The cast of Oz, the Great and Powerful assembled at Pasadena’s Langham Hotel to meet with media prior to the opening of the film. They talked about the process of making the film, particularly the technical aspects. Oz, the Great and Powerful presented a number of unique challenges, from the creation of fantastical CGI characters to the construction of an entire imaginary world.
One might assume that, like other recent films, this one takes place in an entirely computer-generated environment. Surprisingly, it doesn’t. Producer Joe Roth explains, “I think one of the misconceptions is that we were making a CGI film; we built seven full-size sets.” The decision to make the film this way was director Sam Raimi’s, Roth said. “It’s really the director’s choice. I had just done Alice in Wonderland with Tim Burton, who builds almost nothing, with the actors acting opposite tennis balls, and having a grand time doing it. I had no idea what he was doing. In this case, Sam wanted both a tactile version and a CG version; I thought it was incredibly helpful. You could come to the set and think that it wasn’t going to be a CG film at all.”
The actors also appreciated the constructed reality of physical sets. Mila Kunis (Theodora) said, “I actually got very lucky; James had the hard job with his part; I was surrounded with tangible sets and actual living beings for most of the film. My interactions were mostly with Rachel and with James and Michelle. We were given Munchkin City, we were given Glinda’s castle, and Whimsie Woods, the waterfall; so I was surrounded by actual tangible items. That being said, I was coming off another film where I was talking to a CGI character,” she say,s referring to the comedy Ted.
Aside from the environment, one of the larger challenges of the film involved two prominent characters, Finley the flying monkey and China Girl, a 14-inch-tall girl made of porcelain. In each case, the actors, Zach Braff and 13-year-old Joey King, performed their roles virtually, working from a recording booth adjacent to the soundstage, in order to interact with the cast.
“What was kind of cool about this was, it wasn’t all voice work,” Joey King exclaims, “Zach and I did it together; we were in a booth on the set, and they attached our facial expressions to the characters. It was something I’d never done before, and I’ve done a lot of voice work. I could see James and the actors on the monitor in my little booth, and they could hear me, because they had earpieces on.”
James Franco follows up, saying “there are a lot of things that we did that we would have done if Joey was playing a human character; she and Zach would be there for every scene, we’d block things out, talk about the dialog, and make sure that their characters were behaving and choreographed in ways that they, as actors, felt they should be.” In order to give the actors someone to visually relate to, and the animators some reference for the performance, the producers hired master puppeteer Philip Huber (Being John Malkovitch) to perform as China Girl. His puppeteering was then used as the basis for the final CGI version of the character.
“It was a marionette puppet, it had all these strings and wires and he knew what everything did” King says. “It was so cool, sometimes they weren’t able to use her, but it was so cool to see James and everyone act with her. We sometimes forgot it was a doll.”
“He was not only good at manipulating the doll; he also had an earpiece, so he was interpreting Joey’s performance,” Franco replies. “He would make the doll match Joey’s performance. He was so effective that Sam would give his directions directly to the doll.”
When King and Braff performed their roles in the on-set recording booth, video cameras captured their facial expressions, which the other actors were able to see and and react to via monitors on the set. The animators also used these recordings in creating the CGI characters, according to Braff. “Sam said ‘I really want the animators to go off your facial expressions,'” he said. “I was very conscious all the time, because there were these three video cameras usually on my face and body all the time, even when it wasn’t my shot. Usually when it’s not your take, you don’t have to do 100% always, but for me, I realized those cameras were on me all the time, so I really had to do it every single time as best as I could. And fortunately the animators really ran with what I did and animated my facial expressions.”
Sam Raimi concurs, elaborating, “the animators didn’t really run with what he did; usually it was the editor and myself, kind of slightly straying from what he did, and then trying to get back to it. Zach really is a great actor; he has real emotion, that’s why I didn’t want to do motion-capture,” he states, referring to the technique often used for characters like Gollum or the Hulk, in which dots are applied to the actor’s face, and his facial expressions are captured and applied to the character. “We didn’t want to do that,” Raimi says, “we wanted to capture the essence of what he had did. That’s why we asked for a human animator, so they could sit with the film and understand what that expression meant, then go to the character and animate that.”
“I thought it was going to be motion-capture when I first got the role,” Braff elaborates. “I remember seeing old Disney footage of animators studying deer while working on Bambi, and that’s what it reminded me of.”
Another character that required special treatment was the Wicked Witch of the West, which is the later incarnation of Kunis’ character. Describing the transformation of her character, she states, “half of it is special effects makeup; it took four hours to put on and an hour to take off. By the end of production, it was down to two-and-a-half hours to put on and an hour to take off, along with contact lenses.” She found the physical transformation liberating, saying, “I’ll tell you, for the first time ever in my career, putting on the costume and putting on the face mask, so to speak, pun intended, and putting on the contact lenses, truly did help me lose inhibition and allow me to just have fun and not concern myself with what I looked like or what people thought.”
Once she becomes the Wicked Witch, Kunis spent a considerable portion of her time astride her flying broom; the film features a number of flying scenes, all of which Kunis performed without a stunt double. She says she wasn’t worried about these scenes at all, having worked with the stunt coordinator previously. “Scott Rogers and I did two movies back-to-back, he was the stunt coordinator for Ted; he allowed me to drive like a crazy maniac when he probably shouldn’t have, so at that point I was like, Scott’s crazy, I trust him.” The resulting scenes show a daredevil Wicked Witch who roars around Oz, swooping very close to the heads of the citizens before ascending high into the air. “When we went on to to shoot Oz,” Kunis remarks, “I thought, this is fine, I’ve jumped out of planes before, this can’t be worse. And it’s not… unless you happen to be afraid of heights. You’re 30-35 feet in the air, you’re strung up on multiple wires, and should anything go wrong, there’s an emergency system.”
All in all, viewers may be surprised to learn how much of Oz the Great and Powerful was actually filmed on set rather than being created in the computer.