the fantastical experience but at the same time making it comfortable for the viewer.
Oscar-winning production designer Robert Stromberg (Avatar), who worked on Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland with Imageworks, and who is currently directing Maleficent, believed that a more even mix between the practical and the virtual would not only ground the actors and artists in a believable reality but also enhance the theatricality.
This certainly runs counter to the perception that Oz is all CG glitter, so either the balance got altered in post or we're misreading what we're actually seeing.
But where Sony's real wizardry can be witnessed is in the creation of the two primary CG characters, Finley, the cute flying monkey with a bellhop suit (voiced by Zach Braff), and China Girl (voiced by Joey King), the manipulative porcelain doll, who aid Oz in his quest for greatness. Yet Raimi insisted on capturing Braff's and King's performances onset with Franco without having to rely on performance- captured animation. So they utilized a workable Finley puppet (courtesy of special effects makeup artist Howard Berger) and an elaborate China Girl marionette (courtesy of puppet master Phillip Huber) as stand-ins, placing Braff and King in soundproof booths off set using a video link they called "Puppet Cam." This way, they could remotely interact with one another whenever they couldn't be together on set.
"Carrying over from Imageworks' experience doing animated features and Alice, we thought it was important to have great interaction between the actors playing the CG characters and James Franco on set," Stokdyk suggests. "That rippled through production and post, so as animators [under the supervision of Troy Saliba] worked on China Girl, they looked at the marionette performance on set along with the video reference of Joey King's face. Then they looked at what Oz was doing. It was all performance-based reference. For Finley, it was Braff's facial performance and real reference of a capuchin monkey and video reference of real birds since he's a [cross between a monkey and a bird]."
Finley (the counterpart to Oz's assistant in Kansas), in fact, was based on the capuchin monkey. "He was designed to be expressive facially and very cute and to remind us of Frank through his performance," Stokdyk continues. "Troy was able to bring some of the idiosyncrasies of Zack's performance from the Kansas sequence into the character animation. Early on I saw a lot of very expressive photographs of capuchin with tight wrinkling above the brow that looked almost human. It provided an instant read of his expressions."