Thursday, March 16, 2017


According to Walter Murch, CLAYMATION was an integral part of his conception of the film from the beginning.  The principal antagonist whom Dorothy must confront and defeat in this new adventure in the Nome King, an evil being who, in the company of his faithful nomes, moves through solid rock as if it were water.  Murch had seen Will Vinton's THE LITTLE PRINCE at Marin County Film Festival several years earlier, and had always imagined that CLAYMATION was the ideal technique for bringing these rock creatures to life.

     When Murch first visited the Vinton studio in Portland, Oregon, the script for RETURN TO OZ was in its first draft.  The characteristics, powers, and design of the Nome King were hammered out in the discussion with CLAYMATION Director Will Vinton, Art Director Barry Bruce and other artists from Will Vinton Productions studio even as Walter Murch and co-writer Gil Dennis revised and polished the story.

     One of the first issues to be addressed was the look of the clay itself.  It was not difficult to match the color of the rock samples Murch sent, but getting a rock-like texture was more difficult.  The addition of various materials from sand and walnut shells tried.  Finally an aggregate of small black rocks was settled on.  The addition of these rocks required many adjustments in the closely guarded and delicately balanced clay formula in order to get a consistency that could be easily moved for animation.  To give the clay a burnish rock surface, small rocks were dipped in water and used to shape the clay as in was animated.

      In the course of the film, as the Nome King captures and imprisons each of Dorothy's friends, he gradually becomes less rock-like and more human.  Dorothy first encounters him on a rocky ledge where she and her companions have fallen after their flight from the castle of the Wicked Witch Mombi.   At this stage the Nome King appears in the cliff wall with features barely distinguishable from the natural rock formations which fissure and rumble as he speaks.  Later, in his Throne Room -- a cavernous chamber in the bowels of the mountain -- the Nome King becomes more and more human.  His head emerges from the rock wall.  The outlines of a body become visible.  Hands and arms emerge.  Eventually human eyes fill the rough-hewn sockets, and the rock surroundings his body begins to form into a robe of sorts.
     At the dramatic climax of the film, Dorothy begins to gain the upper hand, freeing her friends from the Nome King's power, and the Nome King begins to regress and decay until he is finally reduced to an angry pile of rubble.

      The OZ production required extensive matching of CLAYMATION  with live-action photography.  CLAYMATION Art Director, Barry Bruce went to London's EMI Studios during pre-production to work with Production Designer Norman Reynolds, to coordinate design of the sets with the design of the Nome King.  During principal photography either CLAYMATION Director Will Vinton or CLAYMATION Producer David Altschul were there for any shot which related to the Nome King or nomes.  They consulted with Walter Murch on live action background shots into which CLAYMATION Nome King and nomes would be composited. 

    They took extensive notes, snap shots and drawings that would enable them to match composition, lighting and texture.   While Actor Nicol Williamson recorded his lines in England to be used in the clay sequences, reference film was simultaneously shot.  This was referred to by the animators at Vinton's studio in Portland, as they matched the Nome King's lip and body movements to the actor's movements.  The animators also used TV monitors to track movement.  These were particularly important where movements were more rock-like than human.  In scenes like Nome King on the ledge, or the spy sequences, the faces tend to stretch and fissure in very complicated ways.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Chicago Tribune Article

Chicago Tribune
June 30, 1985
Author: Jeff Silverman.

    Somewhere, under the rainbow, Hollywood set up a yellow-brick-roadblock it has never quite been able to get around. The year was 1939, the studio was MGM, and 10 scripts, three directors and a pair of ruby slippers later, ``The Wizard of Oz`` clicked its heels in a way that seemed to make the route to the Emerald City forever impassable to the filmmakers who tried to follow it.

    Not even Walt Disney could crack the nut. Disney had the wherewithal to snatch the rights to the 13 Oz books that followed L. Frank Baum`s original foray into the wonderful world inspired by the White City of the 1893 Chicago World`s Fair, but even Disney`s imagination, expansive as it could be, failed to map the journey. Not that he wasn`t persistent. He tried twice; two scripts were commissioned a
nd written, and a series of preliminary design sketches made, but no new movie was able to emerge from the shadow cast by the 1939 musical. Meanwhile, the books simply gathered dust on Disney`s shelves, their only likely destination the public domain.

    ``The `39 film,`` says director Walter Murch--he almost always refers to it as the `` `39 film``--``is definitely a part of the mental furniture of everyone`s life.''  Which makes Murch a kind of celluloid re-upholsterer, daring enough in his vision to strip the antimacassars from a living artifact and create a whole new piece that stands or falls on its own. His ``Return to Oz`` is neither a remake of nor a sequel to the icon that whisked Judy Garland over the rainbow and into a star. It has no songs, no dances, no Munchkins, no Wizard--and a Fairuza Balk instead of a Judy Garland. Its wicked witch plays second fiddle to a Nome King, and the anthropomorphically lovable Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion have been supplanted by a trio of characters that works by remote control. The film, to take a Baum creation, is a Horse of a Different Color, one that tries to leap over the 1939 classic to get closer to Baum's (and his illustrator, John R. Neill`s) at times dark conception of their magic kingdom, and then back again to make the most of today's wizardlike film technology.

     "It would be impossible to actually pick up and continue along the wavelength that they had started with the `39 film," Murch explains from London, where he is still remixing the "Return to Oz" soundtrack for foreign audiences. ``It took almost two generations to reach that point where we can really go back and reinvent the whole form in which the story tells itself.`` Reinvention seems the magic formula, or at least the direction with the most likely chance of success. Anything too like the original would naturally suffer by comparison. Anything too distant would miss the spirit of Oz.    

     "You can never hit the note of the `39 film again," says the 41-year-old director, "but the closer you come to trying to get that note precisely, the more upsetting it would be. It's like hitting two notes too close together on the piano. They don't harmonize. What we tried to do is go further down or further up the piano and find another note somewhere else on the keyboard that in a sense is different from the original film but harmonizes with it so when you play the two notes together they begin to produce a chord.``

    For Murch, searching for the right chord brought him precariously close to sounding the lost chord on his directorial debut. One of the industry's most respected film and sound editors, he has toiled in some of the movies` most prestigious vineyards. Through the years, he has worked closely with Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Phil Kaufman, his San Francisco Bay area film-making neighbors, and, in the end, they helped Murch regain the confidence and control that had begun to erode on the "Return to Oz" set. Murch worked on both ``Godfather`` films with Coppola, and his efforts helped turn ``The Conversation`` into one of the most talked-about films of the early `70s. In 1977, he received an Oscar nomination for his editing of Fred Zinnemann's "Julia."  Two years later, he won an Academy Award for mixing Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."  With Lucas, he co-wrote "THX 1138," and then mixed "American Graffiti." Phil Kaufman offers him special thanks in the credits of "The Right Stuff." Still, Murch wanted to direct a film of his own. In the right place at the right time, he got that chance in 1980.

    The Disney brass was on the lookout for new directors. Since Disney`s death in 1966, the studio had slipped to a sort of secondary status in the Hollywood hierarchy; the brass felt an infusion of new talent could help bring them back to a community force. So Tom Wilhite, then Disney's head of production, drew up a list of potential directors who had yet to helm a feature film. Murch was on that list. "When he got to the M`s," says Murch, "Tom gave me a call."  The two met, and Wilhite asked Murch if there were a subject he was particularly interested in. Without hesitation, he said Oz. Not just for the challenge of filming something that seemed unfilmable, but for his own relationship to the stories. They played an important part of his growing up, a legacy passed on to him from his mother. Her parents were Canadian medical missionaries based in Ceylon at the turn of the century, the same time that the Oz books were being published.  "They were the biggest thing happening if you were a child," Murch explains.  "They were the equivalent of `Star Wars` today."

    For his mother, each arriving edition seemed to represent home, a link with a place far away she barely remembered. ``I think they conjured up images in her mind of a country she was going back to where these books came from, and,`` he stresses, ``it was a fabulous place. She was only 5 or 6 at the time, and I think in some ways she may have gotten the subject matter of the books and Canada mixed up together. They made a big impression on her.``  On her son, as well. As soon as he was old enough to read, his mother plopped the books down in front of him. He was hooked from the start.

    In the summer of 1980, Wilhite gave Murch the go-ahead to cowrite the "Return to Oz" script, which he based on a compilation and telescoping of Baum`s second and third Oz adventures, ``The Land of Oz`` and ``Ozma of Oz.`` More brooding than his original ``The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,`` the second book chronicles the troubles that beset the Emerald City after Dorothy goes back to Kansas. In the third, Dorothy returns to Oz and helps restore Ozma to the throne that had been taken from her by evil granite Nome King and the
wicked Princess Mombi, played in the film by English actors Nicol Williamson and Jean Marsh.

    When Murch handed in his first draft two years later, the studio was nervous. His conceptions both of Oz and Kansas were bleaker than Disney had envisioned. But the studio proceeded, and in late 1983, a $20 million budget was assigned to the project, and filming was set to begin in December.

     Now Murch had to find his Dorothy. An eight-city casting search yielded a 9-year-old from Vancouver named Fairuza Balk. ``In the earliest tests that we shot of her,`` Murch says,  "she seemed to slip into that character almost as if passing through an invisible wall."  And she did something else: She conjured a memory of Judy Garland without fixating on Judy Garland. ``There were so many girls that we looked at who tried to be as much like Judy Garland as possible, and I discounted them for that reason. From the very beginning, Fairuza was very aware that this will be her Dorothy. I encouraged her to become herself.`'  He spent several weeks with the young actress going over the story, going over Dorothy`s character and motivations from situation to situation. He even screened the `39 film for the cast and crew he had assembled-to put it behind them.

Then, six weeks before his start date, Wilhite`s replacement at the studio, Richard Berger, shut the production down. The budget, he realized, was closer to $27 million than the original estimate. Child-labor laws would allow Balk, who is in every sequence of the film, to work only 3 1/2 hours a day. And the script as a whole was considered too complicated and unwieldy.  "It was let known to me," says Murch, ``that if the script was cut and if it was cut in a way to make it possible to shoot in 16 weeks, that they might consider making the film after all.``

     Murch sliced 20 pages, and an inflexible 16-week schedule was established. Berger gave the green light, a budget of $25 million was set, and the film was set to roll almost entirely in England, where the exchange worked in favor of the dollar and the talent pool of technicians and crew--many who`d worked on the ``Star Wars`` movies, ``Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom`` and the three ``Superman`` films--were experienced in serving the special needs of an effects movie. Then, six weeks into the shoot the bottom fell out. Murch was already a week behind schedule. And Disney was at the end of its rainbow. Berger flew to London, and producer Paul Maslansky insisted the director should be fired. ``As we started the film,`` says Murch, ``we started to fall behind as many films do. It`s not a new experience. The difference in this case was that I was a first-time director, and there wasn`t any film they could point to where I had directed and they could say it went over by 10 days, but it turned out okay, and it made a lot of money.``

    Any film that has to rely on effects is logistically more difficult, and add to that a film trying slip out from under the shadow of a classic, with a huge budget and a 9-year-old unknown star, and you have a film likely to give executives bad dreams. ``It was,`` Murch admits, ``a high-wire act from the start.``

     Murch, naturally, was the first one to fall. ``It didn`t come out of the blue,`` he says. ``There was a mounting sense of doom that something was going to happen, and I was desperately afraid that this dream that I had carried around for all my life was going to evaporate. Or that I was going to be forced to compromise it in some unspeakable way that you just couldn`t imagine.`` Berger fired him on March 28, 1984. By 3:30 the next morning, George Lucas was calling from Japan to say he`d be right over to check things out.  Lucas looked at the footage already shot, and pronounced it ``wonderful.`` Then he went over the production schedule, and felt it ridiculously tight and should be expanded. Then, as Lucas played big brother to Murch, offering pointers and encouragement, he played politician with Berger, explaining that bringing in another director foreign to the project would only put the production further behind. After two days, Murch was reinstated, his confidence a bit shaken, but certainly on the mend.

    Lucas` mission opened a floodgate of support. In time, Coppola flew over to the set for a week. So did Phil Kaufman. And Steven Spielberg dropped in from his postproduction chores on ``Indiana Jones.``  They were, in the deepest sense, friends who were there at a time when I felt that the world had kind of caved in on me,`` says Murch. ``They reassured me that it would all turn out great, gave me some slaps on the back, and pushed me back onto the stage and said, `Go finish it.'"  Murch did. He may have even reopened the Yellow Brick Road to a new generation of filmmakers.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

In the beginning...

In the beginning.... 

     Walt had long been a fan of L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books. In fact, back in the mid-1930s, just as Disney Studios was starting to search for a story that would serve as a suitable follow-up to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs".  Walt had Roy inquire about the movie rights to the original "Wizard of Oz".  Unfortunately, the Baum family had just sold the rights to this best-selling fantasy novel to rival mogul Samuel Goldwyn for some $60,000. Which is how Disney Studios missed out on the chance to make an animated version of "The Wizard of Oz." 

     But even though this initial opportunity had slipped through Walt's fingers, he never lost his
enthusiasm for the Oz books, their colorful characters and spectacular settings. Which is why -- in 1954 -- when the movie rights to 11 of Baum's books became available Walt quickly snatched them up.  But Walt was really pushing to get the "Rainbow Road to Oz" movie made. Even going so far as to acquire the rights to a 12th L. Frank Baum book, "Dorothy and the Wizard of  OZ," for an amount that was said to be the equivalent of what the studio had paid for the first 11 books.

    But then the previously-announced start-of-production date in November came and went. And then -- by February of 1958 -- rumors began circulating that Disney had abandoned plans to shoot "The Rainbow Road to Oz." That Walt had suddenly tabled this project and was now searching for a more suitable production to serve as his studio's entry into the world of live action musicals.  (And finally in the early eighties) every day that ticked by -- the options that Disney had held on those 12 L. Frank Baum books back in the 1950s were losing their value. Given that many of these titles -- just like the original "Wizard of Oz" had -- were getting ready to slip into public domain. Which meant that any studio could then produce an Oz picture.

Finally, in 1980, Tom Wilhite --


the then-head of production at Walt Disney Studios -- had had enough. He was tired of seeing the company produce this seemingly endless series of mediocre films. Particularly since the studio was sitting on the movie rights to this spectacular series of children's books. So Tom began searching for a director who'd be willing to tackle the Oz project.

To hear Walter Murch tell the story, "Tom had to work his way down to the Ms before he finally found me." Murch -- an Academy-Award winning sound & film editor -- may seem like a rather unlikely candidate to direct Disney's Oz movie. But Walter's pedigree (I.E. Murch had worked with Francis Ford Coppola on the "Godfather ") was impeccable. More to the point, given that Murch had just won an Oscar for his work on "Apocalypse Now," he had a fairly high profile at the moment.  So Murch was signed to both write & direct what was then known as "Oz" ...

     The "Return to Oz" title wouldn't actually be tacked onto the film until much further on down Disney's developmental track  And -- when Wilhite
 first announced the project to the press in January of 1991 -- he revealed that Dorothy would most likely not appear as a character in this picture.  "We'll probably combine characters from various books and structure a new storyline."  But the screenplay that Walter would submit in the spring of 1982 did feature Dorothy as a character. It was also much darker in tone than the studio had been anticipating. Which caused Disney executives much concern.   Still, development of "Oz" continued. A veteran production designer, Norman Reynolds (Who had worked on "Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back ") was hired to bring Baum's world to life. And work then began on the various robotically-controlled characters that would be featured in the film ...

    At this point, some $6 million had already been spent by Walt Disney Productions on "Oz." And then -- in November of 1983 -- Richard Berger (I.E. The executive who had replaced Tom Wilhite as president of production at the studio) suddenly shut down production of the picture.
As Berger explained to the New York Times back in July of 1985:

     ''The budget was up to
$27 million (Which was significantly higher than the $20 million that 'Oz' was originally supposed to cost) ... The movie was supposed to (be shot in) Algiers, Sardinia, Spain, Canada, Kansas and England ... All of Disney's recent movies had (gone) over budget. 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' had been $5 million over budget. (Which is why I) decided to close down the movie and write off the $6 million (that the studio had already invested in the picture).''

    Eventually however a compromise was reached. "Oz" 's budget was pared back to $25 million. Which meant that virtually all of the movie's on-location sequences (Which would have sent the cast & crew off to Sardinia & Algeria to shoot the scenes set in the Deadly Desert, Kisserta near Naples to shoot the Nome King's throne room sequence and Hadrian's Villa outside of Rome for Mombi's palace as well as the ruins of the Emerald City) were scrubbed. Except for the scenes that were set in Kansas (Which were shot out on the U.K. 's Salisbury Plain, near where Stonehenge is located), the entire film would be shot on five soundstages at Elstree Studios.
 The film (as Murch and his production team had originally envisioned it) never quite recovered from all these budget cuts. Though much time & effort had already been devoted to creating authentic likenesses of favorite old characters like the Scarecrow.

Now there was no money left in the budget for the complicated electronics that would have brought his face to life. Which is why the Scarecrow mostly had a fixed expression in the finished film.  As for Jack Pumpkinhead....

It often took as many as six puppeteers to bring Jack to life..

Where even the seemingly simple act of standing up and/or sitting down involved all sorts of elaborate off-screen mechanics.

    The "Return to Oz" shoot did not go well. Given that Fairuza Balk, the film's 9-year-old star, could only work 3 1/2 hours each day and that characters like Billina the talking chicken were notoriously difficult to operate, the production quickly fell behind schedule. At one point, Disney execs actually tried to remove Murch as director of "Return to Oz," only to have George Lucas intercede on Walter's behalf.   Once production was completed, Murch's movie had to deal with other problems. You see, by the time that "Return to Oz" had finally made out into theaters in June of 1985, Mouse House management had changed yet again.

   Now it was Michael Eisner & Jeffrey Katzenberg who were calling the shots in Burbank. And -- to be honest -- Michael & Jeffrey didn't know quite what to make of Walter's film. A PG-rated pseudo-sequel to 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" with no music that was often too dark & scary for small kids to handle.

    So while "Return to Oz" may have been the centerpiece of an elaborate presentation at Radio City Music Hall that summer, around the rest of the country this Walter Murch film didn't receive very special treatment. At that time, noted author Harlan Ellison actually accused Disney Company management of deliberately sabotaging "Oz" 's chances at the box office. Which is why he urged his readers to " ... go see it, before it disappears."  But,  luckily, thanks to VHS and DVD, "Return to Oz" has not disappeared. And while this movie may have been a real box office disappointment back in 1985 (Earning only $11.1 million during its entire domestic run), it has since gone on to be embraced by Baum enthusiasts around the globe. Who have applauded Murch's efforts to keep the look & style of this film consistent with that of L. Frank's books.