Sony Imageworks Takes Us On The Yellow Brick Road to OZ
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Debra Kaufman : Sony Imageworks Takes Us On The Yellow Brick Road to OZ
In Disney's fantastical adventure "Oz The Great and Powerful," Oscar Diggs (James Franco) lands his hot air balloon in a pond in the Land of Oz and encounters the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis). The film, produced by Joe Roth, directed by Sam Raimi, written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, stars James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Zach Braff.
How did the man behind the green screen become the Wizard of Oz? That's the tale that the latest Walt Disney movie, Oz the Great and Powerful, tells, directed by Sam Raimi with James Franco as the eponymous small town magician who ends up in the Emerald City.
Whereas MGM's 1939 Wizard of Oz wowed viewers with a transition to color when Dorothy enters the kingdom of Oz, this prequel ups the ante with photography in native stereoscopic 3D and an array of spectacular digital visual effects including sophisticated character work. Sony Pictures Imageworks completed over 1,100 shots that appear in the final film, including all of the CG character shots and CG environments. At Imageworks, the movie leveraged tens of thousands of render cores, multiple petabytes of data and thousands of unique assets to create the stylized world of Oz..
Of course, I had to see the movie in 3D, and when I left the theatre, I was still in the land of Oz, in a good way, still feeling the effects of total immersion while I adjusted to planet earth (well, the Landmark Theatre). As the filmmakers -- and Sony Imageworks -- intended, I was bedazzled. I spoke to Sony Imageworks Senior VFX Supervisor Scott Stokdyk and Animation Supervisor Troy Saliba about their work on the movie.
"Every 3D movie needs to find its own language and tone," says Stokdyk, who has worked with Raimi on all three Spider-Man movies, winning a 2004 Oscar for Best Visual Effects for Spider-Man 2. One of the challenges was that, because Disney doesn't have rights to the 1939 movie, the filmmakers, including Imageworks, had to base everything on the original Baum artwork and books.
Oscar Diggs (James Franco) lands his hot air balloon in a pond in the Land of Oz and encounters the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) in red on the shore.
With regard to the movie's native stereoscopy, Stokdyk notes that, even when Raimi works in 2D, the director likes depth. "He loves things coming towards camera," says Stokdyk. "We embraced 3D with lots of volume and depth and we weren't afraid to have things come towards camera and break frame. It wasn't meant to be a delicate 3D but an enjoyable rich full 3D experience."
He reveals that, "there was talk initially about shooting the first part in 2D, but we looked at it in B&W and everyone agreed it was interesting to see B&W in 3D -- and this was before Frankenweenie came out. We dialed back the 3D in the B&W part, but we still tried to have fun with it."
Oscar Diggs (James Franco) and the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) stand on a precipice overlooking a valley in the Land of Oz.
James Franco, as Oscar Diggs left and Mila Kunis, right, as Theodora. Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace, SMPSP.
In the initial stages, Raimi, Production Designer Robert Stromberg and Stokdyk "started with a very clear idea of visually what this movie was going to be." Stokdyk says, "There was a lot of discussion about how much would be virtual sets and how much would be shot. We decided to shoot everything on a sound stage, nothing on location. We would create as much of the sets as we could build, with the fantastical elements as digital extensions. Everything in the final image would be an art direction choice, as opposed to being a location with found photography. That dictated the look and feel all the way to the end."
"The VFX had to respect what was going on with what we shot on those sets as did the 3D," he continues. "While we were shooting, we were very mindful of the 3D and in post we worked a lot with that volume. I think the playfulness of the 3D and use of depth fits with the tone of the rest of the movie. Had it been shot on location or had a different narrative we might have made different 3D choices."
James Franco, left; Rachel Weisz, right
He notes that the way they made the movie -- on carefully designed and dressed sets -- was similar to a "classic Hollywood movie" of yesteryear. "The books were written turn of the century and we tried to respect the time period this world was written in," he says, pointing out one difference: an older Hollywood movie would have had painted backdrops instead of greenscreen.
Sony Imageworks has been known for its character work since Stuart Little, and Oz the Great and Powerful has a host of digitally created characters including digital doubles of Oz, Glinda, Theodora, Evanora, Knuck; thousands of flying baboons including three hero baboons; digital crowds in the land of Oz; and creatures including the river fairies.
attacking snapdragons, insects, butterflies, birds, flying fish, wooden horses, a lion, and a squirrel.
Saliba notes the challenges for his team. "We had about 50 animators on the show at our peak, which was aggressive for a show this size but everyone knuckled down," he says. "The scope of the world was huge, such as the big battle scenes at the end with thousands of baboons and characters, which required help from the team doing Massive simulations. We animated up to 25 hero characters choreographed around the camera, but then the hordes of baboons are done by Will [Cunningham] and his Massive team, so it's a big collaborative effort."
The movie features two main characters -- China Girl (voiced by Joey King) and Finley the Monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) -- who are entirely digital. Early on, Raimi decided to have the voice actors spend as much time as possible on set during the shoot, in large part because of the important role of Finley. "He was such a big part of the movie," says Saliba. "Finley relates so much to James Franco and he had a lot of comedy, so we had to make sure we didn't lose any of the performance. Sam's decision to have the voice actors on stage was tremendous. Otherwise James Franco would have had to imagine what [the voice acting] is going to be like, with whoever is available reading the lines to give cues but it's not the same as having an actor on stage."
China Girl lays broken in a land of porcelain teacups and teapots destroyed by marauding flying baboons, when her cries draw the attention of Oz and Finley. Oz glues her legs back on and then China Girl joins them for the rest of the adventure. Throughout the shoot, voice actor King was either right off screen or in a sound proof booth. "That gave us a very tangible connection between the CG character that we ultimate put in and the actor on set," says Stokdyk. "It gave a very fluid interaction and feel between the two of them."
James Franco, left with Finley (voiced by Zach Braff).
Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) comes across the devastation of the delicate and beautiful China Town.
How to animate China Girl was a choice very much in line with the movie's design and artistic choices. Saliba says he and the team mulled over how to make her both a porcelain 18-inch tall doll, but one who could emote and speak. The decision, says Stokdyk, was to "embrace both the feel and the restrictions of a marionette, and still be incredibly expressive on the face."
On set, Phillip Hoover, a classic marionette puppeteer wore a blue suit and puppeteered a version of China Girl in every scene. "What was amazing was that Phillip was able to give a very life-like performance, an illusion of life, with an inanimate object, a marionette with 20 strings that controlled the limbs, torso and head," says Stokdyk. "There were no facial expressions but he did every expression with body poses and head tilts."
"Everyone quickly realized Phillip's acting choices were so poignant that he would bring a lot to the table," adds Saliba. "The puppet moves brought so much to the animation choices that were made later. Particularly in the acting shots, having that reference really helped in showing how the China Girl would move."
The marionette performance also led to a decision to treat the China Girl's hands as much as possible as puppet hands. "We don't move her fingers, but if she is supposed to point, we have her hands that way from the beginning," says Saliba. "It helped with her quirky puppet feel; we didn't want her face to feel too elastic. The rigging team normally works hard to make sure the cheeks and corner of the mouth are very fleshy and organic, but China Girl had to get Botoxed."
Instead, the team embraced another way to make China Girl emote. "If she was supposed to have a sad expression or a pout, she'd have that expression when we cut to her," says Saliba, who says the China Girl is one of the most unique characters the company has created. "We would not modulate her face when the camera was on her. I was thinking of stop motion for sure and also the old days when they build rubber puppets. If you ever watch Gremlins again, they had different sculpts for the face. Whether you think of it as stop motion or not, it helped and it wasn't distracting to the audience."
CG China Girl
The other main CG character in the movie is Finley the monkey, voiced by Zach Braff. "He was, in a way, a complete polar opposite of the China Girl," says Stokdyk. "We wanted him incredibly expressive. He had to be funny and make extreme facial expressions; we wanted to see more animation and life to that face. When we started looking at the animation, I was drawn to Capuchin monkeys, which don't have a lot of fur covering their foreheads."
Having voice actor Zach Braff -- who, at 6-feet tall, is twice the size of Finley -- on stage required some thinking outside the box. "We tried to get him on stage whenever we could," says Saliba. "When Franco had a lot of waking, we had an invention that helped. In the booth, Zach has a camera pointing at him. We recorded the dialogue for later but the feed was also sent live to monitor strapped to a puppeteer on set, at Finley's eye level. The monitor enabled Franco to see Braff in the booth and, back in the booth, the camera also strapped to the puppeteer, showed Zach what's happening on stage."
"A ball on a stick is what we use all the time for eyelines for the actors, but now James can hear Zach, see his face," he adds. "If Zach adlibs or gives a line, James can respond in a much more energized fashion. It was much better than trying to imagine what it's going to be like. They could play the comedic moments. For the animator, that's crucial; the digital character will be so much more convincing. If we don't have that convincing performance on stage, our characters will never really gel."
Finley required both fur and feathers -- something Sony Imageworks has done before -- but since Oz was a highly designed movie, look development took awhile. Before the team went to Michigan where the movie was shot, an animal wrangler came in with a Capuchin monkey that was skilled enough to run through a lot of the necessary actions. "We had tests to show Sam that we could make it," says Saliba. "The rule of thumb was that if Finley were doing something physical, we'd lean on the animal references, but if he were performing, we'd lean more on Zach's characteristics. It was the animator putting that together with his experience and armed with all the Zach and monkey references, and it worked pretty well."
Finley (Voiced by Zach Braff)
"We walked the line between real animal reference and art design," he adds. "We ended up with something closer to the real animal but with the essence of the art design. We had to learn how to allow for that when we animated."
The animation team modeled the character without the fur, but with a "fur buffer" which showed where the fur was going to be placed. "At least it gave us some idea of what the silhouette of the monkey would be," says Saliba. The wings were very complex -- "a heck of a lot of individually modeled feathers" -- and slowed down the rig to some degree. "The team did an amazing job of creating wings that did what we needed," he says. "We could animate the monkey without the wings, and then these wing proxy shapes that are low res would give us the movements we needed. Later, we'd add the high res wings."
THE MAGICAL WORLD OF OZ
Sony Imageworks also created environments and digital effects throughout the movie. Environments included the Kansas Circus, panoramic shots of the land of Oz, Emerald City, the Throne Room, huge water environments including a rushing river and waterfall, towering mountains, China Town and its porcelain plates, teacups and teapots, the Haunted Forest with graveyard, fog and animated trees, a Bubble Voyage in which characters are encased in iridescent soap bubbles, the immense poppy fields and, of course the yellow brick road.
James Franco as Oscar Diggs, left follows Michelle Williams' Glinda the Good Witch in a bubble voyage.
Glinda (Michelle Williams), the Good Witch, invokes her powers.
"I think that Imageworks as a company has done a lot to expand its environmental work capacity," says Stokdyk. "I believe Oz did benefit and build on the work that we did for Tim Burton's 2010 Alice in Wonderland, but it went further back to our work on Spider-Man, both of which honed our ability to manage big environmental libraries. We had a whole team working on the environment and digital landscaping, dressing our virtual world based on ideas from the real sets."
"Stepping back, as a VFX supervisor, it was a fantastic project just to be part of the design of the world," he says. "Every day there were multiple design choices to make and it was a fun, interesting thing, as opposed to just replicating things. When a VFX movie is shot in the real world, a lot of our work is to replicate what's there. We had the chance to create and work off of Stromberg's ideas and that was really fantastic for the VFX team. We took real photography with blue screen from the set, and Robert [Stromberg] would paint in what he thought should go on the blue screen." Five or six matte painters and concept artists worked to visualize this world, with a wall of inspirational artwork the VFX team could draw from and refine.
This way of working even translated over to lighting design. Stokdyk points out the scene when the baboons fly down. "We played the [baboon] army as silhouette from the beginning," he says. "It was a great lighting exercise, shot by shot, with every cut revealing a little bit more. It's pure visual storytelling. We relied heavily on what Sam had done with the previs team from The Third Floor to tell that story but it was great to be part of the lighting design and what we hid and revealed with fog. It was a great virtual cinematography challenge, and not often in VFX do you get to be so immersed in the visual storytelling."
Sony Imageworks also accomplished a large number of atmospheric effects in the movie, including various magic effects for the witches, Glinda's magic bubbles, the shimmering wall around Glinda's countryside and village, Theodora's fire tornado, impenetrable mist, the Oz hologram , and a variety of water effects, fireballs, explosions and smoke effects.
"One thing that stands out to me is that we did an incredible amount of FX animation, in support of 3D and the feeling of volume, depth and atmosphere," says Stokdyk. "It was no accident that it was part of the design but also part of the 3D design. In a lot of real photography and outdoor locations, you see lots of haze depth cueing, such as mountains far away that get a milky white depth contrast. We wanted to make Oz have a really clear atmosphere, so to build volume we put in layer upon layer of fluffy clouds. In the water sections, we layered in spray, haze and mist. It's almost like supporting VFX work, but I feel it helped the environmental design."
James Franco with director Sam Raimi
Production Designer Robert Stromberg on the set of OZ. Photos by Merie Weismiller Wallace, SMPSP.
A SKILLFUL CREATION OF A NON-PHOTOREAL WORLD
From a point of view of the movie's artistic look and feel, Oz the Great and Powerful was a tremendously successful brew of director Raimi's commitment to creating the story within a non-photoreal world, Stromberg's inventive design and Sony Pictures Imageworks' delightful realization of all the elements, from the environments in which the story was told to its most quirky and charming characters.
Stereoscopic 3D is chosen for a wide variety of reasons, but Oz the Great and powerful is a rare of example of a skillful, conscious use of depth as a storytelling tool. Similar to the movie's flesh-and-blood actors, we viewers are visitors to an enchanting digital realm.
First five images: OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL Oscar Diggs (James Franco) lands his hot air balloon in a pond in the Land of Oz and encounters the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis). The film, produced by Joe Roth, directed by Sam Raimi, written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, stars James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams and Zach Braff. Oz The Great and Powerful, opened in U.S. theaters on March 8, 2013. © 2012 Disney Enterprises, Inc.