The courtyard is bustling with activity. All around me, I see Munchkins, Tinkers (Oz’s industrious builders and inventors), and many other inhabitants carrying sticks, baskets, and other props as everyone is preparing for war. They’re all dressed in the most amazing clothes and every hair is perfectly adjusted with some of the men having mustaches and beards that could win awards. In the center of the courtyard is James Franco. He’s wearing an old black suit with his hair slicked to one side. He looks like he just arrived from a circus. As I stare at where he’s standing, I see that he’s talking to a small 18 inch maquette and having a very serious conversation. While he’s talking to a white doll that’s being moved around by a man in an all blue suit, eventually this maquette is going to be an all CGI character named China Girl, and she’ll be voiced by Joey King who is standing off to one side. As they finish their conversation, I hear director Sam Raimi call cut. The busy activity comes to a halt and I look around with a smile on my face. After spending so many years watching The Wizard of Oz on TV, I can’t believe I’m visiting the magical land of Oz. I also can’t believe that as I watched the action unfold, I was literally standing on the yellow brick road.
But let me back up a second.
As I type these words I’m on a plane back to Los Angeles. It’s Saturday, October 22, 2011 and I’ve spent the last two days visiting Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great and Powerful while the production was filming at the brand new Raleigh Studios in Pontiac, Michigan. Oz is the first production at the massive new studio and while there I got to participate in group interviews the cast and filmmakers, visit all of the practical sets, and see the props, weapons, and the amazing art department. While I’ve been able to do many set visits, what is being done to bring Oz to life was truly a sight to behold. For more, hit the jump.
Before getting to the set visit, if you haven’t seen the latest trailer I’d watch that first:
As most of you know, whenever I do a set visit, I record a video blog. For Oz The Great and Powerful, the video blog was done with Peter from /Film and unlike our previous offerings, we broke this one down into subjects. Further down the page are the 30 Things to Know about the film.
Warning: the video blog features some brief mentions of which character/actress becomes the Wicked Witch. When we were on set, it wasn’t treated like a secret or mystery, so we did talk freely about this plot point/character in the video we recorded following the visit. To avoid this info, skip 17:20-19:15
- 0:00 Introduction, about the film
- 2:00 Our appreciation of the original 1939 Film
- 3:00 Brief Impressions from the set
- 6:30 Not sure about James Franco as Oz
- 8:40 Why OZ might look like Avatar or Alice in Wonderland
- 9:50 The evolution of the yellow brick road
- 10:45 Paying homage to the 1939 film
- 11:15 The black and white opening of the film and trip to Oz
- 12:25 The legal difficulties having to avoid infringing on the rights on the 1939 film adaptation
- 14:30 Filming on practical sets with CG extension and using practical make-up effects
- 17:20 SPOILER WARNING: This is where the discussion of the actresses that plays The Wicked Witch begins [Spoilers end after this segment]
- 19:15 Using live performances and practical puppet stand-ins for the CG characters
- 23:00 Final thoughts
- The team of filmmakers bringing Oz to life is like the New York Yankees of Hollywood. You’ve got Sam Raimi directing. Joe Roth, Grant Curtis (the Spider-Man trilogy), Philip Steuer (the Chronicles of Narnia) and Palak Patel producing. Robert Stromberg (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland) is doing the production design (he won Academy Awards for his last two films). Raimi also brought in Oscar winning film editor Bob Murawski (The Hurt Locker), Oscar nominated costume designer Gary Jones, visual effects Oscar winner Scott Stokdyk, and Academy Award winning special makeup artist Howard Berger (KNB). Berger is creating the look of the citizens of Oz and the makeup for the Wicked Witch of the West.
- The production has built the world of Oz practically and it’s spread out over 8 soundstages with each one holding three sets. As you might imagine, after the production has shot on a set, they tear it down or adjust it for the next set up. At no point are there 3 sets on one soundstage at the same time. At the top of all the sets, or in the windows, you can see blue walls or blue areas. That’s because in post production, all the blue areas will be filled in and amplified to bring the land of Oz to life. However, everything that the actors stand on is real and fully built. The sets that I got to visit and walk on were truly astounding and felt like they’d captured the spirit of The Wizard of Oz.
- The look of the movie feels like a mix of Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, a Disney fairy tale, and the original Wizard of Oz. I’m extremely confident that Oz the Great and Powerful is going to be nominated for tons of Awards in makeup, production design, costumes and many other categories.
- Most of the actors have dual roles. The beginning of the movie takes place on a circus in Kansas and besides being introduced to Franco’s Oscar Diggs (a.k.a. Oz), we meet Michelle Williams, who plays his high school sweetheart that’s about to get married, Joey King, who plays a girl in a wheelchair who asks for Oz’s help, and Zack Braff, who plays a magician assistant named Frank who wants to be Oz’s friend. Then when Franco’s Oz gets transported via a tornado, the same actors show up in Oz as Frank the Monkey (Braff), China Girl (King), and Glinda the Good Witch (Williams). The goal of the film is to let you decide if everything was real, or if the land of Oz was all in his head (like the original movie).
- The film is really about a selfish man that ends up being selfless. When we first meet Oz, he’s a selfish jerk that only cares about himself. By the time the film ends, we’ve watched Oz transform himself and it’s that journey that should make Oz the Great and Powerful a great journey.
- They’re using old school techniques to do some of the special effects. Instead of relying on computers to do the heavy lifting, KNB is handling the transformation of the Wicked Witch of the West and the person playing the role undergoes about an hour and a half of makeup to bring the character to life. Like most of you, I think the more you do practically, the better it will look on screen. I was blown away walking on the set and seeing dozens of extras wearing the most amazing makeup and clothing. Watching Oz come to life on the monitors with no CGI effects looked amazing. I can’t wait to see the finished sets.
- Lawyers are very involved in Oz the Great and Powerful. That’s because while the production has access to anything L. Frank Baum wrote in the books, they can’t use what was designed for The Wizard of Oz movie. That means no ruby slippers. No recreating the look of any original character. And no shots or sets can be recreated. It also means everything they do has to be vetted by lawyers to make sure they can do it. However, since Oz the Great and Powerful takes place decades before the original film, there is a lot they can work with and I didn’t get any sense that the production is limited in its scope.
- The entire movie is being done on soundstages. While Raimi mentioned that he would have loved to have filmed outdoors in Michigan, since everything is so stylized, there is no real world location that fits in the Oz universe. Everything had to be designed.
- All the Munchkins have their own jobs and a community. It’s like the way Hobbits are depicted in The Lord of the Rings.
- Expect plenty of cameos from actors that have been in previous Sam Raimi movies. Perhaps you might see Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi (Sam’s brother), and maybe you’ll see some witches from Evil Dead….
- Unlike some productions that are rushed and every department barely has enough time to get things made before they need to be onscreen, many departments were working on the film in October of 2010 and filming didn’t begin until July of 2011. The production was scheduled to go until the end of December, which made it a 5 month shoot.
- James Franco was not the first choice for Oz. Originally they went after Robert Downey Jr. but when he passed they tried to get Johnny Depp. After Depp passed, Raimi met with Franco and the rest is history.
- The yellow brick road takes on the personality of the landscape. If the land is bright, clean and wide open, the road is all of those things. However, in the dark forests where leaves are everywhere and it doesn’t look like anything alive could survive on the land, the road is cracked and broken.
- China Girl (played by Joey King) is the sole survivor of her people and she exists in a land called Chinatown. We meet her character around a third of the way into the film and she lives in a broken tea pot that was being built on one of the stages we visited. In this land, the yellow brick road is very narrow, as the inhabitants are 18 inches tall.
- Since the production had so much to shoot, the second unit had a lot of responsibility. However, to make sure Raimi could keep track of what they were shooting, he had another monitor on first unit so he could watch playback. That way, if something needs to be adjusted, he could give them immediate feedback.
- Rami is very collaborative and incredibly calm. All the actors we spoke with said the same thing about Raimi: he’s always calm no matter the situation and he always listens to any idea. Zack Braff told us how Raimi would listen attentively to Joey King (who is 12 years old) like she’s been making movies for decades.
- The production shot on the Red EPIC and they’re shooting in 3D. Also, the film is going to be anamorphic widescreen (which looks great).
- The production cast dozens of little people to play the Munchkins and while some were local, others were brought in from Los Angeles.
- The Disney Imagineers have been on set and I’d imagine they’re going to try and bring some of this film to life at Disneyland and Disneyworld.
- While on set, the producers told us they’re going to try and save certain sets in case the film is successful and they want to do sequels. They said there are plenty of characters and stories that have never been depicted or told.
- Howard Berger was able to hire the best of the makeup world to work on Oz and many of the people he hired were industry veterans whose work he grew up admiring. Every makeup person had to do 3 to 5 people every day, which much higher than average. On set yesterday, they had 90 people in makeup. And it’s not five minutes and you’re ready to be on screen; it’s the type that takes hours to get ready.
- Michelle Williams talked to us about the long takes that Raimi was going for using cranes on wide dolly tracks. She told us about one take that was three and a half minutes and by the end, she realized she needed to do more theater.
- Phillip Huber is doing the on set puppetry. He did Being John Malkovich. He has two China Girl maquettes on set and each one took 200 man hours to build. They were designed and built by KNB, but then Huber put them together and made the adjustments so he could make them do what Raimi needed on set. What he does in every shot is perform the action with the doll the best he can and that way the actors have something to play off to help their performance. Then, in post production, animators will bring China Girl to life as an all CGI character, but they will have the doll as reference and Joey King’s on set performance to also look at.
- To help bring China Girl and Finley (the winged CG monkey that accompanies Oz on his journey) to life, both Joey King and Zack Braff are on set whenever their characters are featured. What Raimi has done to make the performances more alive is to have both King and Braff in a private room off set that has a camera and microphone. When Franco or any character interacts with China Girl or Finley, they can hear King and Braff delivering their lines in an small earpiece. In addition, both actors are being videotaped as they perform, so the animators will not only have the on set performances to work off, but the facial expressions and emotions as they talk. Raimi is trying to bring everything to life practically, and it’s one of the main reasons why I think the performances are going to work – even if they’re CG characters.
- When the movie begins, it’ll be in black and white and it won’t use 3D. However, when Franco lands in Oz, the camera will pull back for a 30 second shot and the screen will get wider and wider as the black and white turns to color and the 3D brings us deeper into the land of Oz. The way the shot was described to us, it’s going to easily be one of the highlights of the film.
- Raimi doesn’t have a 3D monitor on set. It’s nearby, but it’s a walk to get to. While some directors like to see every shot in 3D as it’s happening, Raimi told us that he wants to focus on the performances and the look and feel of the scene. He checks the 3D, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to be distracted by the technology.
- Danny Elfman is doing the music.
- Lance Burton (a very famous magician who performs in Las Vegas) came for a month and a half to train Franco in the art of illusion. By the end, Franco could perform a number of illusions and he did a few in the movie.
- There are a number of nods to the original Wizard of Oz. One such example is the red sand. In Raimi’s movie, the red sand is used by Evanora (Rachel Weisz) to help turn a certain character evil.
- We’ll learn why the Wicked Witch of the West is evil. In the film, we’ll also watch the person transform. It should look extremely cool.
- Each witch has their own unique power. Theodora can wield fire through her ring. Glinda can transport people via her wand, etc.
- The reason Oz is filming in Michigan is the tax breaks. While the State has pulled back on the incentives to bring Hollywood up north, Oz still qualified and Raimi was able to return to the home state where he made The Evil Dead and his first film, Within the Woods.
I grew up watching The Wizard of Oz every holiday season with my family. So getting to walk on the yellow brick road and watching Sam Raimi bring the land of Oz to life was something I’ll never forget. Also, while some filmmakers try and use too much CGI to tell the story, I absolutely love the way Raimi is incorporating practical sets and effects to make Oz feel real.
While it’s too early to tell if Oz the Great and Powerful will be a timeless fairytale that’ll be watched by generations, everything I saw on set tells me they’re on the right path and I’m incredibly excited to see the final results.
Oz the Great and Powerful opens on March 8th. For more from my set visit:
- Sam Raimi Talks Pulling Material from Baum’s Books, Crafting the Look of Oz, Not Tarnishing the Original, & More on the Set of Oz The Great and Powerful
- Michelle Williams Talks Creating Her Own Glinda, Working with Sam Raimi, and More on the Set of Oz The Great and Powerful
- James Franco Talks Why He Signed on, His Reaction to Seeing the Yellow Brick Road, Plant Omens, and More on the Set of Oz The Great and Powerful
- Zach Braff Talks Doing Voice Recordings on Set, Working on a Large-Scale Epic, 3D Technology, and More on the Set of Oz The Great and Powerful
- Joey King Talks Playing Two Characters, Making Adults Put Money in a Swear Jar, and More on the Set of Oz The Great and Powerful