There have been a number of sequels and adaptations over the years of the classic 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, based on the 1900 novel by L. Frank Baum, including a radio play, the Broadway play “The Wiz,” the book “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” the musical “Wicked,” and more. Even the Muppets got in on the act with a TV film. Most recently, NBC provided a modern-day spin on the story with unique interpretations of the main characters and their backstories, along with stunning visual effects, in a series called
“It’s probably the most beautiful art--directed and designed VFX work I have ever done for television,” says Tom Horton, series VFX supervisor and producer. “The mantra of the show was to make it look visually stunning first and then real.”
In the series, a tornado engulfs a police car with Dorothy from Kansas inside, sending her crashing down on the Mistress of the Eastern Wood. Believing East dead, a tribe of woods people with mystical powers banishes Dorothy, believing her to be a witch, too, since only a witch can kill a witch. Ojo, the tribe leader, sends Dorothy on a journey to Oz, through the Prison of the Abject, created by East to hold magic--practicing prisoners within its muddy pit. On her way, Dorothy encounters East, who had not perished. The witch finds Dorothy’s gun and, unfamiliar with the object, points it at herself and fatefully pulls the trigger.
In this series, the original Oz characters and their traits and stories can be loosely recognized throughout. For instance, there are many other witches, and it is uncertain if they are good or evil. There is an amnesiac soldier with dirt and grass sticking to his body, trussed up in a barren landscape, who becomes Dorothy’s companion and lover – though it turns out he is the witch Glinda’s husband. There’s a boy whose badly broken body is mended with technology and mechanical parts by a scientist in the steampunk-style city of Ev. There is an assassin covered in a lion’s skin. The wizard is a rogue scientist who had been transported to the land years earlier, where he has since used his knowledge and skills to take control of Oz and its people. And Toto is now a police dog that was transported to Oz with Dorothy.
Science versus magic is a central theme in the storytelling throughout the series. It seems fitting, then, that computer science was used to create the show’s digital magic. “The show is set in the mythical land of Oz, which is inhabited by witches, flying mechanical monkeys, tornados, massive locust swarms, and some creatures, so visual effects were central to the story,” says Horton.
Emerald City contains approximately 1,300 VFX shots spanning the 10 episodes of Season 1. Four of the episodes had just under 100 VFX shots, while four others had close to 120, while the remaining two episodes totaled 150 and 250 VFX shots. The work was divided among three main vendors.
“We had two major cities that we had to create – Emerald City and castle, and Ev City and castle, both with extremely unique design characteristics – along with several other castles and palaces,” says Horton. “Of course, this being the story of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, we had a number of tornados that appear throughout the series. They had to be realistic as well as art-directable for very specific ‘magic’ sequences.”
Other effects work included crowd replication, digital character augmentation, and a swarm of locust that attacks a small army. While the Emerald City and Ev City castles were CG, Glinda’s massive white abode consisted of a traditional matte painting due to the locked-off nature of the shots, though CG had been considered initially.
THE PRISON OF THE ABJECT WAS CREATED BY THE WITCH EAST TO HOLD MAGIC-PRACTICING PRISONERS WITHIN ITS MUDDY PIT. IN REALITY, IT WAS CREATED BY VISUAL EFFECTS WIZARDS AT NVIZIBLE.
Freefolk completed more than 400 VFX shots, with the work focused mainly on the Antonio Gaudi-inspired Emerald City, the wizard’s castle, and the surrounding landscape, including the 3D sea and harbor, as well as the stone giant standing menacingly over the city that comes to life in the climactic final episode. The studio also created the underground witches’ castle, witch magic, mechanical flying monkey drones, various tornados, and magic gaseous/particle effects and snow.
Nvizible created the steampunk-style city of Ev, complete with glass-covered streets and roof-level monorails. Also, the team crafted the cavernous interior of Emerald Castle, Glinda’s sprawling castle, the Prison of the Abject, the yellow poppy--covered Oz landscape, and Jack after he becomes the Tin Man.
Double Negative, meanwhile, built and disintegrated an enormous stone giant and conjured up a biblical swarm of animated locusts. The artists there also handled a number of magic sequences in the earlier episodes, including a small animated man made of pebbles that dances and a magical cloth that forms the shape of Glinda’s face and talks. In addition, the team created digi-doubles of soldiers, matte paintings, a giant albino eel, and East’s magical red gauntlets that encase Dorothy’s hands after the witch is shot dead.
Also contributing effects were Incessant Rain, floating pollen in the air in the opening yellow brick road sequences as well as 2D paint and comp work. Anonymous Pixels executed a flashback sequence and some cleanup and paintwork.
Filming for Emerald City took place across Spain and briefly in Croatia, in a valley of waterfalls and a VFX shoot in Dubrovnik on the Adriatic Sea.
There are two main cities in Oz – Emerald City and Ev City – both built using new approaches that differed for each.
The artists at Freefolk used a procedural approach for Emerald City. “I had in the past been unhappy with the usual CG city approach, which entailed creating a number of buildings that were minimally repurposed and then laid out per camera view by an artist,” says Horton. “For me, the repetition was always evident. Using a procedural approach, we were able to input actual topological landscapes from real cities in Europe, complete with realistic road systems that we were then able to populate with bespoke buildings based on fixed parameters, such as four-story buildings on main roads, two-story buildings in working--class areas, and so forth.”
USING A PROCEDURAL SYSTEM, ARTISTS AT FREEFOLK CONSTRUCTED THE BEAUTIFUL EMERALD CITY, HOME OF THE WIZARD OF OZ. THE CITY CONTAINS MORE THAN 8,000 UNIQUE HOUSES ARRANGED IN DISTINCT DISTRICTS.
Signature buildings, such as churches and domes, were added, as well as a completely hand-built Emerald Castle, inspired by Gaudi’s Parc Guell architecture, and a highly detailed CG giant complete with computer-generated greenery growing on it. All of the trees and foliage in Emerald City were full-CG, as well.
Emerald City’s design was loosely based on the city of Dubrovnik. The areas were zoned based on proximity to the harbor (commercial), castle (high end), wall (poor), high streets (shops), and so on. Different facades were then used to populate the floor plan. “We studied plans of similar hilly cities such as Greece and even used them as templates for certain areas,” says Paul Simpson, VFX supervisor for Freefolk. “The overall feeling was that of a working city that had then transformed at the arrival of the wizard.”
Due to the procedural approach to the construction and layout of the city, the scene file was massive and required a huge amount of optimization in order to render effectively. Also, both the CG giant and Emerald Castle were modeled and rendered at an incredibly high level of detail due to the camera passing close to both of those objects.
“For us, designing and building the city itself was the single biggest task,” says Simpson. “All of Emerald City was CG. We used some photogrammetry for the landscape, but apart from that, everything else was modeled, textured, and finished in 3D. This was necessary as the city was a character itself, which was to be featured throughout the entire season.”
With such a fantastical theme, one would expect there to be a good deal of greenscreen shots in the series. But this was not the case. “Tom Horton with Tarsem [Singh, director] wanted to use as much live action where possible. This had the advantage of grounding the look with photography,” explains Simpson.
The team of artists at Freefolk designed and built Emerald City with more than 8,000 individual and unique houses arranged in the districts, each one having its own design, character, and architectural style. TDs wrote a procedural system capable of assembling a building using a construction kit of facades with bolt-on features, such as windows, doors, and other dressing. The roofing system was created using a skeletal structure, to ensure that each roof looked the same as those built in real life.
For close-up shots, each tile was a separate instance, leveraging the features in a commercial software package. “Without that, we would have been stuck building the city with the old ‘building block’ style, where you can see repetition,” says Simpson. “The effort was worth it, as it allowed us to see the city from any viewpoint.”
Freefolk also designed and built the wizard’s castle in very high resolution, to allow for close-ups on the top of the castle. The town itself was surrounded by a fortified wall, built on a natural rocky elevation leading down to the sea. The city wall and surrounding rocks were built using photogrammetry from photos Simpson took while sailing in Dubrovnik harbor. Towering above this all was the stone giant, frozen in place just as he’s about to strike the underground witches’ temple, an asset that was built in 3D, enabling the artists to see it from any angle and at any time of the day.
According to Horton, the full-CG city of Ev was by far the most challenging of the two to create. In contrast to Emerald City, it was built using a projection approach supplemented by some fully-CG features. Given that the design of the Ev City buildings and the bridge at the base of Ev Castle were based on production-approved Budapest architecture, Nvizible was able to extensively photograph these building for projection. Likewise, Ev Castle was based on the Hungarian Parliament House, which was also extensively photographed.
NVIZIBLE BUILT THE STEAMPUNK-BASED EV CITY USING A PROJECTION APPROACH. ITS DESIGN IS BASED ON SEVERAL EUROPEAN LOCATIONS, FROM HUNGARY TO FRANCE.
“The procedural building of Emerald City and even the Ev City’s use of projection so extensively led to new approaches to environment creation,” Horton points out.
According to Thomas Dyg, visual effects supervisor at Nvizible, the group photographed several buildings in Budapest and turned them into photogrammetric images containing 3D spatial data, resulting in the creation of raw 3D building parts that could be used as a kit of parts for constructing new buildings, and from those, the interesting city of Ev.
“This meant we could build the city a bit like you would DMP elements, like a photo collage of a smaller part and bits of a photograph, only in 3D,” Dyg explains. “I would not call it a full-CG set because the models would not be refined to the point where they would work in close-ups or from all sides.”
In fact, none of them were cleaned up or re-topologized. And as such, they came in on the high side in terms of polygons, Dyg adds.
The artists could easily load in the raw scanned buildings, do the layout with hundreds, even thousands, of buildings, and quickly make iterations until they had an interesting and good-looking image of Ev. This layout was then used from a set of different views, from far away to across the river.
Creating the layout involved both manually placing hero buildings and procedurally mass-placing buildings, street furniture, boats, flags, trains, people, and so forth. A fair number of AOVs (arbitrary output variables) were rendered and further lookdev’d before they were composited with the plates.
Ev boasts interesting interiors and exteriors. One feature in both was the street-covering glass structures. “This was based on the look of the Grand Palais in Paris and the Palmenhaus Schönbrunn in Vienna,” says Dyg. “In the interior street shots, these roofs looked particularly good and were a nice addition to the steam-punk design.”
An elevated train runs the length of one of the streets and can be seen both in the street shots and in the exterior shots. The train carriage was based on the look of the funicular in Budapest, which goes from street level up to Buda Castle; Buda Castle was the stand-in for the castle of Ev, which, somewhat like Buda Castle, is on the opposing riverbank from the city.
“In fact, one of our shots from above the funicular, which overlooks the city of Ev, in reality overlooks Budapest,” says Dyg. “Many of the elements, places, and buildings were rooted in Europe in general, and Budapest in particular. It’s definitely far away from Kansas.”
Stone Giants, Tornados, More
According to Horton, one of the more complicated effects was the procedural destruction of Emerald City. Others included the scale of destruction for DNeg’s giant as it collapsed, the lengthy dialog scene that occurs within a field as a huge swarm of locusts freezes around the characters, and the art-directable tornados.
“The sequence I was most concerned with was our swarming and frozen locust fields,” says Horton. “With a TV budget and our short TV delivery times, DNeg needed to develop a CG approach that allowed for a handheld camera in a frozen locust field that was render-light. The results are pretty stunning.”
Max Dennison, VFX supervisor at DNeg, estimates the studio produced millions of locusts for the sequence, varying in levels of complexity. The CG team spent a lot of time developing the look of the insects, making them albino rather than brown/olive, to tie into the costume design for the child witches and, more importantly, to generate interesting colors during the swarming phase.
DOUBLE NEGATIVE WAS TASKED WITH GENERATING A SWARM OF LOCUSTS THAT SURROUND SOME OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS, THEN FREEZE IN THE AIR AS THOSE CHARACTERS FACE OFF DURING A CONFRONTATION. THE SWARMING EFFECT CAME FROM PARTICLE SIMS.
The swarming effect was generated using bespoke particle simulations. “This was done to carefully choreograph the swarms to do very specific things at very specific times. For instance, the flocking swarms as they first appear had to look like fingers coming up and over the hill,” says Dennison. “When they swarm above the camp, we had to pay homage to the tornado shape, and when they attack and swarm around Dorothy, they had to form very organic shapes simply to make the shots look more pleasing.”
The freeze effect, Dennison says, evolved through the design phase of the swarm sequence. “Rather than have the locusts continually rotate around Dorothy, [it was decided] they should be held in space by an invisible force field or magic,” he explains. “The moment is almost tranquil. Quiet. Intimate. So, calming down the swarm at this point became a very effective story vehicle. The locusts aren’t dead, but held suspended, unable to move. Nevertheless, we designed the locusts to twitch occasionally and move; straining against their captivity. This produced a lovely animated ‘twinkling’ effect in the background as their wings reflected in the sunlight.”
While the witches called forth the locusts, the wizard has his own weapons, the stone giants. Years before, Emerald City was saved from The Beast Forever by the giants, though the kingdom of Ev was destroyed. The wizard maintains that he controls the giants, but it is Dorothy who is responsible for bringing them to life again during this latest power struggle within the kingdom, after she persuades Ojo’s dying wife to raise them.
FREEFOLK INTEGRATED TOPOLOGICAL LANDSCAPES FROM REAL LOCATIONS IN EUROPE WHILE CREATING EMERALD CITY. THE DESIGN WAS BASED SOMEWHAT ON THE CITY OF DUBROVNIK ON THE ADRIATIC SEA.
Throughout the series, there are various shots of the still giants. But in the season finale, they come to life and disintegrate. “I was really impressed by both Freefolk and DNeg’s destruction. I thought the scale and detail in both their sequences were excellent,” notes Horton.
According to Dennison, the artists had to make the giant “do” so much from the outset. “Of course, building a realistic 70-meter stone giant is not easy and fraught with technical difficulties. Scale. Texture. Animation. Destruction. And lastly, believability,” he says. “All these factors had to be carefully considered beforehand, but our CG team brought together a range of different tools and methodologies to make it all happen.”
The modelers paid particular attention to scale and the natural shape and structure of the rock. They also had to preplan how they were going to destroy it, so careful consideration was given to the fracture points and localities, so that when the giant did finally collapse, it did so realistically and as one might expect for such a large and heavy object. The VFX team then went to work, using those predefined fracture points and geometry to drive particles that would simulate falling rocks, dust,
DNEG BUILT AND ANIMATED ONE OF THE STONE GIANTS, THEN DISINTEGRATED IT IN A THRILLING SCENE IN THE SERIES. THE CREATURE COLLAPSES INTO DUST, STONE, AND DEBRIS.
“Once again, scale was very important, so we used real-world units and gravity to drive our simulations,” says Dennison.
In addition to the destruction of the giants, simulation effects were also used for the water around Emerald City and for the tornados. “It took weeks and months of development work to find the right shape, speed, density, and color for the various tornados,” says Horton. “The supercell cloud also proved to be an enormous simulation challenge given its massive scale and the need for it to rotate at a much faster speed than a supercell cloud would normally rotate.”
Freefolk built a tornado construction set using a determinate VDB network, enabling the artists to art-direct each shot without having to resort to using slow simulations that were not art-directable. “We use sims sparingly, as often deterministic methods have the same results but are more art-directable and faster,” says Simpson.
There are a limited number of CG characters in the series, and for one, a cloth face, simulation was required. This called for DNeg to generate a great deal of detailed cloth simulation combined with fully-CG character animation. “We provided DNeg with a detailed 50-camera photoscan of the lead actress, which they used to animate the cloth face to match the actress’s performance on set,” explains Horton. “The performance was then applied to a CG cloth simulated and composited in the clean actress-free plate.”
EMERALD CITY'S TAKE ON THE FLYING MONKEYS FROM THE WIZARD OF OZ LORE ARE THESE MECHANICAL DRONES FROM FREEFOLK.
As Dennison notes, the scope and expectation for each episode was huge, and the challenge was to find a way to do these film-quality effects on a TV show budget and an episodic time frame.
Not in Kansas Anymore
Emerald City contains a diverse style, ranging from postapocalyptic (woods tribe), to steampunk (Ev), to Gaudi style (Emerald City), to ultramodern (Glinda’s Castle), and more. But, in the end, it all blends together to support an equally diverse storyline with scientists, witches, townsfolk, soldiers, royalty, and so forth – thanks to the talents of a visionary director (Singh) and a talented production designer (Dave Warren).
DNEG FASHIONED CG CLOTH INTO THE SHAPE OF THE WITCH GLINDA'S FACE USING SIMULATION AND PHOTOSCANS.
“Not to mention the wizards and witches at our amazing vendors whipping up some magic of their own,” says Horton.
Yes, this is Oz for a new generation.
Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.