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Immersed in Movies: Puppet Cams, China Girl and VFX Wizardry in 'Oz the Great and Powerful'

Thompson on Hollywood By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood March 8, 2013 at 2:23PM

Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi both embraced lighter, kid-friendlier fables with "Jack the Giant Slayer" and "Oz the Great and Powerful," tapping into their inner child while pushing virtual production and 3-D with theatrical flair. While the results have been mixed (it's hard to pull off innocence after the post-modern "Shreking" of our culture), Disney placed serious pressure on Raimi, whose return to "Oz" was a bumpy ride.
"Oz the Great and Powerful"
"Oz the Great and Powerful"

But there's no denying Sony's wizardry in animating the two central CG characters, Finley, the cute flying monkey with a bellhop suit (voiced by Zach Braff) and China Girl (voiced by Joey King), the manipulative porcelain doll, who aid Oz in his quest for greatness. Yet Raimi insisted on capturing Braff's and King's performances onset with Franco without having to rely on performance-capture animation. So they utilized a workable Finley puppet (courtesy of special effects makeup artist Howard Berger of "Hitchcock") and an elaborate China Girl marionette (courtesy of puppet master Phillip Huber) as stand-ins, placing Braff and King in soundproof booths off set using a video link they called "Puppet Cam." This way, they could remotely interact with one another whenever they couldn't be together on set.

In other words, it was similar to what they devised on "Les Mis" for the live recording of the actors singing on set while listening to a pianist perform the music in a nearby booth.

"The theme of visual effects in the movie was tied to the art direction," suggests Sony's VFX supervisor Scott Stokdyk (who worked on Raimi's "Spider-Man" trilogy). "We decided to shoot on set and get in camera art directed pieces of photography. That rippled through production and post, so as animators [under the supervision of Troy Saliba] worked on China Girl, they looked at the marionette performance on set along with the video reference of Joey King's face. Then they looked at what Oz was doing. It was all performance-based reference. For Finley, it was Braff's facial performance and real reference of a capuchin monkey and video reference of real birds since he's a [cross between a monkey and a bird]."

The capuchin monkey proved inspirational. Early on Stokdyk looked at expressive photographs of capuchins with tight wrinkling above the brow that looked almost human. It provided an instant read of his expressions.

The 18-inch China Girl was designed by Michael Kutsche ("Alice in Wonderland") but proved an animation challenge in making the porcelain surface convincing. They wanted to take advantage of the fault lines in ceramics called crazing."We dialed that in on different levels of the face and the body to give it complexity," Stokdyk continues. "Then we had a debate about the clothing. First we talked about a hard surface like overturned saucers that would bounce around and give a simpler movement but that proved too restrictive. Instead, we decided on soft-like doll clothing that allowed her to move more freely while lending more empathy to her. Then we had to be careful that the surface didn't appear too rubbery. The trick was to hide the movements in the face on a cut or a head turn. But the goal was to read the expressiveness through face shapes. It gave us a nice design restriction that we imposed on ourselves to elevate the character into something a lot more interesting."

Indeed, Finley and China Girl recall the Scarecrow and Tin Man, but the difference here is that they actually steal the movie from the wizard and witches because of the strength of their performances. There's no predicting what'll happen when you return to Oz.

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Sam Raimi, Oz The Great And Powerful, Features, VFX, Disney

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.