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Immersed in Movies: Transforming ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in 3-D for IMAX (VIDEO)

Immersed in Movies: Transforming 'The Wizard of Oz' in 3-D for IMAX (VIDEO)

Watching a glimpse of “The Wizard of Oz” in IMAX 3D earlier this week at the reconstructed Chinese Theater took some adjusting. Talk about a hybrid of the old and new (the 3-D was a bit of an eye-opener, though, and wasn’t at all distracting). Then again, there’s always been something hyper-real about three-strip Technicolor, and transforming Sid Grauman’s ornate movie palace into a more immersive IMAX experience by the new TCL ownership is perfect for 21st century exhibition.

The 18-month 3-D conversion was earmarked for this year’s 75th anniversary “Oz” celebration (even though it was released in ’39), which includes a one-week engagement to relaunch the Chinese beginning September 20, followed by the October 1 release of a 5-disc “Collector’s Edition” Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD set from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

Although they only previewed three scenes, it was a nice sampling: the introduction of the Tin Man, the storming of the Wicked Witch’s castle, and the climactic castle chase. You get a wonderful sense of depth with so much layering (especially with the multi-plane castle effect), and the detail is stunning (from the Scarecrow’s burlap texture to the Cowardly Lion’s fur; from the extra rivet on the Tin Man’s face to Dorothy’s freckles). 

Granted, a flat IMAX experience would’ve yielded the same detail with greater contrast, but “Oz” is well-suited for 3-D, given how much it relies on effects. It’s basically an animated movie with live actors, and the 3-D conversion makes primary use of animated techniques, particularly rotoscoping. The conversion was by Prime Focus, which also did such a great job on “Gravity,” and then IMAX applied its proprietary remastering for the large screen. 

It was admittedly daunting for Ned Price, VP of Mastering, Warner Bros. Technical Operations, who’s been close to “Oz” for a quarter of a century as a result of overseeing various re-masterings and a digital restoration. “Where was the grain going to go?” he wondered. “But I was pleased to see that it had its natural texture. I was also pleased that the 3-D wasn’t pushed too much. Prime Focus made the 3-D very comfortable.”

Working closely with Price, Prime Focus started with a depth script, isolating every element within the frame, which was divided into layers. They started shallow with the sepia opening in Kansas and then amped up the depth when Dorothy opens up the door to the Technicolor Oz. “That was a cool effect, picking points of contrast,” remarks stereographer Justin Jones, who’s also involved in look development. 

“It was the longest and most complex shot,” adds Price. “There were a lot of 3-D elements like the flowers standing alone and the rotation was very difficult.”

Jones admits that adjusting to the extreme shot length so prevalent in Hollywood movies of the era was the biggest challenge. “Normally, we work on shows with 1,800 shots, but with ‘Oz’ there were only 661 shots. An average shot lasted several seconds. Then you have shots that blend into each other, which doesn’t happen anymore and were treated as one long shot to be consistent. There was also the complexity of the sets with the crowds of Munchkins and trees and foliage. We had to be really efficient with different stages from pipeline development, dealing with the assets and file transfers back and forth between all of our facilities worldwide.

“The cameras were very slow and you have a lot more time to look around the frame, which provides more freedom to viewers to check out what they want and get more immersed. It makes it technically challenging to have everything hold up to the same level of quality.”

However, Prime Focus decided to “break the walls” of the stage-set backgrounds, selectively adding depth to some of the painted backdrops to enhance the illusion of the environments they depicted, including the yellow brick road, which now appears to stretch farther out. But they had to be careful to avoid too much miniaturization, so careful sculpting was required. Fortunately, the original cinematography contained a great amount of shadow detail that made such sculpting easier.

They also added the appearance of depth to some of the characters: the Wicked Witch’s nose was distorted slightly in 3-D and her hat and fingers were exaggerated to make her seem scarier. At the same time, the Munchkins were made to appear smaller than other characters and objects. 

Price, meanwhile, says it was invaluable having the original blueprints for the sets to size them correctly. “I think of it like animation and the blueprints came in very handy to tell if, for example, rounded objects in the Wizard’s room are concave or convex.” Indeed, it was like redesigning the movie all over again for 3-D.

And then IMAX took over with its render-based process for managing grain and sharpness, and, thanks to a new software suite, the inherent source material of “Oz” has been brought out even more accurately and dynamically on the new IMAX screen.

Speaking of which, the newly renovated Chinese by TCL keeps the historical decor intact (including the ceiling and carpeting) while offering a state-of-the art IMAX experience with additional volume, LED lighting, improved acoustics, and stadium-style seating for nearly 1,000. In fact, to achieve the 94 x 46 screen size (the third largest commercial screen in North America), they had to dig about 15 feet underground into the orchestra pit and basement.

And for those wondering about projection, it’s all digital in both booths (even for IMAX large-format film maven Christopher Nolan). For IMAX presentations, they’re using the dual 2K system. But by the end of next year, TCL intends to raise the bar by installing innovative IMAX 4K laser projection (offering 8,000:1 resolution compared to 2,800:1 for IMAX digital or 4,000:1 for IMAX film). Of course, that would entail further remastering of “Oz” to keep up with the “great and powerful” changes in exhibition.

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