Peter Deming, ASC soars over the native 3D rainbow for Oz: The Great and Powerful roughly ten years after the release of the 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz [shot by Harold Rosson, ASC]
…and well before that film became a national institution through annual exposure on television, Walt Disney acquired the rights to author L. Frank Baum’s Oz follow-ups. But Disney’s plans in the 1950s to dramatize these stories failed to gel, so the first follow-up, in 1978, was a disco musical, The Wiz, starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. Oz fans may also recall that Baum’s conceit of a wizard hiding behind a virtual veil of smoke and mirrors provided the mythological basis for John Boorman’s futuristic fantasy Zardoz four years earlier.
Nearly half-a-century after the original classic, Disney did attempt a true sequel. While director Walter Murch’s Return to Oz (1985) was respectful of Baum’s work (and endlessly innovative in its use of puppetry and Will Vinton’s Claymation process), the non-musical fantasy failed to connect with audiences or critics, leading to another quarter-century dry spell for live-action Oz features, if you don’t count 2005’s The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, of course.
So it is that with Oz: The Great and Powerful, director Sam Raimi has fashioned a visually stunning prequel that may well rival the beloved classic for its innovative use of color, and, appropriate for contemporary audiences, stereoscopic depth and clarity. Written for the screen by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, and based on Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, long before Dorothy Gale ever went airborne from Kansas, a wild balloon ride had already transported magician-cum-hustler Oscar Diggs (played with appropriate panache by James Franco) to a magical realm filled with fantastical characters known as the Emerald City.
Director of Photography Peter Deming, ASC, who had lensed the director’s recent Drag Me to Hell and 1989’s The Evil Dead 2, agreed with Raimi’s choice to keep the film entirely stagebound. “Like the first Oz, we felt creating this world onstage would give a lush and controllable look,” Deming reports. “This was important in permitting us to do a transition from the black-and-white Kansas to Oz in color, as they did in 1939, though we amplified the effect by also changing the aspect ratio from 1.33 to 2.40.”
To further distinguish the two realms, Deming, shooting native 3D, deliberately increased immersion levels in the color section of the film. While always intended as a 3D release, there was debate about how the stereo process would be handled, ranging from shooting on film and post-converting to using a digital capture system.
“I was concerned about shooting stereoscopic because no matter how good the system is, you’re still going through a mirror,” Deming states. “But after testing the Red Epic through the premium mirrors, we saw that it gave us an incredible amount of resolution. In the film world, Sam likes shooting a lot of VistaVision because he can reframe or do a move within that larger frame. Because of the Epic’s resolution, he had the same option; we could do fifty-percent blowups and not lose image quality in the [release] resolution. Plus the camera was small enough to get into positions so tight it wouldn’t have been possible even six months earlier with larger rigs. Element-Technica’s Atom, designed specifically for Epic, came out shortly before we started prep and suited us well.”
Deming describes the Epic as a “daylight camera” and says the light loss inherent with native stereo rigs turns an ASA 800 rating into a 400 with daylight Kelvin. “But our whole film was tungsten, so I ended up rating it 320,” he explains. Panavision supplied Production with two Epic rigs that were operated on A-camera by Patrick Rousseau and B-camera by Kim Marks, plus a 3D rig for splinter unit DP/operator Paul Sanchez.
To help design the world of Oz, Raimi turned to Robert Stromberg, who recently won his second Oscar for art direction for Alice in Wonderland. (The first was shared with Rick Carter on Avatar). Stromberg says that in trying to avoid parallels with the similarly fantastical Alice, he looked at the Hudson River school of artists and how their landscapes had a hint of the surreal. “We wanted a big contrast between the Kansas circus environment and Oz, which is a dreamlike place, with heightened reality that is a kind of homage to the original film’s Technicolor,” Stromberg relates.
“After doing Avatar,” he continues, “which was 80 percent virtual, and Alice, which was roughly 65-70 percent virtual, I thought the ideal balance for Oz would be around 50-50, virtual to physical sets, to give the director and actors more of a playground to explore. Another advantage to building more sets is that the DP’s lighting gives VFX something solid to match to. It’s being cost-conscious as well: knowing the VFX end, you can be certain that pulling the plug on a set at a certain point will work because the rest can be handled as an extension, which was our way of modernizing what had been done with scenic backings or glass paintings on the original film.”
Previs house The Third Floor, led by postvis supervisor and previs co-supervisor Trevor Tuttle (with Barry Howell), logged more than two years on the project.
“Working with real-world measurements from stage and camera/lens data,” Tuttle explains, “we could show Sam how much of the set was visible and at what point the digital extensions would begin. At that point we could start showing him options and figure out whether 40 extras could be made to seem like 200. Locking into real-world physics was important as well; we didn’t want to show Sam camera moves that looked great on a monitor but couldn’t be achieved physically with actual rigs on set.”
Tuttle says Raimi’s highly creative use of previs took advantage of The Third Floor’s sketching tool to help with mood and logistics. “There is a sequence where Oz makes a leap of faith and jumps from a great height, only to wind up in a bubble with Glinda [Michelle Williams] that takes them to see her kingdom,” he recounts. “Sam gave us a thumbnail of Oz jumping, and from there we helped him work out a style – not just how the bubble would look, but devising a poetic feel for this little journey in the story.”
Given the original Wizard of Oz’s eternally high visibility, Deming wanted to retain some connection to that magnificent Technicolor look. “We shot with a film emulation LUT created by Company3 and Sony Pictures Imageworks, because we wanted to stay in that colorspace instead of a wacky or linear one,” Deming shares. “That helped keep us visually connected with the original’s look.”
Imagery was recorded onboard to SSD cards and later archived to LTO5 tape. DIT Ryan Nguyen says that “CDL data was created using software FotoKem wrote for us on the fly that they would eventually call nextLAB Live. We used [that] for our live real-time color correction and nextLAB for data management.”
Production was based at Raleigh Studios, in Raimi’s home state of Michigan, using three 30,000-square-foot stages and four smaller spaces with perms 45 feet up. “We pretty much filled those stages end to end with sets,” Deming remarks. “That meant that following the action, we could be travelling 150 to 200 feet through the set. We spent a lot of time on Technocranes, which let us get the 3D rigs very low and work faster in an environment that would have been difficult to lay track in, given the rugged terrain. Being able to cozy in from the side with a 50-foot Techno was the right approach.”
Most stages were outfitted with a full 360 degrees of blue screen for set extensions. “With 3D we were on wider lenses more often than not, so you’re seeing everything,” Deming continues. One exception was the view through a telescope, on which Deming used a 100-millimeter lens. “For this show that was a really long lens,” he states.
Creating convincing daylight on stage was Deming’s biggest challenge. The goal was to create a very realistic look, and then stylize it as needed after the fact.
“We had a monster lighting package, since Sam and I both agreed we needed a deep stop to make the 3D work,” Deming says. “Sam had initially wanted to do the whole thing at 5.6 – and while we could have gotten there, the costs would have been exorbitant. The film is mostly shot between a T4 and a T4 /5.6 split.”
Deming began on the daylight effect by creating an ambient level, rigging rock-and-roll par bars in the perms above, and then mixing and softening the light by stretching large diffusion rags underneath. Only after adding the sun source, which had to carry 200 feet, could he then begin the normal process of lighting the shot.
“Gaffer Michael LaViolette designed lighting units called parpods: six 1K sealed-beam globes in a linear array that we could rig in any design we wanted,” Deming adds. “We ultimately came up with a design using 28 parpods [168 1K pars total] packed tightly together, so it gave us a single shadow after about 50 feet. Sometimes we used a quarter silk on it to soften the source, used it raw or with some color in front of it. And all our lighting was controlled through dimmer boards.”
With much of Oz’s world added in post, the need for real-time on-stage composite previews was essential. Joe Lewis’ Encodacam, which was used on I, Robot and Alice in Wonderland, was tested successfully at Universal’s UVS-1 virtual stage, and then used to track camera moves in real time while driving Autodesk’s MotionBuilder to generate low-rez background views. “Building the virtual sets to a point where they could be useful isn’t always aesthetically nice and might not track perfectly,” Stromberg relates. “But the filmmakers get a great way to frame things, which isn’t always the case in the blue screen world.”
Even though plenty of Oz is set along the yellow brick road, only the road and area alongside it were built. “With Encodacam and the preview system,” Deming reveals, “Sam could see a low-res comp and suggest starting a shot looking up at a mountain before tilting down to the practical road. The system eliminated all guessing on the part of the operators about how to frame something that wasn’t actually there.”
During the journey, Franco meets a porcelain character called China Girl in miniature-golf-sized surroundings representing part of the Teacup Village. “That’s where we had what I guess you’d call full-scale miniatures,” Stromberg says. “The miniatures specialists at New Deal Studios built 50 feet of this scaled-down city of broken teacups.”
China Girl represented one of the more difficult CGI challenges, though a marionette representation on set proved helpful. “It was puppeteered by Phillip Huber, a man with 40 years of experience,” says Sony Pictures Imageworks VFX supervisor Scott Stokdyk shares.
“To see Phil get such feeling out of the [puppet] was amazing, especially given that it could only open and close its eyes.” Through a combination of good body poses and head movements and positions, he got powerful reactions from those watching. Imageworks animation supervisor Troy Saliba had his team take inspiration from both Phillip and the actor’s performances.”
Of course China Girl was plagued by the paradoxical nature of smooth objects – namely that they don’t often have enough texture to look real. “There’s a process in ceramics called crazing,” Stokdyk continues, “which gives this smooth object an underlying texture of fine hairline fractures. That let us retain her unique look while making her credible.”
Witness cameras and remote recording booths were used when either China Girl or another popular face in Oz, Finley the flying monkey, were in a scene, as the performers voicing them were able to see the actors on set while being recorded themselves so that animators could utilize their performances in CGI.
Contributing more than 1,100 VFX shots, Imageworks was also tasked with creating a wide range of environments depicting the natural beauty of the Ozscape, and a wealth of detail in Emerald City, including massive interiors. They also tackled huge crowd scenes, digital doubles of cast members, and atmospheric and energy effects, everything from mists to fireballs and travel bubbles. The full VFX workload included contributions from Luma Pictures (ICG April 2011), Digiscope, Method Studios and Evil Eye Pictures.
Thankfully, Oz’s native stereo did not require much in the way of postproduction Band-Aids – only a tiny fraction of shots needed post-conversion, usually owing to special stunt rigs that couldn’t accommodate the stereo camera set-up.
“Stereographer James Goldman had been with first unit throughout shooting,” notes Stokdyk. “But in post, we had 2nd unit stereographer Ed Marsh staying on with visual effects and editorial. Ed was able to keep the vision of what was intended for the stereo in focus for us all.”
Raimi, who was finalizing the film’s DI with colorist Stephen Nakamura at Company3 as this article went to press, says the key to realizing Oz was tapping into those same attributes that have been with the story from its literary inception.
“All of us – Peter, Robert and [screenwriter] Mitchell Kapner – drew so much inspiration from the books, because they contain so many wonderful descriptions,” the filmmaker concludes. “The imagination of L. Frank Baum, along with artist [W. W.] Denslow [who illustrated the first volume] is the incredible territory we’re exploring on screen.”
by Kevin H. Martin / photos by Merie Weismiller Wallace / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures