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."
The most critical scene using the Puppet Cam is when they're leaving the Emerald City and walking along the Yellow Brick Road. With Oz having to walk 200 feet, there was no easy path for having Braff interact with him. They tried in one case putting him on a rolling dolly on a bumpy Yellow Brick Road. "But we got great performance video of his face in a booth and clean audio, so editorial was able to cut in that footage and give earlier turnovers to the visual effects team for lines of dialogue," the VFX supervisor adds.
Meanwhile, the 18-inch China Girl was designed by Michael Kutsche (Alice in Wonderland). But how do you make the porcelain surfacing convincing? They took a lot of reference photography and consulted with ceramics experts and decided to utilize the subtle level of crazing, the cracking on the surface of ceramics, as the underlying texture.
"We dialed that in on different levels of the face and the body to give it complexity," Stokdyk explains. "Then we had a debate about the clothing. The first inclination was toward a hard surface like overturned saucers that would bounce around and give a simpler movement but that proved too restrictive. Instead, we went for soft-like doll clothing that allowed her to move more freely while lending more empathy because of its soft connotation. Once we had the look as an animation challenge, we always had to be careful that the surface didn't appear too rubbery. No stretching in the face. So Troy and his team were careful not to be over expressive and to take visual cues from what the marionette did, which had a hard surface face with only the freedom of opening and closing the eyes. The trick was to hide the movements in the face on a cut or a head turn. But the goal was to read the expressiveness through face shapes. It gave us a nice design restriction that we imposed on ourselves to elevate the character into [something] more realistic and interesting."
At the same time, the creation of the small-scale China Town, full of broken porcelain pieces, offered a unique opportunity in terms of its look and scale.
"The great thing was that we were able to build real pieces of that and get the juxtaposition of Oz vs. the small scale in camera for a lot of it," concludes Stokdyk. "And Robert Stromberg brought in New Deal Studios to effectively build miniatures. Porcelain tea cups and saucers and pitchers that were done to the China Girl's scale provided ideas on how to extend that and turn it into a whole town. After working in real world scale on the Spider-Man movies, it was real refreshing to come into this fantastical set design that had nothing to do with our reality, and the other great thing is that as we were working on it in 3-D. We had this opportunity to design in depth and build on what was shot in camera. And then in post we were able to make additional design choices. We could choose to set dress foreground objects to frame the action and dial in their depth and then between those and our blue screen photography, we could add layers of atmosphere and porcelain dust and rays of light, and then behind the blue screen photography, we could design all the depth of the rest of the city and smoky plumes of atmospheric effects layers all the way to an interesting matte painting."
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld, the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.