Coming to the screen this Friday from director Sam Raimi comes an iconic story from an original tale we all love to OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL.
This film tells the story of Oz played by James Franco, a carnival magician who seems to have a problem with people, mainly women! Thinking only of himself he ends up in a situation where he must get away fast. In a balloon during a tornado, Oz is carried away to a land he has never seen before.
In Oz, he meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), her sister Evanora (Rachel Weitz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams) in the middle of a family disagreement of sorts. The problem is, the people of the Emerald City are the ones paying the price. Thinking Oz is the wizard foretold in their prophecy, he must decide whether being a good man is more important than being a rich one!
Making OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is a feat all in itself. The graphics and special effects bring this story to life with color and a childlike wonder that will bring families to the theatre.
One such wizard is Troy Saliba, Animation Director for the film. I recently had the opportunity to talk to him about OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, creating such beautiful characters and working with heavy hitting director Sam Raimi.
Yes, I’ve been the Sony animation supervisor since 1989.
Tell us how you took the idea of Sam Raimi’s OZ and made that happen visually?
It is a big movie but I think bigger than anyone anticipated going in. I dealt specifically with the characters and Scott, our Visual Effects Supervisor, and his team really did an amazing job of creating an entire world that the actors and our CG characters performed in. The set pieces while we were shooting were quite large but nothing in the scope of the world created digitally. There were tools on set to help the director, the director of photography and the actors to help them visualize on how things would look later. The thing that I dealt with the most going into this movie and Sam had done movies with CG effects with SPIDERMAN but he’d never done anything before where two of his main characters who act along side each other are CG. I think this made him a little nervous going into it and wanted every assurance going into it and at every turn to feel comfortable with the fact that later when it was all combined that it would be good. So there were conceptual concerns that Sam had. Then there was also the practical concerns. How do you shoot on the set when you have James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weitz and Michelle Williams when they are beside characters that don’t exist? One of them is actually a three-foot flying Monkey and there is an 18-inch doll made of China. How do you deal with that so the actors can perform and the practicalities of the camera man for him to point the camera and the staging? How do you light the scene for a character that isn’t standing there? This all had to be worked out while we shot and while we were shooting. We had to be very flexible. Sam would change the parameters on the slide as we were going so we had to be ready to adapt to new circumstances. I’m sure people have seen behind-the-scene video of people standing there with a blue stick and a tennis ball hanging at the end of it and that’s the eyeline for the actor. The actor then has to do his best to imagine the character there. We had some thing different on this movie. We did have those tools but especially for scenes when James is walking and talking with the Monkey. We had an interesting tool and Zach Braff who does the voice of Finley the Monkey, we had him on the set the whole time. That means he was there for rehearsals so he and James could block the scene together and wrap there heads around it as actors and it was great. But when it came time to shoot the actual shot, Zach would go into a sound booth we had just off stage. He would have a monitor showing what the camera on stage was showing but he also had a camera pointing at him. What we had on stage when Zach was in the booth was a puppeteer/cameraman who would be on stage dressed in blue from head to toe with an apparatus strapped to his chest, which was basically a boom. On the end of the stick was a small monitor and a small camera. The small monitor would project Zach live from the booth and the camera would show Zach what was on the set live. Then James would wear an earpiece so he could hear Zach live in the booth while seeing him on the monitor. So James is active live to Zach’s voice! What you get from the actor on stage is a more cohesive performance. Basically instead of him reacting to a stick – you’ve got him actually talking to Zach and seeing expression changes and reacting to it. It’s a solid performance and a good eye line performance that seems more realistic and that’s important, especially for us a year later when we are back animating the shot that helps us make it feel right. For me as an animator it was a powerful tool for me to have and I thought it was successful.
Did you find that you had to be extra creative in putting this together?
Yes, it’s a challenge when you have characters that don’t exist in a movie trying to get everyone to understand what the final product is going to be. The hardest part from an animators point of view is getting performances from the actors on stage that are going to be a good foundation for us to add our characters to later. That’s something else we had never had before, the China Doll. It was a little too small at 18 inches and the puppet cam couldn’t work. So we had a marionette artist named Phillip Hoover on set who had constructed an actual life size version of the doll. Originally it was planned that he would help interact with the actors and the cameraman but it was realized quickly that he was giving us much more than reference. He was helping us establish the body language of this little girl. I don’t think before that that Sam had thought her moving any differently. Once we saw the puppet move we realized there was this surreal and awkward elegance in the way the puppet moved that we wouldn’t have been able to do. There is a quirkiness and broken quality that while it was broken was very elegant and simple and really powerful. We also had video reference from Jodie King who was the voice of the China Doll. So we have all these references so when the animator got the shot not only did he have a very powerful performance from the actors on stage because they were performing opposite this thing that was a living creature on stage. We have a great performances being a great foundation for the animator to take the elements and go from there and bring their creativity to the plate bringing everything alive. It was a really great opportunity to work in that scenario and see how the actors respond. Sometimes the puppet doesn’t work either because of a scene of running etc., James Franco does a good job pantomiming and his body language changes handling an inanimate object, like the China Doll, and there is a difference. It draws so much out of the actors on stage with these techniques. I think this all made for a big difference.
When Sam Raimi comes to you and says ‘hey, I’m going to make OZ” and shares his ideas, what goes through your head?
Its interesting because a couple of months before we started shooting and one of the things he did previously was have rough models and animation. But not having our team and digital models, my main tool was drawing. I did allot of drawings for Sam. He would come up with these ideas and say ‘we are shooting this tomorrow’ and I’d run home and do drawings. At least I had something visual that I could talk to Peter Deming (the VP or BP?) about or Patrick the cameraman or show to James Franco. Who ever needed to know visually what we were trying to establish and then you have to analyze the practicality of what was going to be shot. Whether we needed to use a stick or laser pointer but it depends on the scenario. There are certain times when you need a moving eye line close to the camera so that James Franco’s eyes are looking at the right spot. With this movie being 3D we had two cameras on the set. If a persons convergence is off and to make it work you have these tools even if its a stick moving around climbing so that James Franco can see this in his eyeline. You’re also trying not to have the stick in camera or poke James Franco in the eye with it! You don’t want to be known as the guy who injured James Franco! It depends on the scene.
I’m thinking there has to be a close bond between you and the actors. With the visual differences how close did you to get them to know THIS is what it will look like in the end?
The interaction gets very complicated and you have to work very close with the actors and in the moment your doing it. You have to be respectful of the actor and their space and process in what they have to do. You have to be as accommodating as you can to make it as easy as possible for them to deal with the scenario. Thankfully James has done these types of special effects movies before and he understood that sometimes we had to poke him with sticks and come up with awkward solutions to get interactions we needed later. He was always pretty good about it. The shooting process took five months, which gives us time to build trust. You kind of have to look at it from the actor’s point of view, there looking at it as their career. They are standing there talking to a stick and know later it will make sense so they don’t look silly.
Did you get the same kind of intensity from the women of the film as well?
We worked with them a bit. There wasn’t as much interaction for them with the characters. So it was minimal. Michelle Williams interacts with the China Doll a bit and she was very conscience of what was going on and understanding why her hand needed to be a certain way for the scene to work later. She was good about doing another take if we needed to so a hand position was correct. The way the movie is now Mila doesn’t interact with Finley the monkey but initially she had a moment with Finley. She was a great sport about allot of it. All the performers were good sports about it. They learned to visualize where things would be. Sometimes it wasn’t just one or two extras on the set. Sometimes it could be two hundred and fifty extras on the set and get them to understand where the Wicked Witch would be flying in on her broom! Again, are you going to use giant sticks or laser pointers to get that eyeline for the crowd. It does depend on the camera set up too. Your best friend in doing that is the director on set since the director runs the circus on set coordinating all that!
Did you feel any pressure about taking a beloved story and giving it a twist?
There’s allot of pressure but pressure in delivering the characters that can emote what the director is wanting. There are scenes that are very complex and the set up or dialogue and it’s done by take ten until you realize that a hand isn’t in the right position! There is pressure before and after shooting to show the director that these characters work in the film to carry the story along. That’s the kind of challenge that makes it fun. I like the whole process. I wasn’t sure I was going to like live action when I started but I immediately started to love it. The first time I was on the set seeing how the director and actors work and watching the whole things evolve by putting the pieces together even with the twists and turns and stress is very gratifying.
Did you learn something new or create something new with technology in the animation of the film?
I don’t know that technology wise there was anything new except for the camera I already mentioned. That’s one thing I noticed going from traditional animation to CG animation, every project people want to talk about the technology. Our tools constantly evolve and get better and faster so we can do more things but the biggest advancement and challenge is the creative challenge that you face. It’s rare that there’s a piece of technology that’s going to solve a problem. Technology is impressive and certainly has its advantages. I don’t want to discount what the technology brings to the table but in this case it was more understanding the world that Sam wanted to create and the characters he wanted to inhabit it and the best way to make everyone else understand what its going to be and deliver all the pieces.
I agree with you that sometimes people get so lost in the newest gadget that the newest gadget is the human brain?
Yes, I know it’s very sexy to talk about the actors and the technology that creates new worlds for them to inhabit or find new ways for their performances to come through with digital characters. I understand that seems much sexier than thinking about a bunch of artists and nerds slaving away in darks rooms in front of computers for a year. That’s ultimately what it is, people bringing their artistry and technical knowledge into play for a very long period of time. Its funny, when we did reshoots, it had been almost a year since we had wrapped principle photography and the crew came back for reshoots saying ‘hey, what have you been doing?’ and my reply is ‘the same thing I was doing before!’ These people bring allot of knowledge and creativity to the plate and everyone has the same goal of bringing Sam’s vision to the screen. You get the feeling that people imagine things are much more automated than they are, that people just type things in a computer and hit enter and it all appears. Its allot of people working allot of hours.
I really enjoy the fact that you can give someone like yourself and idea and you help bring their vision to the screen, like OZ. That in itself is amazing.
I come from the traditional part of hand animation and I like to communicate with people through that type of language.
You are obviously doing something right to have Sam Raimi come knocking on your door?
Working with people like Sam and others on the team, and one of the things I like working on the set is seeing how things are built and made and created. To me I find it incredible to be exposed to all of this in one spot and in a lifetime I wouldn’t normally get to see this. That’s what I like about this job; it makes me want to get out of bed in the morning because I know I’m going to experience these things. You may work 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week but it’s all worth it. Working with these amazing artists on a daily basis is amazing and what they bring to the table constantly surprises you with their dedication and creativity. These characters you see on the scene, there is no one person doing it, it’s a bunch of people coming together to create it. To me it’s an exciting thing.
I thank you for your time Troy, and for your creativity.
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