Revisiting Cinefex (22): Return to Oz, Baby

Cinefex 22 - Return to Oz - BabyIn a scene from Walter Murch’s 1985 film Return to Oz, the monstrous Nome King prepares to devour Dorothy Gale’s new friend Jack Pumpkinhead. This perilous snapshot makes for a striking cover to Cinefex #22, but how many of you were actually able to name the movie? Not everyone, I’m guessing, which is a shame when Return to Oz is unique among feature films in the way it showcased Will Vinton’s innovative Claymation techniques. This issue’s back cover has a still from Bill Norton’s dinosaur adventure from the same year – Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. Between them, the articles on the two films span 68 pages.

  • Return to Oz (article by Brad Munson)
  • Bringing Up Baby (article by Howard E. Green)

How strange that, on the very day I sit down to write this latest Cinefex retrospective, the first teaser appears on the net for Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, scheduled for release in 2013. From the look of the trailer, present-day visual effects are going to do a beautiful job of rendering L Frank Baum’s fantasy world. What better time therefore to look back at how director Walter Murch and his team faced the same challenge back in 1985?

Return to Oz

Anyone adapting Baum’s stories for the screen has first to deal with the elephant in the room: namely the classic 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz. From the get-go, Murch asserts that ‘we certainly didn’t want to try and compete with that’. One of his original plans to distinguish Return to Oz from its highly theatrical predecessor was an extensive series of location shoots across Europe and North Africa. The plan didn’t come off. Producers Gary Kurtz and Paul Maslansky guide us through the film’s tortuous early stages during which budgets were slashed and much of the location work was scrapped. By production designer Norman Reynolds’s reckoning, around 80% of the film ended up being shot on soundstages after all.

rc22rtoAlthough the film is set largely in a fantasy world, according to Kurtz, ‘the optical, composite and matte painting [was] simpler than in most of the other pictures I’d done.’ The same can’t be said for the film’s creature work, to which much of Munson’s article is devoted. Fresh off the Kurtz-produced The Dark Crystal, Lyle Conway took on the role of creature design supervisor for the film’s puppets and animatronics, while Claymation maestro Will Vinton was hired to create the Nome King and his goblin minions.

Choosing Claymation for a high-profile feature film was both brave and inspired. The interview with Vinton provides plenty of insight into his process, from design through to execution. ‘The idea was that Nomes were in this kind of plasma of rock, a sea of rock,’ he says before listing the various materials he experimented with in order to get the right look and feel, including plasticene, sand and crushed walnut shells.

Vinton’s considered approach means that his Claymation – which might normally be considered a stand-alone process – integrates extraordinarily well with the rest of the filmed material. ‘[Optical supervisor] Zoran Perisic and I discussed matching at great length,’ he says. Vinton also worked closely with makeup artist Robin Grantham to match his clay Nome King to later incarnations of the character played by actor Nicol Williamson wearing prosthetics. Perisic (perhaps best known for his Zoptic system, which made 1978 Superman audiences believe Christopher Reeve could fly) adds his own breakdown of the soft-edged bipack mattes he used to blend Vinton’s clay animation into the live-action plates.

Lyle Conway’s mechanical creatures also benefited from a cross-discipline approach. Kurtz reels off a list of techniques that were used including ‘puppetry, mechanicals, hydraulics, radio control and some marionette type of work.’ He adds that ‘in most cases, we had to build four or five or six different versions [of a creature] for various special uses.’

In the article, various members of Conway’s team examine the creation and operation of such diverse mechanical characters as Jack Pumpkinhead, Tik Tok and the Gump. For the all the movie’s exotica, however, Conway seems most proud of his work on Billina, the talking hen. In true Cinefex style, the article details the construction of Billina in both hand-puppet and fully mechanical forms. Uniquely, however, we get at least as much discussion of how the puppeteers went about bringing her to life – the performance itself. According to Conway, in one of the more unusual sessions they ‘videotaped a rehearsal where Billina was singing “My Way” – the Frank Sinatra recording.’

This emphasis on performance runs through the whole article, nowhere more prominently than in the interviews with choreographer Pons Maar. Maar’s motivational insights into the way all the characters move (for Jack Pumpkinhead he sought inspiration from ‘black basketball players’, ‘long-legged birds’ and even Disney’s Ichabod Crane) are genuinely fascinating. They’re also a reminder that, despite Murch’s desire to distance his film from The Wizard of Oz, the effects techniques available to him in 1985 were as much rooted in theatre as those available to Victor Fleming in 1939.

Actually, thinking about theatre got me thinking about how this movie would be made today – how, in all probability, Raimi’s new exploration of Oz is being made. Good as the effects are in Return to Oz – and many of them are superb – it’s their inherent theatricality that no doubt makes them less convincing to a modern audience.

Perhaps that’s because the definition of ‘a good effect’ has come more and more to mean ‘a realistic effect’. Pixel-level manipulation of the moving image in the digital realm means photo-realism is now a given. Suspension of disbelief is no longer necessary when the damn thing looks so real.

What Return to Oz reminds us is that, however slick the finish on an effect might be, there are still three vital words no VFX practitioner can afford to forget: performance, performance, performance. A great performance will make an audience care unconditionally for something they know instinctively is a puppet. Equally, a terrible performance can make the most hyper-real digitial creature look like, well, a lump of clay.

Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend

Like Return to Oz, Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend) relied heavily on mechanical creatures – in this case a brontosaurus family. Baby was shot almost entirely on location on Africa and by all accounts was a troubled production. But everybody likes a horror story, and Green’s article on the painful process of bringing dinosaurs to life on the Ivory Coast is both a compelling and cautionary tale.

rc22bIn charge of Baby‘s full-size dinosaurs was Isidoro Raponi, a former associate of Carlo Rambaldi (famous for creating E.T.). Raponi comes across as a smart cookie, presenting a professional, intelligent analysis of his design and construction processes. And, as Stan Winston proved just eight years later with Jurassic Park, the notion of working at full-scale – even the idea of putting a performer inside a dinosaur suit – is not inherently crazy. I’ve never seen the film, but when I watched a few clips on YouTube I was surprised: at least some of Baby‘s walking suit shots actually work pretty well. But an awful lot of them don’t. So what went wrong?

One of the problems was a committee approach to some of the early decision-making. For example, in order to differentiate the dinosaur star’s eyes from those of E.T., a cat-like design was decided upon. ‘This was a major problem,’ Raponi says. ‘That particular shape doesn’t allow for subtle expressions.’

The other major problem can be summed up in one word: Africa.

Africa proved to be a difficult place to do special effects. As well as contracting malaria, Raponi also had to deal with endless problems affecting the operation of his location-based creature shop. Heat and humidity caused unpredictable chemical reactions in the dinosaurs’ latex foam skin; local glues wouldn’t mix with his American pigments; power cuts forced him to work late into the night by torchlight. The list goes on.

It was no more easy for the people inside the suits. ‘It’s dark,’ says performer Paula Crist, ‘the air is thin and dank and the suit itself is touching and squeezing you all over.’ Nor was the rest of the production team immune. In order to secure it as a location, production designer Ray Storey had to negotiate the ‘desacrilisation’ of a lake by a village witch doctor. The list of sacrificial items included ‘goats, chickens, rice and a size thirteen pair of white shoes,’ all paid for by Disney with no questions asked.

Reflecting on his work, Raponi says, ‘If I had to do it over again, I would build Baby in the same basic way – but I wouldn’t do it at all unless there was enough time to refine everything and make adjustments.’ Time is, of course, the greatest enemy of all. Back in 1985, the option to ‘fix it in post’ just wasn’t available, so when time ran out you were stuck with what you’d got. Sometimes, despite heroic efforts, it just wasn’t what you’d hoped for.

It’s easy to assert that director Bill Norton’s ambition for this film was too great. In mitigation, there are several examples of his readiness to think on the fly and adjust to what Green describes as ‘exasperating setbacks’. ‘We had to switch scenes around,’ Norton says, ‘because we were limited by what the dinosaur could or couldn’t do.’ Producer Jonathan Taplin adds, ‘[Norton] was always able to adapt the script to our ability to do things. He was great at that.’

In fact, Norton’s problems were no different to those faced by Steven Spielberg when shooting Jaws with a mechanical shark that just plain didn’t work. Spielberg, however, produced a masterpiece, while Baby has sunk without trace. Ah well.

The pictures

Many of the photographs featured in the Return to Oz article show the film’s creatures in various stages of construction and operation. What I really remember about this film, however, is Will Vinton’s Claymation, which is why my pick of the pictures is the range of images on page 38. They show Mark Gustafson using a dental mirror to aid his animation of the Nome King and Bill Fiesterman consulting video reference of Nicol WIlliamson between moves.

As for the behind-the-scenes shots from Baby, well, I’m afraid most of them look pretty ropey. Raponi was right about those eyes. The image that sums everything up shows a pair of dinosaur wranglers in the African jungle preparing to lower a brontosaurus suit over the top of performer Paula Crist. Crist is wearing a rubber suit and radio headset and looks utterly resigned to her fate.

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

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