Q&A: Sam Raimi's New Dimensions in Oz

By Luke Y. Thompson in Books, Movies
Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 8:00 am


Few could make the leap from wrangling evil deadites to benevolent Muchkins quite like Sam Raimi, whose fantasy worlds thrill audiences without ever taking themselves too seriously. Having created an iconic character in Ash, and redefined one in his Spider-Man movies, he now finds himself with an even larger personality to keep safely - that of the land of Oz itself.

While I was not able to secure a 1:1 TR interview with Raimi, I did have the chance to participate in a group interview at the movie's pre-Oscars press conference. We were instructed to stay on topic, so no new Evil Dead scoops here - but believe me, there's plenty to talk about when it comes to the master showman's use of 3D and perspective on L. Frank Baum's fantasy world.

Question: In addition to being a history of Oz, this movie is also a kind of a metaphorical history of the cinema from being a carnival sideshow attraction to becoming a great force that can motivate crowds and inspire. What was it about The Wizard of Oz story that made you decide to merge these two themes together?

Sam Raimi: Well, what I was trying to do and what I think the screenwriters were trying to do and the art department, prop department, were trying to set up Oz's knowledge as a tinkerer, Oz's awareness of Edison's kinescope and early motion picture cameras so that we could properly support the idea that he could have created this technology with the help of the tinkerers once he got to the land of Oz in the climax of the picture. So I wasn't trying to do a history of cinema as much as set up the character with certain abilities in the first act to let them properly pay off in the third act.


Question: This movie obviously demonstrates a lot of love for the original Wizard of Oz. But at the one moment when it appears to be a musical, the singing gets shut down promptly. Can you please talk about not going there as a musical?

SR: Yeah, that was a tribute to the great Wizard of Oz picture. But, um, early on I think the writers decided that we shouldn't imitate that fantastic musical. There was no comparison to the great quality of music in the original, in fact. Ours was more based on the L. Frank Baum works. So we decided not to make it a musical, and just tell the fantastical tales that he had written about; but that one number was a tribute to the great Wizard of Oz movie. Did I answer your question?

Question: The visual effects were absolutely stunning and the 3D really, really worked for me. And I'm just wondering for you was there any particular big challenge for you this time around 'cause obviously you've worked with effects in the past. But was there anything in this particular shoot that was the most challenging for you?

SR: Yes, there were a tremendous amount of new challenges for me. I didn't know anything about 3D so I had to go to school and learn about 3D. I had to meet with technicians and study the camera systems and go to effects houses and hear what the different visual effects artists had to say about working with the systems and I had to basically shoot some test days and see what the effects of convergence was on the audience and why the audience gets a headache. I used to get headaches at 3D movies and I didn't want this movie to give people headaches, so I found out there are four reasons that [3D does that].

There may be more. I'm sure technical people at this point are going, "Raimi, you're getting it wrong!" But I'll tell you what I know, which is: you don't want to dramatically change the convergence from shot to shot and have something breaking the screen plane in the foreground, and then quickly go to a shorter shot where there's something in the deep background, and then again cut to a shot where you're playing the convergence in the foreground. It has to be delicately handled. And you have to let the audience's eyes adjust. Have longer shots, if you intend to make that dramatic adjustment. Or take them to a little stairway from convergence level to convergence level so that their brains can adjust and their eyes can adjust.


Otherwise you're making their heads work so hard, it's forcing those eyes, the muscles and the brain muscle to work in a way it's not used to working and it gives headaches. You do develop a muscle for it, though. Uh, a tolerance for it, if you could say. That I developed. So I couldn't trust my own instincts after a time. I had to just go by the numbers. What is the convergence on this. How different is it, etc.

In addition, I don't want to turn this into a technical conversation, but it's about where images are on the screen. You don't want to make the audience look both left and right dramatically from cut to cut and change convergence. It's just too difficult; too much of a strain. But it has to do with brightness, also. And it has to do with ghosting in the background and a minimization of that and a contrast ratio that's much tighter than in a normal picture. And there's a lot of other technical ways to minimize stress on the audience. Anyways, I had to learn so much about 3D. I had to learn about creating a whole world. I surrounded myself with the best artists. Not just actors but artists. Uh, storyboard artists, visual effects artists, concept artists, landscape artists, greenswomen and men and people that really knew how to create a world from the ground up because I had never created a world before.

Every single blade of grass and little blossom has been thought out by a individual artist. Every insect is not from a library, is not from nature photography. It's created by artists. There's little zebra bees. You can't even see them. There's strange little white-haired squirrels that are half-muskrat, half-squirrel, that inhabit this land and giant creatures that lope like dinosaurs, you see only in the background but everything had to be animated and designed so I'd never been part of anything so gigantic before. That was a new challenge.

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