Oz - the great and powerful



Designing "OZ"


In January 2011 I got a call from the Art Department of “OZ: The Great and Powerful.” Production Designer, Rob Stromberg (2 time Oscar winner for Alice in Wonderland and Avatar) was staffing an Art Department for six months of design work in LA with the subsequent intention of taking a small group of designers on to Detroit, MI to shoot the film.  In a nod to the iconic 1939 MGM production “The Wizard of Oz”, Director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, The Evil Dead and my personal favorite Army of Darkness) wanted to make use of practical forced perspective and miniature scenery for the aspects of the story set in 1890’s “Kansas.” Taking the use of visual effects one step further, Rob conceived the world of “Oz” as a hybrid of physical scenery combined with both traditional and digital visual effects. Thus, he was looking for designers experienced in miniatures and in-camera visual effects as well as the digital world. – I had designed a number of forced perspective sets on Ang Lee’s “The Hulk” and Stephen King’s “Rose Red” and was more than happy to lend my experience to this production.  On top of that, I was also experienced with carriage design and fabrication…a handy thing when this was the primary mode of transportation in both turn of the century Kansas and the Land of Oz!


The original proposal put forth was that I would start the show as a Set Designer in LA (helping to layout and design “Kansas”) and then transition to Art Director and oversee construction in Detroit. Ultimately we were unable to execute this plan (…Disney wanted me to substantially cut my Art Direction rates…) but I was able to contribute 6 months of Set Design work to the project in LA.




“1890’s Kansas”

The world of “Kansas” consisted of multiple elements: Farms and Fields, a Circus/Carnival, tents, wagons, even a hot-air balloon. Creating the windswept planes of the ‘Midwest’ on a sound-stage meant combining life sized scenery with forced perspective elements and digital mattes. Designing each of these elements proved very fulfilling for me on multiple levels. Artistically I loved the period style and technically I enjoy the problem solving and layout puzzles involved with ‘in camera’ visual effects.


"Annie's Farm"Annie's Farm

“OZ” opens with a glimpse of young Oscar (Oz) and his childhood sweetheart practicing ‘magic’ on a family farm. – Originally conceived as a forced perspective (f.p.) set, my challenge was to lay out a series of structures (barns, fences, crops, stock shed, wagons, etc.) and extend the setting with additional architectural elements (farm house, windmill…more crops and fence) into a convincing miniature landscape. As our entire setting was fictitious (i.e. no tie-in to a practical location) step one of the design process was simply to come up with the geography of the farm and surrounding countryside.  Over the course of several weeks we worked through a series of set layouts, illustrations and storyboards before settling on a scheme for “Annie’s Farm.”  With this phase complete, I then set about the task of separating the real (full size) scenery from the f.p./miniature elements, drafting and modeling everything up, visiting with the pre-viz department about how the set would lay out for their animations and sitting in on meetings with Rob and Director of Photography, Peter Deming. As the set was going through these developmental phases, so too was the thinking of Sam and Rob and the way in which they conceived both the action and the transitions between scenes and time periods in the story.  Ultimately, the use of practical f.p. scenery was abandoned in favor of using an extended digital environment to allow for a “windblown wipe of time” to occur as ‘young Oscar’ grows up. – While disappointing from a nostalgic ‘in-camera VFX’ point of view, not to mention the amount of time and effort that had gone into the set and miniature layout, it was the best decision for the film both creatively and financially speaking. And while the miniature elements may not have been built in the real world the life size structures did get shot but, as often happens in Hollywood these days, the scenes were cut from the final film. - The drawings and model photographs here and on my "Oz Portfolio" page are all you will see of this set.


Construction Drawing - Miniature structures & F.P. elements


Composite of "Baum Bros. Circus"The Baum Bros. Circus

As with ‘Annie’s Farm,’ and indeed all scenic elements in the film, the “Circus” where we find an adult Oscar (now Oz) practicing his trade, was built and shot entirely on a sound-stage.  Tents, carnival booths, a midway and a number of wagons and carriages had to be designed and fabricated. Oz is a second rate magician and conman performing in a third rate carnival but his ambitions and goals are much higher. He spends his time either ‘on stage’ performing his act or ‘in his trailer’ working on his tricks and gadgets…or enjoying other equally engaging activities.





Study Layouts - "Oz's Tent""Oz's Trailer" ExteriorOz’s Tent

In designing “Oz’s Performance Tent” I worked from photographs  of period banners and graphics as well as images of circus tents. I was very interested in using some of the graphic elements as part of the proscenium framing Oz’s stage and I proposed using painted canvas posters and carnival banners mounted to temporary structures and poles holding up the tent.   I used weathered and battered wood for the stage and benches and suggested the stage drapes be tattered and worn. This combination gave both an immediate impression of a depressed era and a sense of impermanence from which Oscar might want to escape. In terms of technical and staging consideration, Oz’s tent and performance space had several specific requirements regarding audience intimacy, and the ability to shoot scenes from the ‘audience’, ‘on stage’ and ‘back stage’. As mentioned previously, Oz is a tinkerer and inventor and we see a number of his gadgets back stage. This becomes an important story point later in the film. – A number of tent sizes and stage layouts were discussed and presented during the design process and I include some of those images for your edification.


Oz’s Trailer

Away from the spotlight, Oz’s only retreat is his dressing trailer/home. Designed in two parts (both an Interior and Exterior Set) the “Exterior” trailer sat as part of the Circus Caravan Camp along with a number of other wagons that I designed for the Circus. Referencing both traditional Circus Wagons and Gypsy caravan wagons, I tried to incorporate several layers of age along with Oz's improvised "improvements" to his living space. The Exterior trailer was a complete design from the ground up: undercarriage, suspension, reach, 5th wheel, bed, box and all. The Exterior and Interior sets were being developed simultaneously and I incorporated a set of clerestory windows to aid with set lighting. I also suggested a fold down canopy/awning outside the windows on the floor level to help mask sight-lines from inside the trailer (and avoid unnecessary digital extensions).    The “Interior” trailer  was a second, slightly enlarged, set which housed Oz’s living quarters and workshop. The primary architectural elements (doors, windows, etc.) were matched between the two sets and the enlargements were accounted for in the space between the openings.


Various "Circus" WagonsWagons, wagons everywhere…

I designed a number of wagons and background carts (in addition to “Oz’s Trailer”) which were used throughout the Circus.  Of primary importance was a “pipe organ” wagon which had been requested as a specialty prop/piece of set dressing by Mr. Raimi. Additional designs included a “box car” wagon, “flat bed” wagons, and a couple of “gypsy caravans”. - To see images of all of the wagon & cart designs please visit my "Oz" Portfolio page.


The Hot-air Balloon

Oz, as it turns out, is a bit of a philandered and he soon finds it necessary to make a hasty exit from carnival life.  What better way to escape an angry mob than via hot air balloon?...with a storm coming on the horizon?!  -  This was actually one of the first sets/vehicles/elements that I designed for the show (…the Balloon Basket…not the storm…)  . Filming the storm sequence was structurally demanding on this particular piece of scenery.  To withstand the forces of being whipped around on a special effects wire rig, the structure of the gondola had to be heavily reinforced while at the same time being able to ‘wild’ apart for camera access.  To solve this problem I proposed building an internal steel frame around which we would wrap a wicker and canvas basket.  I proposed we build the gondola rigging up to the burner support hoop and the ‘suspension cables’ and above be part of the SPFX rig. The skirt & envelope (i.e. the “balloon”) would be digital added later.


 "Oz's Hot-air Balloon"(Preliminary sketch & final construction drawing)




“The Land of OZ”

With both ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ settings, the world of OZ relied heavily on the use of digital mattes and set extensions.  When conceiving the rural/pastoral sets, the design team relied greatly on the use of finished illustrations and presentation models to communicate (with Production and Construction departments alike) where the real/physical scenery would end and what the digital world would look like beyond. Sets such as “The River Banks”, “The Whimsy Woods”, “The Graveyard” and “The Poppy Fields” all required extensive amounts of square footage to allow for action, scenery and the necessary space to the backings/blue screen. The majority of the aesthetic design work for these sets was done by Jeff Frost, Jason Mahakian and Dan Engle in the model shop working off of illustrations and research from Rob.  Once the design was agreed upon it then fell to me to break down the models into a set of full working drawings which, in tandem with the models, could guide the Construction Department in Detroit.


Plan & Sections for the "River Bank""The Whimsy Woods""The Graveyard" - GatesThe River Banks

The “River Bank” appears at the end of the sequence that brings Oscar to OZ and it is the first time we see him on the ground and truly interacting with his new environment. For this set we built a large (above grade) water tank on stage and sculpted a river bank that extended up and out of the water to a height of +/- 15 feet.  Sand and greens were placed in the immediate vicinity of the action and a 3D digital matte was used to create the massive flora and geographic elements seen in the final film.  As with most every set in the film, a large blue screen surrounded the stage.


The Whimsy Woods

and other sets…

The design of “The Whimsy Woods”, “The Graveyard” and “The Poppy Fields” proceeded in a similar fashion to “The River Bank”. As a way of dealing with stage space limitations in Detroit, the decision was made to use the same basic sub-structure for these three sets while swapping out large sculpted trees and other geographic elements as part of the scene changes.  The Whimsy Woods was the first set to be developed and the lay out was designed to provide multiple shooting areas, foot paths, clearings and even a waterfall and wading pool. By revolving and relocating various set pieces (again coupled with lots of blue screen) an extensive number of scenes could be shot on one set.


The Graveyard

For “The Graveyard” the afore mentioned mobile units were removed, the wading pool filled in, the sculpted trees stripped of their foliage and the hills/platforms redressed in order to utilize the same stage space.  One of many ‘yellow brick road(s)’ was placed bisecting the set and distinctive ‘dead trees’ were added along and over the path.   Cemetery Gates were added and a field of tombstones completed the look.



The Battle in the Poppy Fields

The base geography was transformed yet again as the stage was redressed for “The Battle in the Poppy Fields” which takes place during the climax of the film.  For this incarnation the ‘yellow brick road’ was left in place and additional material was built up to either side to create a gently sloping glade at the edge of a large wooded area.  A forest of sculpted tree trunks was brought in to establish…um…a forest and a field of poppy flowers stretched from the tree line to the edge of the platforms.


"The Poppy Fields" - overlay showing relation to "The Graveyard" set below.


"The (Back) Gates to the Emerald City"The Emerald City

Over the course of the six month design arch in LA it was not uncommon for the Art Directors to have a designer start a set then pass it off to someone else.  Such was the case with “The Bridge to the Room of Resplendence” (started by Easton Smith...finished by me), “The Emerald City Back Gates” (started by Andrew Reader…finished by me), and “Oz’s Projection Coach” (started by me…finished by Tex Kadonaga). I, along with Dawn Brown Manser, Darrell Wight and Adriana Dardas, ended up drawing an array of special furnishings and set dressing items for Nancy Haigh and the Set Decoration Department. I also made several design passes at “The Tinker’s Workshops” where Oz and the munchkins prepare for their conflict with The Wicked Witch.


"Oz's Projection Coach"…And One Final Wagon…

I would be remiss if I closed my narrative without a brief discussion of my designs for “Oz’s Projection Coach.” As this film is/was a prequel to the 1939 Wizard of Oz, we felt bound to establish (and be faithful to) some of the conventions of the original film. In this instance, Oz uses his ingenuity, and a few tricks from Thomas Edison, to project his own visage onto a giant cloud of smoke when all of the Emerald City believes him to be dead. This wagon was again an Interior/Exterior set.  As with Oz’s trailer back in Kansas, the Interior of this coach needed to be large enough to accommodate multiple actors as well as a large mechanical projection machine. Originally discussed as being an enclosed coach with the ability to “expand” (not unlike a modern day camping trailer), the “Projection Coach” went through several concepts as both a physical set and a CG generated set. Ultimately it ended up being split into an Exterior Coach and a separate interior set with the idea of “expanding sides” being abandoned altogether.



Throughout this long dissertation I have only touched only upon the sets with which I had direct design involvement and input. As with any project of this scope, a great many artists contributed their efforts to creating the world of “OZ” and I have listed as many as I can remember in the credits below.

"OZ: The Great and Powerful"

A Walt Disney Presentation

Release Date: March 8, 2013


LA Art Department:

Production Designer – Robert Stromberg, Supervising Art Directors – Todd Cherniawsky and Stefan Dechant, Art Directors – Andrew Jones and Iain McFaden, Assistant Art Directors – Artie Contreras and John Booth, Illustrators – Dylan Cole, Dawn Brown Manser, Michele Moen, Matt Codd, Victor Martines, Jonathan Bach, Set Designers – Chad Frey, Julia Levine, Adriana Dardas, Tex Kadonaga, Jeff Markwith, Andrew Reader, Easton Smith, Jane Wuu, Darrell Wight, Model Makers – Jeff Frost, Dan Engle, Jason Mahakian.



Copyright © 1997-2013 Chad S. Frey. All Rights Reserved. Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form.