VFX Supervisor Scott Stokdyk Reveals the Secrets of 'Oz the Great and Powerful'

Much of the film was shot on sets against a blue screen, and completed with visual effects.

The Oscar winner discusses the China Girl, the flying monkey Finley, 3D environments -- and the VFX business' troubled model.

It’s nearly impossible not to compare Oz the Great and Powerful with the iconic original film. But for this prequel based on L. Frank Baum’s books, director Sam Raimi and the filmmaking team created some new characters and lush environments for the world set over the rainbow.

Oscar winning VFX supervisor Scott Stokdyk of Sony Pictures Imageworks -- who worked on the first three Spider-Man movies with Raimi -- explains that Disney doesn't own the rights to the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz. “Anything unique to that movie and not based in the books, we could not come near,” he says, citing the Ruby slippers as an example.

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But that still left plenty of room to get creative. Of the film’s 1,800 shots, 1,500 contained visual effects. Imageworks was the lead VFX house, touching roughly 1,100 shots at its locations in Culver City, Calif., Chennai, India and Vancouver. Additional VFX houses that worked on the project included Digiscope, Luma Pictures, Method, Evil Eye Pictures and Reliance MediaWorks. Some shots were shared by multiple companies.

Creating the Environments

Stokdyk says that since so much of the film contained visual effects, the team had to be “keenly aware of how the shots merged together. Just getting a cohesive design for the movie was probably the biggest challenge.”

Planning started 2-1/2 years ago, with Raimi and production designer Robert Stromberg, who won art direction Oscars for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland and is directing Disney’s upcoming Maleficent. “The stories came from Baum’s books, and that world was created in the early 1900s,” Stokdyk says. “Oz and Kansas were turn-of-the-century, too, so we felt like we needed to respect less of a modern look and more of a classic Hollywood look."

That design decision led the team to shoot on soundstages (in Michigan) with practical sets against a bluescreen. “We wanted to mimic what might have been done in classic Hollywood,” the VFX supervisor says, noting that the multiple-department effort resulted in “elaborate sets filled with as many people as they could [all in costumer and makeup].

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“The way the set was lit by [cinematographer] Peter Deming and the way it was dressed … provided a base and blueprint for all of the VFX,” he adds. “We wanted to have a fantastic new, unique landscape. It had to be colorful and vibrant. And we needed a lot of depth for the 3D.”

Bringing the China Girl and Finley to Life

For Stokdyk, bringing a character made from a hard surface to life was a “great animation challenge in terms of what you can do when you put restrictions on yourself.” Most of the China Girl's performance was created by positioning the head and creating very subtle facial expressions. “If you could see a lot of movement in the face, then it had to be toned down,” he says.

On set, the China Girl was portrayed by a marionette brought to life by puppeteer Phillip HuberJoey King also provided the voice on set. “Even thought it could only move its head and open and close it eyes, he was able to give it a very emotional performance,” Stokdyk says Huber’s work.

“From a visual effects standpoint, it brought better physical interaction cues and lighting reference,” he says of the use of the marionette. “From a performance standpoint, it gives the actors something more interesting to work with, other than the classic tennis ball on a stick to get the eyeline right.”

The visual effects artists gave the China Girl a dress that “softens her visually and gives an interesting contrast to the hard surface and makes her sweeter.”

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In contrast, the team made Finley, the flying monkey voiced by Zach Braff, more expressive.

A key reference was a Capuchin monkey. “It had really vivid wrinkles in the forehead; that helped the expressions,” Stokdyk says. “He had to be comedic but also carry a lot of emotional weight. We designed the skin so that it would wrinkle and fur so that would move with the expressions."

But since Finley also had wings, in the end the character was a “hybrid” inspired by Capuchin monkeys, different types of birds and, of course, actor Braff’s performance.”

Shot in 3D

Oz was shot in 3D with Red Epic cameras on 3Ality Technica 3D rigs.

The black-and-white opening sequence also uses a different aspect ratio, and Stokdyk admitted that the original plan was to shoot the Kansas-set opening in 2D, and then add depth with 3D when James Franco's title character arrives in Oz.

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“But we fell in love with the look of black and white 3D,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot of that look out there. There was something unique. We felt 3D in black-and-white enhanced the movie experience. [It was] decided to shoot in 3D and just embrace that.”

Atmospheric effects were added to enhance the 3D design.

On the troubled VFX business

“There’s so much pressure to get budgets down,” Stokdyk admits of the current VFX business climate. “Not a day goes by that I don’t have conversations with people [about the business]. We struggle to look for solutions. It's a complicated series of problems.”

Stokdyk declines to discuss the particulars of Oz's VFX budget but says it didn't lose money, giving particular credit to Raimi and Tamara Kent, VFX producer on the production. “Sam’s a producer as well as a director; he understands budgets and schedules and works with us … It’s got to be a collaborative process. Otherwise nobody succeeds.”

He says of Kent's "tricky" job: “You hear stories about producers who are hard to work with and unfair with budgets, but she was so great and respectful to the companies. ... If there were more VFX producers like Tamara, the industry would be in better shape.”

Oz’s total production budget was $215 million.