Coinciding with the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, comes Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, an indie animated musical from Summertime and Clarius, made by Prana Studios. Adapted from the initial book by Roger Baum, the great grandson of L. Frank Baum, co-director Will Finn (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Beauty and the Beast, The Secret of NIMH) discusses his first foray in helming a CG-animated feature.
What was the great challenge in reintroducing audiences to the world of Oz?
I think the challenge of the movie creatively is living up to the expectations of The Wizard of Oz, and we wanted to make a movie that was contemporary but we also wanted to live up to people’s expectations of various incarnations, including the original book, which I read as a kid. The thing is L. Frank Baum wrote a number of sequels in his day and his great grandson, Roger, started writing sequels about 20 years ago. And so this is a sequel based on Roger’s first book. I think that was one of the things that the Summertime company was smart to do because you’re coming in with a PD title that a lot of people understand, but it’s also proprietary and has the legacy value of coming from literally the DNA of the original creator. And Roger was very encouraging and liberating in letting us adapt it.
Wasn’t it a tricky balancing act between the familiar and unfamiliar characters?
When I came on there was a lot of cross over with the Scarecrow [Dan Aykroyd], the Lion [Jim Belushi], and the Tin Man [Kelsey Grammer] and the new characters — the Marshal Mallow [Hugh Dancy], China Princess [Megan Hilty], and Wiser, the giant owl [Oliver Platt]. They were interacting a lot throughout the story and I had a problem with that. We had to figure out a way to separate them because every time the original trio came on it was like the Beatles. It was like we had this great new band and they were getting overshadowed on stage.
What was it like working with Prana along with some animated vets?
It’s an indie world, we don’t have all the studio infrastructure so that’s always a challenge but in some ways can be liberating too. Prana in India did the actual animating and then Duncan Studio was involved in the start up. So they did a lot of the storyboarding and Ken [Duncan] personally designed Dorothy and Wiser. I know he put a lot of time in Dorothy [Lea Michele]. He’s great at female characters — he did Jane from Tarzan. Also, the China Princess, she’s a caricature of Ken’s wife, Julie. I can’t look at that character without seeing Julie in there.
You were not on it from the beginning?
No, what happened was Dan St. Pierre [the co-director and production designer] was on it for a number of years before I became involved. I got on mid-way through 2011 and I was on it for two years to the end. They had already begun production and Dan went back and forth to India more than I did. And Doug Williams [Gnomeo & Juliet], another former Disney animator, was also our character animation supervisor. He was really great at raising Prana’s game after doing the Disney direct-to-DVDs. That was before they went on to do the Tinkerbell and Planes theatricals. We had to get the game up a little bit but they did. The animators were great and jumped at every challenge. After that the battle was against time, technology and money advancing every day.
How did it work for you?
The production team at Prana are in Mubai. We went over there a couple of times and the rest was skype dailies and conversations back and forth. And the beauty of the digital age is now, for instance, when I want a certain pose or expression on Wiser and someone’s done a rough animation, I can do a frame grab, draw over that digitally and then send them the exact expression and they can duplicate it. The only minor difficulties there is that they’re 12 hours ahead. But it works and it’s a global world.
This is the world today.
A lot of people wrestle with it. I don’t want to get too off topic, but I remember when we were doing Hunchback at Disney, the book by Victor Hugo has a subplot about using printing to distribute poems. And printing was a big deal because the printing press had just been invented. And prior to that people only understood the Bible through sculptures on the cathedral on Notre Dame. And he was talking about how the book would replace the cathedral and he had this phrase that ‘This will replace that.’ And it was a big technological move. And I think about that a lot because today we have computers to replace paper and pencil and we have a global world. It’s a 24/7 market place where people are working around the clock and it’s all been made possible by the computer.
Obviously the talent pool is becoming very good and you’re able to do draw overs and they understand.
Yes, one of the advantages of Mumbai is they speak English. I’ve had some experience working in Asia and when you have to work with a translator it makes it that much more difficult.
Talk about the difficulty of Wiser.
He’s got feathers and you can draw a character like that in 2D and suggest feathers, but actually every feather has a number and an assignment in place. So, for instance, any scene where Wiser has to connect with Toto and that fur and hair have to connect, we had to be very, very cautious about how many times that fur can interact. The computer can do it; it’s just that it requires an enormous amount of fire power to calculate that.
What’s been the takeaway for you with your first CG experience?
I’ve been a character animator for most of my career and have done some storyboarding and directing in 2D and so it was a big learning experience. I was thrilled to be part of a CG production because there’s so much more to work with: you’re dealing with every texture, every surface, every light. And that’s also an enormous amount of work, but this was a great heartland story to work on with a great crew.