‘Oz the Great and Powerful': Scott Stokdyk on visual splendor, monkeys

March 12, 2013 | 10:50 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)

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

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

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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)

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

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

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

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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)

Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” might have earned some mixed reviews from critics, but there’s no question that there’s magnificent spectacle on display in the $200-million movie. Scott Stokdyk served as the film’s visual effects supervisor — he worked with Raimi on the director’s three “Spider-Man” films — and played a key role in conjuring the otherworldly imagery that fascinated moviegoers.

Hero Complex caught up with him briefly to talk about the project’s Technicolor aesthetic and the design of Finley, the sweetly comic flying monkey voiced by Zach Braff.

HC: Often production designers will talk about how they approach creating a film’s design, but I’m guessing very similar conversations must take place about a movie’s visual effects — determining what role they will play in helping to craft the overall look?

SS: I worked on the project for almost two-and-a-half years. I was brought in very early when we had an early version of the script and [production designer] Robert Stromberg was having conversations with Sam about the look. I certainly had to weigh in with my thoughts and desires and ideas as well. The early design decisions ripple throughout the entire process. At the early part of the process, I’m getting in tune with what choices Robert Stromberg and Sam Raimi are making and in the second part of the process when [cinematographer] Peter Deming is lighting things on stage, I have to get my head into that mind-set. At the end of the project when we’re set dressing CG flowers around trees and putting in skies that it’s part of the same vision. I have to at the very start be conscious of what’s going on and give my input. Knowing that two-and-a-half years later it will be influencing the virtual landscaping that we’re doing, I have to be a part of that.

HC: Robert Stromberg mentioned that he tried to design the sets in such a way that it would help the visual effects team fully realize Oz in post-production.

SS: I love that concept, and I kind of feel like nowadays, since everybody knows you can create this virtual world and just shoot people on blue screen, there’s a trend toward doing that. I hope that we are able to work with real sets and real background actors for as long as we can and hang on to that feel. I do think when you actually build something on set, not only does it help the actors but also all the talented people who are dressing the set are making dozens and dozens of decisions. Those decisions are made real time working with the production designer and the director of photography and director on set so there’s a kind of synergy to that action. When you go into the virtual realm six months after that process, it’s a much different and slower process. It’s harder to get every creative person involved hands on in that process. That’s where I really appreciate the on set work that allows me insight into what we need to do in post and to be able to carry on what the set designers and the director of photography and Sam Raimi liked when they were on set.

HC: Could you describe the way the character of Finley was brought to life?

SS: Early in the first meetings with Sam after reading the script, I realized that the character needed to be extremely expressive. I was drawn to some photography by an artist named Jill Greenberg who was photographing these monkeys that had extremely expressive, almost human-like feeling to the photography. There was one in particular that was a Capuchin monkey and it had actually wrinkles above its brow when it was making this expression that was very human-like. I thought that should be a major part of our design, to be able to see wrinkles in the forehead to help instantly read that expression. Some primates or monkeys have heavy fur on their forehead and it masks that expression.

HC: What about on the set during the production? Did that character require special handling?

SS: In particular on set, the thing that we did that I really think helped the performance quite a bit was that when we had James [Franco] talking to our Finley character — who was virtual — we made sure to have Zach Braff who did the voice on set whenever possible. There’s just something where actors respond to other actors in a very interactive and intimate way on sets, and typically what will happen for a CG character is that you’ll be acting to a tennis ball on a stick or an eyeline marker or a laser pointer. We tried very hard to get Zach Braff on set with his head in the position of where the monkey was, which has definitely been done before, but we thought it was critical that it took place during the whole shoot.

The other thing we did, even when he wasn’t able to be on set, we had him in a soundproof booth off to the side. James had an earwig in his ear, so James was able to talk real time with Zach Braff and still have that interaction. In some cases we actually even put a video monitor on a stick and that allowed the next best thing to having Zach really on set. They were able to do a virtual video conference between the two of them. James was able to look at the monitor and see Zach Braff who was off set in a booth and Zach was able on a video feed in the booth to see James and they were able to talk to each other. I just feel that elevates the on set performance of James, but it also elevates the offset performance recording of Zach Braff’s voice and it allows a great feel.

– Gina McIntyre

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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