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The Real Wizard Behind the New Oz — Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Stokdyk


James Franco stars in Oz The Great and The Powerful
James Franco stars in Oz The Great and The Powerful
By any account, the making of Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great and Powerful was a staggering endeavor. The new Disney film serves as a prequel to the beloved 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz and delves into the origins of Oz author L. Frank Baum’s wizard character. James Franco plays circus magician Oscar Diggs, a low-level hustler of sorts who is lifted in a familiar tornado from Kansas to the Land of Oz where he has a chance at redemption. Diggs encounters numerous fantasy lands and characters, including witches Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams), plus a host of Munchkins and Winkies and his eventual companions, a porcelain doll and a winged monkey.

Overseeing Raimi’s effects operations, as he had on the director’s three Spider-Man films was Scott Stokdyk, visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks. Nine months before pre-production began, Stokdyk was already onboard, meeting with Raimi, then discussing the script with Raimi and production designer Robert Stromberg in the summer of 2010. “We talked about what we wanted out of the movie and the feel of the movie,” Stokdyk said. “In the fall of 2010, we did budget estimations with the visual effects producer, and got The Third Floor involved in previz. In 2011, we started to get into casting, locking down what sets would be built and visual effects. There was a lot of shoot prep in spring to summer of 2011.”

LR-2-OZ-Poster-TeaserGoing through the entire script prior to pre-production, Stokdyk, Raimi and Stromberg envisioned which of their respective departments would cover each aspect of each scene. “A typical conversation is Sam saying what his rough blocking would be – deciding how he was going to shoot the movie,” Stokdyk revealed. “Early in the process, it’s about composition. Robert wanted to make sure we had the depth of the scene. We wanted to fully contain the shots and commit to cover an angle that is visual effects. In non-visual effects, we were sacrificing 3D depth – we would have 20 to 50 feet. For shots with bluescreen and open areas, we wanted to see all the way through the Land of Oz. Every one of those decisions was about locking in VFX. We were constantly re-blocking and sacrificing.”

Of course, there were always budgetary limitations given Disney’s allowances and taking into consideration that the film was shot in native stereo. “With a 3D movie, you’re going to have longer shots,” Stokdyk explained, as those are more pleasant to the eye. “You leverage a single set-up. A seven-second shot to a four-second shot isn’t a big deal for a VFX company. But you have 1,500 shots instead of 700 shots. We are negotiating with Sam. Can you tell the story in this scene with fewer shots? Do you believe that edit can work? It definitely helps us keep the process inside the financial box.”

LR-3-oz_the_great_and_powerful_11In going through the initial development of the film, regularly considering the film’s immutable budget, Stokdyk noted that Raimi was inventive in maneuvering the visual effects elements with his shooting schedule. “He was constantly re-inventing,” noted Stokdyk. “He was continually trying to adjust and make the movie better. What are more expensive or less expensive decisions? Can we take a piece out of another area?”

Principal photography on the film began in July of 2011 on stages at a 675,000-square-foot facility outside of Detroit and wrapped Dec. 23, 2011. During this period, Stokdyk was constantly on set, working with director of photography Peter Deming, primarily to discuss bluescreen issues. “Out of 1,800 shots, 1,500 are visual effects shots,” said Stokdyk. “Even if it was one of the 300 non-visual effects shots, I was there to make sure it didn’t become a visual effects shot. All it takes is the camera to tilt five degrees up, and you see that the ceiling isn’t there.”

Much has been made about the choice on behalf of the filmmakers to shoot Oz against a bluescreen instead of a greenscreen. “There were 10 technical reasons we shot bluescreen instead of greenscreen,” Stokdyk explained. “There was green grass, green costumes and green sets. Just based on the content of the imagery, that was the number one factor. We had 100+-day shoot. Our eyes are more sensitive to green than blue. That does have a psychological effect – to be on a bluescreen set.”

Mila Kunis in Oz The Great and Powerful.
Mila Kunis in Oz The Great and Powerful.
Simultaneously to principal photography, Imageworks began work on preparing over 1,100 effects shots which appear in the final film, including computer-generated characters and environments. “While I was in Detroit, there was a team at SPI [in Culver City, Calif.] developing CG characters,” Stokdyk stated. After principal photography was complete, a production office was also established in Santa Monica where Raimi and editor Bob Murawski assembled the film. “I was going back and forth between these two worlds,” Stokdyk said. “You get into a pattern. I spent the morning at Imageworks and spent the afternoon at production, meeting with editorial and Sam. I had a workstation set up at the production office with a direct line into Imageworks. I was also supervising the work of other visual effects vendors.”

As Oz began to take shape, Stokdyk’s tasks evolved. “Sam does a rough cut and hands over work to the post-viz team,” he said of his pipeline. “They started dropping in backgrounds and doing rough effects. Robert Stromberg was taking single frames and doing paint-overs. We shrunk down the plate and Robert extended the set and gave that to Imageworks to design backgrounds. Robert did about 50 of them. These were backgrounds before we start building the CG worlds – it’s a blueprint.”

Even though many sets were extended with CGI, which are invisible to even the most trained of eye – witness The Treasure Room where only five percent of that set was physically built on stage – Stokdyk noted that the key filmmaking team really pushed to build as many sets as they could though there were finite limitations. “There are cost issues and scale issues,” he related. “We were shooting on stages in Pontiac, but they are limited in size. You run out of stage room. It’s typically harder to build an elaborate set.”

LR-5ChinaGirlSurely, Oz was the most technically challenging production that SPI has undertaken, demanding tens of thousands of render cores, multiple petabytes of data and thousands of unique assets created by SPI’s technicians and craftspeople to establish their world of Oz. Stokdyk’s job, as such, was to bring together all of the work into one full film. “We wanted a consistency to this world,” he detailed. “Even though we were working with multiple vendors, Imageworks handled most of the environments and all of the character work. The tornado sequence was a standalone sequence.”

Surely, this Oz is distinct from the 1939 film though there is obvious homage throughout the new film. “If I was working on a design, I would look at the original Wizard of Oz and submit things to lawyers,” Stokdyk said. “What I think we really did well was make it feel that it lived in the early 20th century.”

In one visual effects touch, the filmmakers made the decision to box in the opening black-and-white sequence to the 1:33 aspect ratio, but expanded the frame in a long dissolve to 2:35:1, at Stokdyk said, “the right time to do it — to introduce Oz.”

One of Stokdyk’s triumphs in the film is the China Girl character, the porcelain doll who is as much alive as any character in the film. Stokdyk explained that her realization was a successful cross between art and technology. “In modern visual effects, you can do anything,” he said. “The temptation when you have a fully animated character – is to make it as expressive and active and possible. China Girl, because she’s made of porcelain, had to be more subtle and not have movement in the face.”

To execute the character and her animation, Raimi brought Phillip Huber, a marionette artist, to perform the character on set with a marionette of a small girl. “Sam really loved that performance,” Stokdyk said. “It was amazing the expression [Huber] could get out of body poses and eye blink. We were inspired, and we always referenced that as we were making animation choices. We had him on set in Detroit for the seven months. He would be there with the first camera pass with the marionette. At one point, we considered using the marionette in the movie, but doing it in CG gave us the flexibility. It was a nice luxury.”

With 30 months of work on Oz now complete, Stokdyk is proud of the accomplishments on the film in both design and technical achievement arenas. “I feel like it was really amazing to be part of that process,” he commented. “I got a lot of personal growth out of the design process and being involved with the designs. This movie wasn’t about breaking the most technical ground; it was about making interesting and artistic design choices. I felt privileged to be part of two-and-a-half years of that. That’s pretty rare in visual effects.”

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