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CGI Characters: Finley and China Girl
When it came time to film the scenes between Oz and the CGI character Finley, "Sam and Scott Stokdyk, the head of visual effects, came up with a new way of having CG characters interact with the actors," Braff explains. "There are a couple of different ways we did it. One way was that I wore a blue screen leotard and I operated a Finley puppet. The puppet was the exact size as Finley and looked exactly like he will in the finished film. Obviously, the puppet is removed (in post) and replaced with a computer-generated character. That helped the actors a great deal."

During pre-production, special effects makeup artist Howard Berger was tasked with creating a workable Finley. Berger explains, "Since it was already established that Finley, the comical sidekick, would be generated as a visual effect, we still needed to create a reference for the cast, James especially.

"I wanted to build the stand-in reference to be more of a puppet," Berger continues about the approach he sought to best assist the actors on the live set. "When I heard Zach Braff was doing the voice of Finley, I knew he's a really animated actor and likes to get involved, so I wanted to up the ante and make it like a ventriloquist dummy."

"That was just one aspect of how we brought Finley to life on the set," Braff says. "The other method we called 'puppet video.' I went into a video booth with a camera focused just on my face. On set, the actors could see a monitor and image of me in the booth. They had a tiny earpiece so they could hear me, and that way, my performance was captured because the animators later created the monkey's expressions off of what I did with my facial gestures. From the combination of these different techniques, the animation directors were able to gather this information and animate Finley to match it."

"To bring Zach's performance to life, we relied on a whole assortment of techniques," VFX supervisor Scott Stokdyk relates. "I brought in some new and interesting technology. We could have simply taken the motion performance of the actor, Zach in this case, and translate that directly into the monkey's movement. Because we had a sense of Finley being a magical creature, a lot of the performance had to come from the monkey's ears and tail. Plus, it's a flying monkey as well. So, it's not like we could take Zach, equip him with a set of wings, and throw him off a 6-foot platform."

Director Raimi wanted to get the best possible performances between the on-set actors and the virtual characters (Braff as the CGI monkey and teen actress Joey King as the other key CGI character, China Girl), "Sam, in early discussions, was very concerned with really getting the feel of two actors working together," Stokdyk says. "Traditionally, for heavily CGI movies with animated characters, you'll shoot a bunch of empty plates with the actor playing and reacting to a tennis ball on a stick.

"Several months later, you'll go back in a recording session and the actor will record all the dialogue and ADR it," the VFX veteran continues about the normal process used to marry real and virtual characters in the final product. "At the start of this project, Sam was very concerned about getting good performances. What we chose to do early on was have the actors on set or in proximity. If you've got an actor playing a 3-foot-tall monkey, you can basically put the actor in place, paint them out and replace them with a CG monkey.

"We realized we also had an 18-inch porcelain doll [China Girl], and, at that size, it was hard to get the actor down to that eye line," Stokdyk goes on to say. "That, combined with a 3-foot tall flying monkey, caused us to come up with a new idea -- have the actors in a performance booth, which we dubbed the 'puppet-cam booth'. A soundproof booth in a trailer right outside the working stage, wired with video and audio into the set.

"On set was a representation of the actor in the booth via a fixed monitor on a (pole)," he further explains about the groundbreaking process devised to help maximize the actors' performance on the working set. "And, the heart of the puppet-cam system was a puppeteer (KNB's Dave Wogh) holding a 10-foot rod with a monitor attached on the end. The puppeteer would place this puppet-cam monitor out in the correct eye line for the actor, to which they could then interact and perform.

"What the actor on set saw was a picture of the (voice) actor in the booth," Stokdyk continues, "in realtime. Conversely, the actor in the booth sees the actor on set through the camera attached to that monitor. So, it's almost in a way like a virtual videoconference, but it's realtime, which is important for the timing of the performance. And, the actors could then feel like they were actually talking to each other even though the actor can't be 18 inches or flying up 10 feet in the air. They could still have that intimacy."

The same technique applied to those scenes showcasing the 18-inch porcelain character, China Girl, voiced by teen actress Joey King ("Ramona and Beezus"), who describes her role by saying, "I play China Girl, who's in the Baum book. In the beginning of the story, my character loses her family. Her parents have died because the Wicked Witch came into her village and destroyed the town. So, Oz comes around and picks her up along the way. At the end of the movie, he kind of becomes her adopted father."

China Girl's journey from design to execution began when Raimi commissioned production designer Stromberg (working from costume designer Michael Kutsche's concept illustration) to build a life-size (18-inch) puppet to manipulate on the set opposite his live cast (Franco in particular) to maximize the performance. In response, Greg Nictoero and Howard Berger's crew at KNB built an immovable porcelain doll for reference that, in turn, served as a prototype for a working marionette to animate alongside Franco "live" before the cameras.

The marionette was built by the legendary puppeteer, Philip Huber, renowned the world over for his work in puppetry both onstage and in film, notably Spike Jonze's 1999 classic, "Being John Malkovich," on which he served as technical advisor and actor John Cusack's puppeteering double.

"Sam was interested in having China Girl be a marionette so that she could perform realtime with the actors on camera," Huber explains about his on-set role on the project. "That way, the cast would have something to react to. And Sam wanted the marionette to establish the personality and the body language, so to speak, of China Girl. I first did a screen test with him, taking with me one of my own marionettes, which happened to be a little girl just this size. I played out some scenes for him and he liked what he saw."

With the master puppeteer onboard, "We then had to develop the China Girl marionette from the designs that were already established," Huber states. "And that was challenging because there are certain qualities about China Girl that are difficult to translate into a marionette. For instance, she has a very large head with solid hair because she's porcelain. Usually solid hair means that the head will be top-heavy, which made it difficult to get her head to actually move."

During his own design process (taking him 400 working hours, or ten 40-hour weeks, to construct the marionette), Huber solved his dilemma by having a removable head, which eased the cumbersome weight issue atop the marionette, allowing him to manipulate China Girl much easier. Once done, he then built a second duplicate puppet for backup, in case damage occurred to the first.

"China Girl contains 21 strings," he points out, comparing this unique design to the average marionette, which, he says, usually has just six. "I had to increase that because of the specialty movements needed for this character," Huber continues. "I tried to do the thinnest strings possible so they wouldn't be obtrusive on film. Because of that, they're quite fragile."

Joey King, who worked in the puppet-cam booth to bring the character's voice to life, "giggled every time China Girl would do some special movement," Huber relates with fondness. "I strung her to do some very specific moves, and when she did them, and people saw it, they were charmed by it."

"Philip, the puppeteer for China Girl, was just amazing at how he did it," enthuses King. "Between takes, when we were just standing around, he would continue making her move all the time. She had a string that he pulled that made her blink. So cool. Philip was really amazing and made it look like she's a real person. Sometimes I believed that she was a real person. He's really good at impersonating people through his puppets."

When Huber worked the puppet before the cameras (always wrapped in a blue screen leotard so the VFX folks could erase him in post-production), King explains, "In the puppet booth, I did the motions with China Girl when we're doing the scene. Like I am her. Kind of like motion capture. They filmed my face so they could later CG my face onto China Girl. This is unlike anything I've ever done before."

The experience was also a first for Huber, who echoes his young collaborator by adding, "I've never seen this practice where they used a marionette to develop a character that will actually be computer generated. They created the performance with a combination of what I did along with Joey's acting, which connected a human to the character and gave China Girl her heart and soul. In post, the CG people will fill it all out and perfect it. They can get all the little detailed movements that I missed. It will be unique and I'm excited to see what the finished product will be like."

In combining Huber's puppeteering work with King's performance, captured in the puppet booth on videotape, Stokdyk's crew "then took the best bits of each of those different performances and brought them together to make something that's hopefully bigger than the sum of the parts."

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