Set Visit: Enter the mythical land of Sam Raimi's 'Oz the Great and Powerful'
"Just try and stay out of my way. Just try! I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!" - The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), "The Wizard of Oz"
"I will tell you what our statistics are as of last night," says special makeup effects artist Howard Berger as he takes us on a tour of his impressive studio. "There are these characters called ‘Winkies’ who are the witch’s guards, and we have done 72 Winkies so far; ‘Tinkers,' which is the make-up I have just finished here, we have done 337 Tinkers; ‘Munchkins,' we have done 383 Munchkins so far, and we are not even halfway there as far as the scenes that involve these characters, so my projection is that we will be close to 3,000, 4,000 [makeup] applications. That also doesn’t include the witches and other ‘hero’ make-ups during the whole of the film."
A veteran craftsman and co-founder of KNB FX, one of the industry's most in-demand makeup effects studios, the Oscar-winning Berger has racked up an impressive resume during his three decades in the industry, with major credits including "The Chronicles of Narnia," "Grindhouse" and last fall's "Hitchcock" starring Anthony Hopkins in facial prosthetics. Still, "Oz" may rank as his most demanding production to date.
"I literally have the monstrous arsenal I have never, ever had on a film, but it needed that because the scope of what our work is on the film is so gigantic," he says. "Today, I just finished my third make-up, and I’ve got two other make-ups to do today; the average is between three to five make-ups per make-up artist, which is really absolutely ridiculous. And we have about a six hour, six and a half hour build prior to call. So on Monday mornings, when we have a 6am crew call, we are here about two o’clock in the morning starting, then as the week goes, it just goes on and on. Today is Thursday and I’m a little delirious."
One of the most daunting challenges faced by Berger and his crew was coming up with an iconic new look for the Wicked Witch of the West, played by Margaret Hamilton in the '39 film and by another actress who will remain nameless (Mila Kunis or Rachel Weisz? Disney publicity would rather I not say) in "Oz the Great and Powerful." One particularly frustrating aspect of designing the film's big baddie can be blamed on Disney's inability to replicate specific elements from "The Wizard of Oz" - a result of MGM's stranglehold on the rights to Baum's first book as well as the on-screen look of several of the resulting film adaptation's most iconic touchstones.
"We...had to be very careful of not crossing over into the Margaret Hamilton make-up, which was really difficult," Berger says. "We kept going back and forth, for a month, and for a while, the Witch wasn’t going to be green, and we were like, 'Well, that’s never going to fly. How can you have 'The Wizard Of Oz' and not have a green Witch?' But Disney kept saying, 'Well, there’s not going to be a green Witch. It should be flesh, or maybe do a little yellow,' so I tried a bunch of different make-up tests and they never really worked, but we finally found a green that Disney was happy with and felt we weren’t in issue with the other people that own the rights to 'Oz' products."
Indeed, with Berger's designs in constant transition and modification during production, the Mouse House's legal team no doubt had their work cut out for them. "A big thing for Disney was the mole on [the Wicked Witch's] chin," Berger tells us at one point. "We tried a mole and Disney was like, 'Neerr! No mole.'"
In spite of the challenges that come with working on a production of such massive scale - particularly one laced with such an intricate web of thorny legal issues - getting to work with Raimi again was a huge added bonus for Berger, whose relationship with the director goes back nearly to the beginning of his career; one of his very first jobs was working on "Evil Dead II," an experience that led to gigs on subsequent Raimi films including "Army of Darkness" and "Drag Me to Hell."
“If Sam comes to us [i.e. himself and KNB co-founder Gregory Nicotero; partner Robert Kurtzman parted ways with the company in 2003] and says, ‘I want to shoot this monster movie in the backyard of my house – would you come?', we would be there in a heartbeat," he tells us. "We love working with Sam so much, and this is like shooting a film in his backyard, although this is a $250 million backyard. It’s the most expensive student film ever!"
As for the workload on "Oz," Berger wasn't kidding - hanging from racks in every direction are hundreds if not thousands of prosthetics. There's even a bag filled with witch fingers. "Somehow we always run out of noses for Munchkins," he muses when addressing the production's more specific challenges. "It’s amazing. We do 30 or 40 Munchkins a day, that’s 40 noses, so they go fast. Back [at KNB headquarters] in L.A....they are 24/7 running [prosethetics for] Munchkins and Winkies and Tinkers and Witches and all that crazy stuff."
One major contributing factor to Berger's daily workload is the production's use of new and emerging technologies - specifically 3D and high-definition digital video, neither of which the industry vet is particularly shy about offering his opinions on.
"The 3D and HD is terrible," he says bluntly. "I can’t say how much I hate it. If I could find Mr. HD, I would stab him in the head. I’m a purist as far as film goes and I am not a fan at all of 3D and I am definitely not a fan of HD. I don’t feel that it gives you that cinematic film quality that film does. Film has grain and digital has pixels, and pixels have sharp edges, and it is really, really hard. ...It’s just frustrating to me because I like film – that’s what I grew up wanting to do – and the whole new process is a big change."
It's fair to say that had the decision been Berger's to make, "Oz the Great and Powerful" would have been filmed with good old-fashioned 35mm film stock - modern technology be damned. "It doesn’t look right," he says of HD. "I can’t tell what I am looking at: on set, it looks great to me, then on the monitors, it looks alright, then there’s a booth – the Booth Of Death, I call it – which really shows you what it looks like, and that’s horrifying beyond belief. I’m like, 'What!? That’s going to be in the movie?' ...You don’t need it to be that real. We are making a film. If you want to have real life, disconnect yourself and go out into the real world and look at real people for God’s sake."