Oscar Winning Team Created a New World for “Oz The Great and Powerful”

Walt Disney Studios shared a behind-the-scenes look at what went into creating the fantastical land of Oz in their upcoming film “Oz The Great and Powerful.”  Director Sam Raimi assembled an award-winning production team led by 2x Oscar winning production designer Robert Stromberg [Best Achievement in Art Direction “Alice in Wonderland” (2010) and “Avatar” (2009)].  However, if you think all the extravagant landscapes you see are nothing more than digital, computer effects, you’re in for a surprise.  Much of Oz was built as giant soundstage sets in the magical world of… Michigan.  That’s right, Michigan.  Continue reading for more details on creating the wonderful world of Oz.  And, for all of our coverage of news, images, and trailers for Disney’s “Oz The Great and Powerful,” click here.


Oscar Diggs (James Franco) and the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) travel the Yellow Brick Road on their way to The Emerald City. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.

From Walt Disney Studios Press Release

“The most satisfying aspect of this project for me has not come yet.  That will be when I can take my family to the movie theater and be proud that I was a part of something that we were able to share with the world.  And perhaps make the world a slightly happier place.” —Robert Stromberg, production designer

Production on “Oz The Great and Powerful” took place entirely on site at Raleigh Michigan Studios, the 675,000 square foot soundstage facility in Pontiac, Michigan, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Detroit, which once housed General Motors’ Centerpoint business campus and truck designing plant.


Oscar Diggs (James Franco) and the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) stand on a precipice overlooking a valley in the Land of Oz. © 2012 Disney Enterprises, Inc.


Raimi mounted the entire production on the facility’s seven soundstages (the very first project ever to shoot there).  “Oz The Great and Powerful” began production on July 21, 2011, and concluded filming in Michigan on December 19, 2011.

With “Oz The Great and Powerful,” director Sam Raimi tackled the biggest directorial project of his career.  “This picture is gigantic in scale.  The world of Oz as L. Frank Baum created it has many different counties and lands and seas and impassable deserts,” explains Raimi.  “It’s an entire world that Baum depicts, therefore the film had to be done on a tremendous scale.  As large as the ‘Spider-Man’ films were, that was a fantastic character in a city we knew, Manhattan.  It wasn’t a created world.  That’s what Baum has done in his books.  He’s created this entire world of Oz.”


Oscar Diggs’ (James Franco) hot air balloon sails over the landscape of the Land of Oz in Disney’s fantastical adventure “Oz The Great and Powerful.” © 2012 Disney Enterprises, Inc.


To help bring the enchanting Land of Oz to life, Raimi assembled his own band of technical wizards and movie magicians, including award-winning cinematographer Peter Deming, ASC (“Drag Me to Hell,” “Mulholland Dr.,” “Evil Dead II”), two-time Academy Award–winning production designer Robert Stromberg (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Avatar”), Oscar-winning film editor Bob Murawski (“The Hurt Locker,” the “Spider-Man” trilogy), costume designers Gary Jones (“Spider-Man 2,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” for which he was Oscar-nominated) and Michael Kutsche (“Thor,” “Alice in Wonderland”), four-time Oscar-nominated composer Danny Elfman (“Spider-Man,” “Spider-Man 2,” “A Simple Plan,” “Milk”), visual effects Oscar winner Scott Stokdyk (“Spider-Man” trilogy) and special effects makeup artists Greg Nicotero (“Seven Psychopaths,” “The Grey”), who has garnered five Primetime Emmys, and Academy Award winner Howard Berger (“The Chronicles of Narnia” series), both of whom created the looks of several of the unique denizens of Oz.


James Franco, left; Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), right © Disney Enterprises, Inc.


Academy Award–winning production designer Robert Stromberg spearheaded Raimi’s vision for the film.  Stromberg created such sets as the famed Yellow Brick Road and Emerald City, all freshly designed and imagined, along with such highly anticipated new designs as the witch’s Throne Room, the Whimsie Woods (where Oz meets Theodora), the Dark Forest, which introduces Glinda the Good Witch in the story, and China Town, whose inhabitants are made entirely of porcelain.  In all, Stromberg designed and oversaw the building of approximately 30 sets.

Before Raimi actually strolled on Stromberg’s depiction of the Yellow Brick Road, or set foot inside his embodiment of the Emerald City, the two discussed whether the project should be filmed in a virtual environment (like Stromberg did on both “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland”) or on practical stage sets.


James Franco, left; Mila Kunis, right ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


“Many other projects that I have done have been much more virtual,” Stromberg admits.  “I think in this particular case, there was a solid reason why I pitched to Disney and Sam Raimi that we should build sets on soundstages.  I saw this film as having almost a theatrical stage quality.  If we were to just go out and build a Yellow Brick Road on a hillside in Ireland for instance, it wouldn’t have the same feeling that we have when we think of the fantastical Land of Oz… it would be too real.”

Raimi echoes Stromberg’s comments by adding, “It was important for me to have sets for the actors to perform upon.  I really wanted them to have something to touch and something to see that was real.  I didn’t mind if they had to imagine the world outside the window, but I wanted to be in a real place as much as possible because I thought that it would ground the performances.  And I think Robert Stromberg, from his point of view, wanted as much of a set as possible too because in that way we could maintain control over the look of the picture.  The 700 CGI artists who work in post-production can see the texture of the brick and how the sunlight is dappled upon some fallen leaves.  The template has been set for them. Their job is to continue that world and that established look.”

This effort was not lost on the actors.  “It was thrilling to be on set because the magical world was no longer just in our heads,” actress Michelle Williams (Glinda) notes about the advantage of working in a practical environment to bring not only Raimi’s story to life, but the cast’s individual characters as well.


James Franco, left; Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), right ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


“With the Yellow Brick Road and Glinda’s castle in front of my eyes, I didn’t have to imagine my surroundings.  Sam and Robert really made the actors feel at home in the sets they built for us to work on,” concludes Williams.

The first set on which Raimi mounted his cameras was the Kansas carnival.  The shabby, sepia-toned tent city stood indoors on Stage 1.  Stromberg “always dreamed of someday creating a circus set.  I wanted it to be a little off-kilter.  It’s not your standard Ringling Bros. Circus.  It’s more of a low-budget traveling circus where things are aged and worn.  But, it has a character to it that I was very happy about because it reflects Oz’s persona in many ways.  It offers a great contrast between Kansas and Oz.  All the circus detail was really fun to design.  Of course, the entire set was surrounded by blue screen, where we added the Kansas landscape.”

Stromberg created an environment that both complemented and defined the circus magician, saying, “If you want to get to the meat of who Oz really is, it would be the interior of his traveling circus wagon.  There we see that he’s sort of set up his world to be kind of a charlatan.  We see that besides being a magician he is also an inventor and tinkerer.  So, that’s part of his aspirations.


James Franco, left; Michelle Williams, right ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


“He strives to be a great performer, but also has a bit of an inventor in him,” Stromberg adds about the circus magician.  “He wants to invent contraptions in the vein of great inventors.  He has this strong work ethic, but he feels he can’t really accomplish his goals if he gets tied down in Kansas.

“We see certain posters and books on the wall,” the designer continues, “that tell us that he has bigger dreams than this.  So, if you cut to the heart of Oz’s personality, it’s definitely shown in the circus wagon.  Over the course of our movie, we show that he goes from a selfish man to a selfless man.”

Once Oscar arrives in the Land of Oz, Stromberg gets to marry Baum’s fantasy world with Disney iconography.  “I was a huge fan of the classic Disney films as a child,” the former matte artist relates about his inspiration for the look of the film, “from ‘Sleeping Beauty’ to ‘Bambi’ to ‘Pinocchio.’

“When I was a kid, I had a huge book on Disney and I used to draw every picture in that book,” the designer recalls fondly.  “Here, I had the opportunity to design the Land of Oz under the Disney banner by taking the classic Disney approach and making it photo real with today’s wonderful visual effects techniques.”

For the witches’ worlds in the Land of Oz, Stromberg designed the sets to reflect the personality of each witch character.  In comparing the worlds of the archenemies Evanora and Glinda, the production designer “decided early on that I wanted Emerald City to be a very masculine place, very strong, with hard lines.  For Glinda’s world, I wanted a much more curvy, feminine quality.  So, I infused Art Nouveau into the castle motif that defines Glinda, and Art Deco for Evanora’s Emerald City.”


Rachel Weisz, left; James Franco, right © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Becoming more specific, Stromberg elaborates, “The Throne Room in the Emerald City Palace is where Oz meets Evanora for the first time.  In this set, I wanted a large cascading stairway, something you might see in a film from the 1930s or 1940s.  I wanted this to be a real Hollywood moment when Evanora, who is played by Rachel Weisz, comes down the stairway in a beautiful, long dress.”

For the other two witches, Stromberg says, “We meet Theodora in a lush, beautiful environment that is filled with flowers.  We meet Glinda in the exact opposite, a dark, very scary cemetery.  I just really love the contrast between those two characters and environments.  We see those characters switch environments in the movie and I think that’s just a subtle thing but it’s actually a playful thing plus an arc that the audience can benefit from.”


China Girl (voiced by Joey King), left; James Franco, center; Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), right ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


In evoking the classic Disney look for Glinda’s castle courtyard set (a massive build that consumed almost the entire 30,000 square foot volume of the studio’s Stage 3), “I came up with a mixture of traditional castle meets Art Nouveau,” Stromberg explains.  “With the addition of the decorative greens, it sort of became the Gardens of Babylon with a classic Disney look to it.”

Stromberg’s Castle Courtyard did include the Yellow Brick Road, circling out across the courtyard and on through the castle’s main gate.  Considering all of Stromberg’s handsome designs, this one drew the most interest from anyone who visited the set during the five-month shoot.  The film’s head greensman, veteran Dan Gillooly (“Big Fish,” “Alice in Wonderland”) iced the cake of this set piece with the addition of rolling hills of grass and flora.


James Franco, left; Finley (voiced by Zach Braff), above left; Michelle Williams, center; China Girl (voiced by Joey King), right ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Noting that Glinda travels in a bubble, Stromberg blended that visual element into the castle design where she resides (in Quadling Country) in the story.  Working closely with his paint foreman, veteran Tom Brown (another “Alice in Wonderland” alumnus), the designer states that, “the surfaces of her castle will look like typical castle walls, but we added a certain sheen, an iridescent, bubblelike quality to it, a rainbow pattern if you will, that you can see when the light hits the walls just right.”

Stromberg also infused the Disney motif in another spectacular set design, “what we called the Whimsie Woods.  Sam directed a scene on this set where Theodora and Oz fall in love around a campfire, enhanced by a waltz they share set to the tune of the music box that Oz uses to charm women.

“Part of the reason we built this on an indoor stage was to make it more storybook than anything we could find in an exterior location somewhere,” Stromberg underscores.  “Part of our discussion early on was to avoid going to a location because it wouldn’t have the right artifice.  This story and film should have a bit more of a theatrical feel to it in the lighting and the way it’s built.

“Like I said before, I’m a big fan of some of the early Disney films,” the designer reiterates.  “I love ‘Snow White,’ so I took some of the trees from that film and brought those to life in the Whimsie Woods set.


Glinda (Michelle Williams), the Good Witch, invokes her powers. © 2012 Disney Enterprises, Inc.


“Each one of the trees was hand-carved out of foam and layers of plaster,” he describes.  “We had craftsmen, sculptors really, who started with huge blocks of foam.  They sculpted them just like you would clay.  The trees were the first things to go into this set so that we could get the spacing correct.  So, these big, artificial trees, though lifelike, are also very storybook.”

Some of Stromberg’s other eye-catching set designs include Evanora’s Bridge to Resplendence (Stage 5, where Evanora tempts the foolhardy Oscar with gold and jewels in a backdrop that will equate to the size of a football field, per Raimi, once enhanced with CGI); the interiors of Glinda’s castle (Stage 6, a handsome library and bedroom where Glinda finally shows Oz the man he can become); the Tinkers’ workshop (Stage 5, where Oz meets with the Tinkers to devise his plans); and China Town, which Stromberg’s crew erected on Stage 1 and included the teapot where Oz finds the broken China Girl and a massive cup-and-saucer “house” (all framed against an enveloping blue screen curtain on which animators created the horizon of the shattered porcelain village).


James Franco, left; Rachel Weisz, right © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


The modest Stromberg states that “as far as transforming a character and creating a performance, I think sets are very valuable.  I like to look at the sets as akin to what the actor is wearing.  To me, that’s very important in dictating what the mood should be and how comfortable an actor can feel in an environment that perhaps makes his or her performance better.”

“We had Emerald City, Glinda’s castle, Whimsie Woods and the Yellow Brick Road,” enthuses actress Mila Kunis about the variety of imaginative sets on which the cast got to play every day.  “Just skipping on the Yellow Brick Road was weird and unbelievable.  But, no weirder than being surrounded by a flying monkey and oversized flowers and men that are 8 feet tall.  I would say it was weird, but when you put it all together, it was a normal workday for us.”

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About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.