In October 2011, I got to visit the wonderful world of Oz and watch director Sam Raimi direct his preboot (prequel/reboot) of the classic L. Frank Baum book series. I learned much on the set of Oz: The Great and Powerful. Most fascinating to me was some of the things Disney had to do satisfy legal concerns over possibly violating copyrighted imagery from the classic 1939 film adaptation, owned by Warner Bros.

And while trailers for the film focus on wholly computer-generated worlds and characters, you might be shocked to learn the lengths that Sam Raimi went through to shoot a lot of the film practically. For example, it was interesting to see Raimi inventing new practical solutions to help the supporting actors create and react to live performances for characters who would eventually be created in CG — and I’m not talking about performance capture.

After the jump you can watch a video blog we recorded talking about the visit, followed by many more things I learned while on the set.

 

Video Blog: Below is a video blog I recorded with Steve from Collider.

Possible Spoiler Warning: Please be warned that the video blog features some brief mentions of which character/actress becomes the Wicked Witch. While people familiar with the original books/previous movie(s) should be able to guess pretty easily, the reveal in the film has been thus far been kept out of the marketing campaign. 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.

You can use the chapter guide below the video to skip the discussion of the Wicked Witch (if you skip section 17:15-19:15 you will be fine). But please feel free to read the rest of this report without worrying about this possible spoiler.

Timecode:

  • 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

35 Things We Learned On the Set of Sam Raimi’s ‘Oz The Great And Powerful’

1. The Yellow Brick Road was rebuilt in the suburbs of Detroit.

We visited the set at Raleigh Michigan Studios in Pontiac, Michigan on October 20th 2011, three months into the planned five month shoot. (Principal photography began on July 25th 2011). To give some perspective, Real Steel had just been released and Puss In Boots would be coming to theaters another week. Filming in Michigan is a homecoming of sorts for director Sam Raimi, who made many of his early films in the area.

Oz: The Great and Powerful is the first film to shoot in Raleigh Michigan Studios, which once was a General Motors trucking design plant. The studio houses 200,000 square feet of sound stages, with 3 sets revolving on each of the 8 stages. Three of the huge stages are next to each other, which allows Raimi to visit and give direction on second unit work in between takes with the first unit.

A few years ago Michigan passed very aggressive tax incentives that brought over 100 film productions to town; most recent at the time was the Dreamworks produced Real Steel. The Avengers and other films have since decided to film elsewhere, and Oz was one of the last films to qualify for these tax cuts before the state decided to eliminate the generous tax credit. The producer admits they would not be filming in Michigan without the tax incentives. The crew is roughly 600 people, 300 of which are local. The day I was on set there were also about 150 local extras. Raimi says the people here in Michigan really appreciate having a job, and that they are so talented and wonderful to work with.

2. The world of OZ looks like a mash up of Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, with a touch of Disney fairy tale magic and even inspiration from… Song of the South?

Visual Effects designer turned Production Designer Robert Stromberg has only two credits as production designer, but is batting 1000 — both films (Avatar and Alice in Wonderland) have earned him Academy Awards. Stromberg is known as a world builder, able to create fantastically detailed and expansive fictional environments. Oz is his third film as designer.

The saturated landscapes look like a mash up of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and James Cameron’s Avatar, a combination of real and surreal-looking elements. One concept rendering shows a lush green mountain which bridges above the yellow brick road which winding around and underneath. The interiors and exteriors of the castles look inspired by some of the animated Disney classics. For example, the interior of Glinda’s castle features very elaborate wallpaper, reminiscent of the designs in the Haunted Mansion.

Stromberg admits that in addition to the original Wizard of Oz, he referenced other Disney films like Song of the South. The Emerald City is very art deco-influenced, all royal green with yellowish gold features.

He tried to create something that pays respect to the original film we’ve grown up with but also takes viewers to the next level of filmmaking and art direction. The Oz we will see in this film is supposedly something closer to the one described in the original books than the original Wizard of Oz movie.

3. The surreal world of OZ was created practically with big sets and computer rendered set extensions.

Sam Raimi insisted on using physical sets with blue screen backdrops instead of rendering the entire set with virtual environments, something that was considered early on. The entire film was shot on sound stages, and not one frame was shot outside. Raimi says that he couldn’t even shoot a sky because none of the landscapes in OZ could ever fit in our reality.

Michelle Williams said she found it incredibly freeing that Sam gave the actors physical sets to live in, puppets to react to, and loved that he didn’t leave them out in the cold to act against a blue screen.

4. Oz: The Great and Powerful is a Rise of the Planet of the Apes-style prequel.

The screenplay, written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, is based on characters, places and stories told throughout L. Frank Baum‘s series of 14 books set in the OZ universe. It imagines the origins of the man who becomes “The Wizard of Oz”, and explains how the Wicked Witch came to be so wicked.

James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a small time magician in a traveling circus who feels above his current situation. A hot air balloon ride into a storm (complete with, you guessed it, a tornado) transports him to the world of Oz. The world is in turmoil and it has long been prophesied that a Wizard would come to save the land. But which of the world’s three witches can he trust — Theodora (Mila Kunis), her older sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) or Glinda (Michelle Williams)? The answer may seem obvious to those who have watched the 1939 film, but the story is brilliantly structured with twists and turns you might not expect.

The last act of the movie is a huge battle and takeover of emerald city. We will learn how the Wizard becomes the man behind the curtain, complete with a projection on a large head. And through the course of the adventure, Oz will transform from a selfish man to a selfless man.

The goal of the story is to honor the original Wizard of Oz story but add to the mythology in a way that it might even enhance the reading of the earlier work. And as fans know, Baum’s Oz book series offer many more stories on which to base a possible sequel.

5. The Kansas-set opening is in black and white.

The opening sequence, set within a traveling circus stop in Kansas, was shot in the first two weeks of photography. It will be projected in black and white, and will be presented with mono sound and a smaller aspect ratio. The 3D depth will be dialed down, but still present. This is an obvious homage to the 1939 film which transitions from black and white to technicolor.

The aspect ratio grows when Frank arrives in Oz. That’s shown in a 30-second pullback shot that reveals Frank is no longer in Kansas any longer. Instead, his hot air balloon is floating above the wonderful land of Oz.

6. There are many different creatures in the land of Oz, some we know, many we’ve never seen before.

Many little creatures inhabit the world, including flocks of hummingbird/fish characters, and a small flying insect that looks like a mash up of an elephant and a butterfly. The Winkies are a group of 7-foot-tall soldiers that act as the Witches right hand henchmen.

The prequel features two types of flying monkeys, an angry baboon looking creature and a monkey that looks more like a cute chimpanzee. Zach Braff voices Finley, one of the chimpanzee-like flying monkeys, Theodora’s assistant, with whom Oz doesn’t hit it off in the beginning.

One of the characters along for this adventure is a tiny 18 inch tall breakable girl made of porcelain named China Girl (voiced by Ramona and Beezus star Joey King). Joey described the character as very sassy, having some attitude, but is also very sweet. Oz becomes kind of an adopted father to China Girl after he comes across her in China Town.

7. The film offers a more politically correct take on the iconic Munchkins.

35-40 little people were cast in the film to play Munchkins in this film. This time around they have spent time trying not to paint the Munchkins as odd. The characters are no longer wearing silly outfits. This film treats all of them as equals, basing their appearances off of their occupations.

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