How Sam Raimi Used Live Puppetry And Performance Conferencing To Create 'Oz The Great And Powerful'

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

Sam Raimi was faced with a predicament. Two of the characters in his upcoming film  Oz The Great and Powerful are completely fantastical (a flying talking monkey and a foot tall talking/walking breakable china ceramic doll) but he didn't want to have the characters to be completely created and performed in post production, and he also didn't want to use performance capture as it sometimes results in very robotic-looking performances.

Trust me, you will be amazed at the computer generated performances in this film. How did Raimi and team pull it off? Find out after the jump.

"More than anything, the strength of this script was the humanity in it and that's the strength of the great classic WIZARD OF OZ movie, Raimi told us in an exclusive interview. "So I challenged my visual effects designer with "How can I make these characters more human than human? I want to capture Joey's performance absolutely. I want to capture Zack's performance absolutely. I don't want a CG performance." Then he said, "Then we will do just that. We will capture them with the camera. We won't do the motion control. We won't have their performance drive some computer android."

The alternative they came up with let the voice actors be part of the performance process and gives the live action actors something to play off of.

For any scenes featuring these characters, Zach and Joey first perform the scene on camera with the live action characters to get a sense of the placement.

Zach and Joey then preform the voices live in a soundproof booth in a trailer off to the side of the sound stage. The footage they record in the booth will be used by the animators for reference. Zach Braff compares the booth to being in a cockpit, acting to no one.

On stage, a pole is held out where the characters eye-line should exist. At the end of the pole is a monitor showing Zach or Joey's performance from the booth, along with a camera which captures POV footage which allows Zach and Joey to react to the live action actors in real time.

They also have a marionette on stage for reference for China Girl. While the marionette puppet won't ever be seen in the final film, it will give the animators something to base China Girl's movements on, and provides the live action actors something, perspective wise, to play off of.

Phillip Huber is the puppeteer that operates the 18 inch tall China Girl marionette. He is a famous puppeteer in the stage world, but known in the film industry for his extensive work on Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich. Huber Builds all of his own marionettes, and built the China Girl puppet used in the produce based on the designs created by KNB.

The puppet has 21 strings, has full head movement and animated eyes. It takes on average 300 man hours to build a puppet. At 10 hours a day, working five days a week, that is almost two months to create a single marionette. He produced two China Girl puppets for the film. Huber wears a blue leotard while operating China Girl on set, and has an ear piece which a feed of Joey's performance and a direct line to Sam for direction.

The day I was on set, Zach Braff was called to come in on his day off because Sam wanted his computer animated character to be in one of the shots doing something in the background. And since Sam is so very collaborative, he asked Zach to come in to discuss where in the frame is character should be and what he would be doing.

"So what we did a was we filmed them and then we interpreted it through the heart of a great animator, our animation director," Raimi told me. "He would look at the takes that Bob Murawski, our editor, had selected of that performance and that animator would look at it and simply animate by hand these CGI characters really working from the heart, not being driven by a computer to capture the essence of what they were performing versus the letter of what they were performing."

Other times Raimi would have Braff (wearing a blue chroma key suit) perform next to a stand-in puppet version of Finley on set.

The CG of China Girl is some of the best I've seen in cinema. It really feels like a real china doll come to life, if that were actually possible. So real and yet full of life. And if you ask me, the reason it worked so well was because Raimi and team gave the visual effects artists so many practical references to work off of and match against (video of the actress' performance, a look at what a real china girl would look like on set...etc).

Photo Credits: Some of the photos in this post come from Disney's The Art of Oz The Great and Powerful book, available now on Amazon for only $15.02 (62% off the $40 cover price). Its a fantastic behind the scenes book, you should check it out.