The path to directing from VFX and production design has certainly been a natural one for two-time Oscar winner Robert Stromberg (“Avatar,” “Alice in Wonderland”). And after re-imagining Disney’s iconic “Sleeping Beauty” with “Maleficent,” he not only wants to continue directing but also explore new tech frontiers. In fact, Stromberg has formed his own virtual company, Hydra (in partnership with The Third Floor previs boutique and “Maleficent” production designer Dylan Cole), so he can be on the cutting edge of total cinematic immersion.
“I can’t say anything now but I plan to hopefully be a pioneer of something really special,” Stromberg reveals. He points to Facebook buying Oculus VR for $2.7 billion as the breakthrough: “There are a lot of very interesting things that are going to come out of that and I’m working with some of those people.”
Imagine entering the world of “Maleficent” or “Avatar” and being up close to the characters. That’s what’s in store with this new holodeck-like experience. “The mediums will change but the storytelling will stay the same,” Stromberg predicts. “It’s really about finding new and exciting ways to direct films that might slightly be unorthodox to what we know now.”
Stromberg grew up in Carlsbad, CA, “creating strange things” and learning about the filmmaking process early on from his father, William R. Stromberg, the stop-motion animator. He even studied drawing from retired Disney artist Bruce McIntyre in elementary school. After working his way up from matte paintings to VFX and production design, collaborating particularly with James Cameron on “Avatar” and Tim Burton on “Alice in Wonderland,” he learned about various artistic approaches to problem solving.
However, working with Peter Weir on “Master and Commander” taught Stromberg about the importance of emotion in storytelling, which is why “Maleficent” is such a primal tale at its core.
“If you were to boil it all down, the movie’s essentially a hunt for what true love is,” Stromberg explains. “And the way we play with that is we have somebody who’s perhaps in love [Maleficent] but betrayed and doesn’t believe that true love exists. So the moral to it is we can all feel dark ourselves but not to lose hope because there is light in places where we might not be expecting. And working with Elle [Fanning] was like this beacon of light vs. the darkness of Maleficent. It reminds me a little of the girl plucking petals from the flower in ‘Frankenstein.’ It’s such a wonderful contrast and the joy in making this film was bringing those two elements together and discovering things that we normally wouldn’t know.”
At the same time, though, Stromberg knew exactly what he wanted visually, striking a balance between practical and CG. For instance, while legendary makeup artist Rick Baker created Maleficent’s horns, Digital Domain (“Benjamin Button”) took facial capture to a whole new level of authenticity for the three pixies (played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple) with the help of the Medusa rig pioneered by Disney Research in Zurich.
“It wanted to feel a bit more grounded,” Stromberg insists. “I didn’t want to make it too surreal because it could be distracting from the simplicity of the story. I knew we should have bigger sets. It makes it more tangible for the actors to be on real sets with real lights. For me as a director, it’s much easier to block things and explain things to the actors about VFX that’s not in place yet. What these big films have taught me when reading scripts is an understanding of what should be digital and not digital.”
Curiously, “Maleficent” shares some striking thematic similarities as well as a crucial plot point with Disney’s Oscar-winning “Frozen.” But this was news to Stromberg until he finally caught up with the animated blockbuster. “It’s just a coincidence. I will say that because that film did so well I’m hopeful that formula is a good formula.”
For Stromberg, despite whatever technological advances lie ahead with VR, the biggest thrill is still affecting someone emotionally.