‘Oz: The Great and Powerful': Robert Stromberg on Raimi, Burton, Baum

March 01, 2013 | 9:00 a.m.
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A scene from "Oz the Great and Powerful." The film follows a magician who accidentally lands in Oz and encounters all manner of creatures. (Disney Enterprises)

img la ca 0102 oz the gr 2 1 hf518tv1 Oz: The Great and Powerful: Robert Stromberg on Raimi, Burton, Baum

China Girl, voiced by Joey King, and James Franco in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Disney Enterprises)

la ca 0104 oz 148 Oz: The Great and Powerful: Robert Stromberg on Raimi, Burton, Baum

Mila Kunis, left, and James Franco in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Disney Enterprises)

la ca 0104 oz 147 Oz: The Great and Powerful: Robert Stromberg on Raimi, Burton, Baum

Michelle Williams, center, in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Disney Enterprises)

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Finley, voiced by Zach Braff, in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Disney Enterprises)

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Michelle Williams plays Glinda in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Disney Enterprises)

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Mila Kunis, left, and James Franco in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Merie Weismiller Wallace / Disney Enterprises)

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Finley, voiced by Zach Braff, and James Franco in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Disney Enterprises)

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Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), left, China Girl (voiced by Joey King) and James Franco in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Disney Enterprises)

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Rachel Weisz, left, and Mila Kunis in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Disney Enterprises)

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Rachel Weisz and James Franco in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Disney Enterprises)

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Michelle Williams in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Merie Weismiller Wallace / Disney Enterprises)

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James Franco and Rachel Weisz in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Disney Enterprises)

la ca 0104 oz 144 Oz: The Great and Powerful: Robert Stromberg on Raimi, Burton, Baum

Finley, voiced by Zach Braff, and James Franco in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Disney Enterprises)

la ca 0104 oz 145 Oz: The Great and Powerful: Robert Stromberg on Raimi, Burton, Baum

China Girl (voiced by Joey King), left, and Finley (voiced by Zach Braff) in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Disney Enterprises)

la ca 0104 oz 146 Oz: The Great and Powerful: Robert Stromberg on Raimi, Burton, Baum

Quadlings and Munchkins in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Disney Enterprises)

la ca 0104 oz 150 Oz: The Great and Powerful: Robert Stromberg on Raimi, Burton, Baum

James Franco, left, and Mila Kunis in "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Merie Weismiller Wallace / Disney Enterprises)

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James Franco, left, and Mila Kunis on the set of "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Merie Weismiller Wallace / Disney Enterprises)

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James Franco, left, and director Sam Raimi on the set of "Oz the Great and Powerful." (Merie Weismiller Wallace / Disney Enterprises)

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Composer Danny Elfman says the score for "Oz" came upon him "lightning fast." (Patrick Wymore / Disney Enterprises)

Veteran visual effects professional and production designer Robert Stromberg has made a career out of conjuring new worlds for filmmakers including James Cameron, Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro — it’s a skill that has landed him a turn of his own in the director’s chair in the upcoming “Maleficent,” starring Angelina Jolie as the sorceress.

For “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” starring James Franco as a magician con man who finds himself accidentally whisked away to the magical land that exists beyond the rainbow, Stromberg collaborated with director Sam Raimi to craft a “dreamlike place that no one had seen before.” That entailed constructing around 30 sets on eight soundstages in Raimi’s home state of Michigan, where the film, set to open March 8, was shot.

Hero Complex recently spoke with Stromberg about his approach to rendering the world of L. Frank Baum in both black-and-white and glorious bursts of Technicolor, how he drew on his visual effects background for the project and what he’s learned from master filmmakers such as Burton and Raimi.

HC: How did you approach this new imagining of the world of Oz?

RS: I felt that it wanted to be something that was in between real and surreal. Talking with Sam, taking the ideas that we collected from the books and injecting some new thoughts and some new ideas, pushing the envelope visually, together I think the total of what we came up with, we hope, was something original.

HC: Did you return to Baum’s books at all or really simply focus in on the screenplay?

RS: You have to take what’s applicable to the script. We only have a certain amount of time in films to show these places. Each shot is enormously expensive, we have to tell a visual story very quickly. I never wanted to be pedestrian with it and neither did Sam. It just wouldn’t be the same type of visual experience if you, for instance, built a yellow brick road on a hillside in Ireland. There’s something too real about that. When you’re able to completely control the environment you can at least make an attempt to do something that feels original or feels more dreamlike or visually satisfies the audience.

HC: You mention you had some new thoughts and new ideas about the landscape. Could you elaborate on that?

RS: I was goofing around one day with images of animals, and I thought, wouldn’t be great to do this entire landscape that was these huge mountains made to look like animals and elephants? We played around with that and that actually ended up in the film. It wasn’t in the books, it was just an example of again trying to search for something that had never been done before.

HC: Previously, you were the production designer on Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Oz does seem to have some things in common with Wonderland – how did you ensure you were doing something wholly unique with this project? Were you conscious of actively differentiating between the two films?

RS: I can see that people directly compare the two. If you really broke it down, they’re completely different. The elements in those two movies are completely different. Once you do a surreal landscape, it’s very hard to make another surreal landscape that looks any different to the normal eye. I have read those comparisons, but the intention was to steer away from that, I suppose at the end of the day you’re going to two made-up worlds, two surreal dreamlike worlds, so there’s inevitably going to be a comparison.

"Alice in Wonderland" (Disney)

Robert Stromberg was the production designer on Tim Burton’s fairy tale film “Alice in Wonderland,” which starred Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. (Disney)

HC: For you, what’s the key difference?

RS: I think Tim was going for a darker film, and Sam was going for a brighter film. That’s the biggest difference, Sam really pushed the color and saturation whereas “Alice” was more muted and toned down.

HC: Are there specific color schemes or designs that you need to employ to assist the visual effects team with what they need to do in post-production? Did you deal with those kinds of creative limitations?

RS: Luckily I think it helps that I have a visual effects background. What I learned on “Alice,” which was very minimal in set build, was that it was probably too minimal. We were able to shoot much faster but it put a lot of burden on the visual effects team later. What I learned was to percentage-wise split up the physical versus digital sets in a more manageable way. If you have even a partial set it gives the visual effects guys a starting point, where if you’re just completely blue screen or green screen they’re making it up from zero. There’s nothing to start with. When the visual effects artists can see something physical that’s lit by real light they know the proper way that the rest of the scene should feel, just based on the physical part of it. That helped tremendously. I think on “Oz” it was somewhere split down the middle, physical versus digital sets.

HC: How did you develop the visual aesthetic for Emerald City?

RS: I started to look at older architects, Hugh Ferriss and some others from the’20s, ’30s. Without taking the architecture, I just liked the idea of the way he used dark shapes and light shapes against each other and profiles. It was a starting point. Obviously we went Art Deco with the entire nature of the city. Of course it was the Emerald City so we were dealing with green and I added the gold because it’s such a nice complement. [It was] definitely Art Déco and very masculine in contrast to Glinda’s [the witch played by Michelle Williams] world, which was lots of gentle curves and softness and Art Nouveau and very feminine. It was nice to play those two against each other.

HC: Did the film’s opening sequence, which is shot in black and white, present any unusual challenges?

RS: I studied films from the ’30s and the ’40s and got to be very familiar with films that were shot by directors of photography who shot in black and white like James Wong Howe and some other guys, classic Frank Capra films and things like that. I just started looking at what made those kind of cool, when you didn’t have color what did you use? You used light and shadow. I started there and started talking to Sam and [cinematographer] Peter Deming about how it should be laid out. The very first thing we shot on was the interior of Oz’s circus cart. I drew inspiration, thoughts of how to light those things, what would be cool, from classic Frank Capra movies.

HC: Now that you’ve transitioned to directing, what have you learned from working so closely with such visionary filmmakers?

RS: You look at all these directors and what’s really interesting to me is they all do the same job but everybody is a different personality. I learned a tremendous amount from someone like James Cameron, I learned a tremendous amount from Tim Burton and the list goes on and on, Sam. It set a course for my own career in directing, just in being able to watch these great filmmakers in action and see how they approached situations, problems, how to deal with people, how to get things done — not just the technical part of it but how they deal with actors emotionally. I think if you add up all that time I’ve been able to spend with these great directors, I really feel that it’s made me not only grow emotionally but [also in] understanding how to captain the ship. It’s been invaluable.

– Gina McIntyre

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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