When Bleeding Cool Met Sam Raimi For A Masterclass In Making Oz The Great And Powerful

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I sat down with Sam Raimi last weekend to talk about Oz The Great and Powerful. For much of the chat we focused on everything that this seasoned and very resourceful filmmaker learned while putting together this, the biggest and most sophisticated of all of his films.

So here’s some of what Raimi told me – and just in case you need a couple of the terms defined, I’ve put a glossary about the bottom of the story.

I knew that I wanted to bring L. Frank Baum’s beautiful descriptions of the lands of Oz with all of their fantastical creatures, impassible deserts, outrageous mountainscapes and tumbling waterfalls to life like never before. When I heard that Disney was interested in 3D I decided it would be a very good idea, a very good tool to help me describe this landscape in a unique way and to invite the audience in, to really experience visiting this magical land.

But I knew nothing about 3D. Nothing… though I was aware that when used improperly it caused me eyestrain and headaches. But I knew nothing else so I had to start from scratch. I started to go to school, basically.

I talked to different technicians, different cinematographers that had used 3D, I visited the set of one of the Pirates movies to see them shoot in 3D. And then I started to meet with equipment makers and see the different types of equipment that were available, both the cameras and the support equipment, and then I began to speak with visual effects houses, like Sony Pictures Imageworks for instance, to learn how 3D is put together, how 3D works, what good 3D is and how it goes wrong, or what kind of effects work best in 3D. Then I began to speak to stereographers about how they do their job and how 3D really works from the ground up.

And then I began to shoot tests using different 3D camera systems and experiment with lighting and see the effects of different lenses. And then I began to explore the effects of cutting and how that affected me and the audience. Basically, I had to learn 3D  from the ground up, with great help from talented technicians and artists.

I learned what people had done wrong and I decided how I wanted to approach it. There wasn’t any new technology here, it was all about the application of existing technology, but we promised ourselves that we would do it the right way.

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One of the things I wanted for some scenes in Oz was a sense of crystal clear air, that you can see forever with no smoke or smog. I spoke to CG artists who told me “If your focus falls off on set you can’t do that. You can’t have focus fall off after fifteen feet then pick it up in the CG in focus.” But keeping deep focus on set wasn’t going to be easy because the cameras I wanted to use, the Red cameras, needed a lot of light and that was exacerbated by the use of the half silvered mirror in splitting the light for 3D.

We were losing half of the light on each lens, which was going to make it very hard for me to get the look that I wanted. So for the amount of lighting we needed we had to bring in tremendous amounts of electricity that the studio wasn’t even rigged for. We had to get a waiver from the state of Michigan to bypass a factory and they had to put a power pole and even had to build special lights, all to get me the f stop I needed to create this never-ending focus feel. It was very uncomfortable and hot working on the set this way.

I vowed to myself that I would construct 3D frames with an immediate foreground, midground, midbackground, background and deep background, and really define the depth of this place with atmospherics be it fog, motes of dust or falling leaves; anything to give the audience depth cues in the frame so they could really sense that their view was stretching forever.

I learned a lot about 3D but still so little. As this process comes to a close I begin to realise more about the effects of cutting. At first I was thinking that, for my taste it’s better to have longer takes that invite you into the frame, into the three dimensional world, versus constantly changing convergence on shot after shot after shot. That can cause eye strain so I changed my pace for this picture and planned it to be a little more leisurely and old fashioned, all so the audience didn’t have to suffer from inappropriate convergence changes.

When we did make convergence changes between shots, we tried to plan them like a piece of music, moving along a scale, so that one convergence wouldn’t jump to an extremely different convergence, we used gradual changes wherever possible.

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But I eventually realised that I could use sudden changes in convergence for a shock effect. When the monsters pop out, those winged beasts, I will suddenly change the convergence dramatically. I thought “I’ll get inside the audience’s head and twist it up on them a little.” It’s working the audience in a different way to a different scare.

I realised that other effects were possible f I changed convergence at other times. For example when this actress is growing angry, I can change the convergence in such a way that it will convey the sense of her getting more aggressive, and she’ll be invading the audience’s space more and more without actually moving in the frame.

This particular manipulation of the reception of depth dimensionality is comparable to the old idea that I can make a character seem more aggressive by using a wide angle lens or a low angle, with them looming over the audience in some sense. There’s a whole language of dimensionality and its effect on the audience that I’m just scratching the surface of, a whole vocabulary to be learned there.

A lot of people ask if you’ll have a reserved approach to 3D or an aggressive approach. To me, it’s absolutely both. It’s using the tool that should be used. Think about it like a zoom lens. We use a zoom lens as a tool that complements all of our other tools. We can choose a wide angle shot or a telephoto shot, we can do a slow zoom in to make an audience feel that “leaning forward” feeling. It’s so similar with dimensionality.

When there’s a dialogue scene and you want to draw the audience into looking at the actors, it’s great to put them at the film plane. I have no problem with the audience seeing the depth and beauty behind them.

At the same time, there’s no problem that if the story beat is “a lion jumps out of the woods” to have it jump at the audience. That moment is a frightening moment so let’s have the audience feel what The Wizard is feeling, that the lion is coming at him. That shouldn’t be us standing back and looking into the depth to see a lion jumping out of the woods. In that moment, the only proper approach is to have  the lion jump out at the camera. It’s looked down upon by so many people I work with but for me, they’re not telling the story, they’re stretching this one application of dimensionality for a whole project and there’s not just one solution, one shot design for everything. It’s like choosing just one focal length of lens and never using a wide angle or a telephoto.

At first I was going to only to open up and change the dynamics of the frame on the entry to Oz to give the audience a sense that they were arriving in a magical place. It’s a nod to the great Victor Fleming and his 1939 film when he went from black and white to colour. We pay tribute to this in our picture as the character of Oz floats into the land of Oz. I went from a 1:1.33 format to a full 1:2.40 format, from mono to stereo and then to full surround sound, and a dialling up of the dimensionality. You have extra dimension coming into the film, colour and sound, and a feeling of space as though you can see and hear for the first time. It certainly helps to have Danny Elfman’s choir on the soundtrack to make it feel like a spiritual experience. I wanted the audience to know what it must have felt like for Dorothy or what it feels like for our main character, Oz, to enter into this magical place of second chances.

So this committed me to playing with the edges of the frame. Bob Murwaski, my editor said, “Seeing as you’re already playing with the frame, let’s break the edges a little bit more.” At first I was a little bit on the fence about it because I was using the 1:1.33 aspect ratio for a very specific reason and didn’t know about using it in this other way. But we do have some shots where 3D objects cross the edges of the frame and seem to be ‘coming out’ even more as a result.

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We shot with orthostereo convergence. I really wanted to dial the convergence up and I did, occasionally, but my effects co-ordinator, Scott Stokdyk, was always saying “Please don’t do that Sam, please don’t do that.” But I was designing the shots for 3D, I didn’t always need the ability to retreat but Stokdyk wanted control, he wanted to be sure that we could manipulate the convergence more in post. Stokdyk and James Goldman, my stereographer, always wanted me to shoot the 3D straight. I think they’re more old school than I am.

I had some problems with the stereo cameras that I would have to consider before shooting in 3D again. I wasn’t expecting all of the electronics. These cameras, particularly, ran very hot and they had these fans in them that were very loud. When you push in for a close-up you can hear them. We’re in Oz so it’s not like I’m going to add traffic noise or some kind of electrical motor noise to disguise the sound of the fan.

I said to the people at Red camera, “I’m constantly having this sound problem. This is a dialogue picture and I’ve got these great actresses so I don’t want to loop these lines. If it’s not me it’s going to be the next filmmaker telling you this, we need to quieten those cameras down.” They said they couldn’t make a blimp for it, “We can’t have a blimp, it’ll get even hotter, the air has got to blow through it.” So I said “Allow me the opportunity to plug in an air conditioning cable.”

I had an air conditioner outside the stage and a long cable that runs in to the side of the camera and I said “If I can get the temperature down to where I don’t need to turn on your fan, let me turn it off because it’s killing my sound.” They went blank face at me and there was no response. I was very disappointed in the lack of customer service because had this been Panavision, they’d have said “We’ll try it.” My sound was being ruined and they never did anything about it.

Then because of all of the electronics there was a 4 frame delay for the camera operator, the image had to pass through so many circuits to get to his monitor. I said “This is unacceptable. I have people standing up into frame and he’s late on the operation. It’s the oldest problem in the world but the movie industry has already conquered this problem. It’s called a parallax viewing system, so give me a parallax viewing system. They said “No, no, it’s got to come through the main sensor” and I said “Then give me a real simple sensor that my operator can use to see instantaneously” but they didn’t do that. They got the delay down to three frames but I was very unsatisfied. It should be instantaneous, it was very backward.

Thanks to Mr. Raimi for taking the time to talk to me, I only wish we’d had hours and not just minutes.

Later on today I’ll bring you Raimi’s comments on the possible sequel to Oz the Great and Powerful.

In the meantime, here’s that glossary in the order that the terms first appear in the story above.

  • Half-silvered mirror: a mirror that divides the light and sends it off to two different lenses, one for the left eye view, one for the right eye view.
  •  Convergence: as you look at an image, your eyes point in towards it. This angling-in is the convergence of your eyes and is measured in degrees. In 3D filmmaking you can change the amount of convergence required to look at the image correctly by either changing the convergence of the two lenses on set or by “slipping” the images left and right in relation to one another in post production.
  • The film plane: where the physical screen actually is. If you set the convergence at the film plane, you allow you audience to converge their eyes on the screen, which is where they have to focus in any case. It’s the most “relaxed” position available.
  • 1:1.33 and 1:2.40 formats: aspect ratios, measuring the height to the width of the image. 1:1.33 is the old TV shape, 1:2.40 is the wide cinemascope image as you will most often see employed in big budget and epic movies.
  • Orthostereo: When the space between the two lenses needed to film in 3D is the same as between an average pair of human eyes. The film notably wanders away from this at times, as when, for example, Raimi is creating a sense of the China Girl’s POV. If you see the scene in film in which Rachel Weisz hovers in looking huge, it’s because the “inter-axial distance” between the two viewpoints is reduced to be more like the space between China Girl’s eyes.
  • Blimp: a large soundproof casing for a camera.
  • Parallax viewing system: provides a monitor feed in sync with the camera so that the director or camera operator can watch a screen and not have to look through a physical viewfinder.

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