Immersed in Movies: Puppet Cams, China Girl and VFX Wizardry in ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’

Immersed in Movies: Puppet Cams, China Girl and VFX Wizardry in 'Oz the Great and Powerful'

Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi have both embraced lighter, kid-friendlier fables with “Jack the Giant Slayer” and “Oz the Great and Powerful,” respectively, tapping into their inner child while pushing virtual production and 3-D with theatrical flair. While the results have been mixed (it’s hard to pull off innocence after the post-modern “Shreking” of our culture), Disney placed serious pressure on Raimi, whose return to “Oz” was a bumpy ride. 

First of all, how to compete with the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” no matter how hard you hide behind the original L. Frank Baum book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” while conjuring an original wizard origin story? And as likable as James Franco is as the conniving would-be magician, it’s not like having Robert Downey Jr. (the original choice), Johnny Depp, or George Clooney as the charismatic scoundrel from Kansas. Also, the which-witch-is-which charade with Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams overshadows the wizard for most of the journey.

Still, Raimi and company are most successful when playing off Baum or going in new creative directions with only a tip of the hat to the legendary Technicolor classic. For instance, a wonderful “Hugo-esque” subtext in Oz’s adoration of Edison serves as a key plot point while paying homage to early cinema.

“We were trying to set up Oz’s knowledge as a tinkerer,” Raimi explained at a recent press conference, “Oz’s awareness of Edison’s kinescope and early motion picture cameras, so that we could properly support the idea that he could have created this technology with the help of the tinkerers once he got to the Land of Oz.”

Also, Raimi had never created a world before, much less tinkered with 3-D, so finding that sweet spot between evoking the original movie and conjuring something new was quite an opportunity. Fortunately, most of the eye candy looks stunning, thanks in large part to Oscar-winning production designer Robert Stromberg (“Avatar”), who also worked on Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and recommended that they veer more toward the practical than the virtual on this one. 

That not only grounded the actors and artists in more of a physical reality (shooting on large stages in Raimi’s hometown of Michigan), but it also enhanced the theatricality. Stromberg’s infusion of Art Nouveau for Glinda’s castle and Art Deco for Evanora’s Emerald City is an inspired aesthetic clash. However, there’s a perception that “Oz ” is all CG glitter, so either the balance got altered in post by Sony Pictures Imageworks or we’re misreading what we’re actually seeing.

But there’s no denying Sony’s wizardry in animating the two central 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-capture animation. So they utilized a workable Finley puppet (courtesy of special effects makeup artist Howard Berger of “Hitchcock”) 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.

In other words, it was similar to what they devised on “Les Mis” for the live recording of the actors singing on set while listening to a pianist perform the music in a nearby booth.

“The theme of visual effects in the movie was tied to the art direction,” suggests Sony’s VFX supervisor Scott Stokdyk (who worked on Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy). “We decided to shoot on set and get in camera art directed pieces of photography. 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].”

The capuchin monkey proved inspirational. Early on Stokdyk looked at expressive photographs of capuchins with tight wrinkling above the brow that looked almost human. It provided an instant read of his expressions.

The 18-inch China Girl was designed by Michael Kutsche (“Alice in Wonderland”) but proved an animation challenge in making the porcelain surface convincing. They wanted to take advantage of the fault lines in ceramics called crazing.”We dialed that in on different levels of the face and the body to give it complexity,” Stokdyk continues. “Then we had a debate about the clothing. First we talked about a hard surface like overturned saucers that would bounce around and give a simpler movement but that proved too restrictive. Instead, we decided on soft-like doll clothing that allowed her to move more freely while lending more empathy to her. Then we had to be careful that the surface didn’t appear too rubbery. 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 a lot more interesting.”

Indeed, Finley and China Girl recall the Scarecrow and Tin Man, but the difference here is that they actually steal the movie from the wizard and witches because of the strength of their performances. There’s no predicting what’ll happen when you return to Oz.

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