He designed planet Pandora for Avatar and helped Tim Burton retool Alice in Wonderland as a computer-generated fantasy world, so it’s not like two-time Oscar winner Robert Stromberg had to go old school for Oz The Great And Powerful. But production designer Stromberg and director Sam Raimi figured it was only fitting that their 21st century prequel to 1939's iconic Wizard of Oz movie offer a tip of the hat to the Golden Age of Hollywood spectacle.
"From day one, I pitched the notion that we remember this quality about The Wizard of Oz because it was shot on soundstages with backdrops." explains Stromberg. "It added a quality of light and sense of color that you could only do in a controlled environment. I did not want the production design to be real."
In place of the pixel-perfect photo realism pursued by most contemporary fantasy flicks, Stromberg hewed to a "heightened" storybook aesthetic by building two dozen sets on a humongous soundstage facility in Pontiac, Michigan. "It was an enormous undertaking," says Stromberg. "We must have had every carpenter and welder and plasterer in Michigan there."
Trees sculpted from huge blocks of foam were modeled after the equally fake trees showcased in Disney’s 1937 Snow White movie. Thousands of red poppies, made of silk-screened fabric, wire stems, and plastic leaves, took over a soundstage the size of a football field. And a wheezing steampunk contraption dramatizing the film’s pivotal "big head event" came together after Stromberg studied the late Walt Disney’s personal collection of turn-of-the-century zoetropes.
The Disney influence seen in Oz The Great and Powerful comes as no suprise, given that Stromberg spent much of his childhood copying illustrations from a book devoted to the studio’s hand-drawn animated classics. When Pinocchio matte artist Bruce McIntyre visited Stromberg’s third-grade classroom, it further fueled the prodigy’s passion for drawing. "When I was nine years old I was doing matte paintings in my backyard," Stromberg recalls. "I was obsessed with it."
Stromberg’s sumptuous visuals play a starring role in the Great and Powerful story of low-rent circus magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco), who travels via tornado-powered air balloon from dust-blown Kansas to the candy-colored Land of Oz. There, witches (Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams), dwarves, and a scene-stealing talking monkey sidekick (voiced by Zach Braff) challenge Oscar to seek his wizardly destiny.
To set the stage for this anti-hero’s journey, Stromberg and company teamed with 700 CGI artists to fabricate a dreamlike universe that fuses physical stagecraft with digital sleight of hand. Stromberg notes, "We wanted to pay tribute to people’s memories but also create something a little fresh and brand-new and open up the design so we could see around corners we couldn’t see before."
Coming off of Alice In Wonderland, Stromberg envisioned a completely different vibe for Raimi’s Oz. "There’s a similar conflict in that you have these witches that are dominating the land but Tim took Alice down to a dark place that was under the thumb of a tyrant," Stromberg says. "In Oz, Sam and I wanted to push the other direction and make a really bright film with vibrant color. It’s meant to be a happier place."
Oz The Great and Powerful, in 3-D, opens Friday.
Check out the slide show featuring concept art and production stills as Stromberg breaks down Oz The Great and Powerful's visual DNA.