Capone examines OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL's China Girl, with puppeteer Phillip Huber and actress Joey King!!!
Published at: Feb. 13, 2013, 9:49 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here, with Part 3 of my continuing adventures on the set of Disney's OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL.
One of the absolutely great discoveries of my two days on the set of director Sam Raimi's OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL was the character of China Girl. She stands about 18-in. tall and, as her name implies, she's made entirely of a very fragile china. When we see her in the film, she will be an entirely computer-generated character. However, when they were shooting her scenes (most of which are with James Franco), Raimi wanted her movement to be predicated by an elaborately constructed marionette operated by master puppeteer Phillip Huber, best known as John Cusack's puppeteering double in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (remember the opening sequence?).
On set, Huber must wear a head-to-toe blue spandex suit as he manipulates 20-plus strings to make China Girl come to life. On our second day, we finally got to set foot on an active set, a massive courtyard construct that was meant to look like it was outdoors, complete with blinding light approximating a sunset. There's a massive staircase going up to a second level on the front of what looks like the front of a castle.
Watching Huber maneuver China Girl was an astonishing thing to see. She gets into a small argument with Franco, and walks away in a sassy way with a hand on her hip. We also saw her point at Franco accusingly. We're told the sequence takes place as the kingdom is about to embark in a war against the mysterious Wicked Witch, and China Girl wants to go with Oz and his army. He says no, but I'm pretty certain we see China Girl stow away in a supply cart.
This might have been my favorite interview on the OZ set, and it's always a treat to talk shop with a true craftsman and artist. Please enjoy Phillip Huber, and keep in mind that he's standing in front of us in his blue jumpsuit, operating China Girl the whole time.
Phillip Huber: This version of China Girl has 21 strings. The other one has 20, and the two puppets are identical, except they were strung to do different movements. This one in particular can put her hand on her hip if she needs to, to look petulant. They all have full-focus head action with turning, looking down and looking up, which is really important, because they have to be able to pay attention to the other actors that are speaking. The actual puppet, the maquette, was designed and then built by KNB, and then they sent me pieces and I had to turn it into a marionette. It wasn’t designed to be a marionette, so each one of the joints are specially hand done specifically for the movement that’s required of her.
Question: I'm guessing that’s not usually the way you do things.
PH: No, that is not usually the way I do things. [Laughs] I usually am very carefully drafting out all of the joints, so that if I have to do a duplicate, I can do it easily. In this particular case, each of the puppets had to be done separately and free hand each of the joints, and that meant that they do work a little bit differently. There’s a serendipity that happens with every construction of a marionette, so they have their own unique personality. I gave her animated eyes. She didn't really require that; I just wanted her to have as much life as possible for the actors to relate to in the film. She is for reference only. The marionette itself will probably never be seen in the finished film; it will probably just be the CG character, but she is creating the performance. They want to try and duplicate her style of action, because she moves as a china girl would move, instead as a little human. She’s 18 inches tall.
Question: Joey [King, the actress voicing China Girl] told us yesterday that this is a "sassy-attitude" sort of character. Can you show us a few sassy moves? I could see a few in the last scene in the way she was walking away from James.
PH: Yeah, the way she stamps her foot, but she also has the contemplative moves. If she’s surprised, she can do the HOME ALONE look.
[Everyone laughs as he shows a few different poses.]
Question: Is it important to convey the way things move under gravity in a way that CGI maybe doesn’t?
PH: Yes, and they will be able to help me with that obviously, because they're asking the marionette to do very fast movements, especially walking and running on the set, and sometimes her feet don’t hit the floor the way they should, and CGI will be able to come in and zone in on that to make sure the foot fall is correct, so that’s important. Marionettes establish a speed that they can work, although I created a few moves. This one has a unique move, at one point she had to be very happy about something and applaud, and I found a way to do it, if I can remember. It’s been a while since I did that scene. I believe she’s tangled as well. [Laughs]
[He figures it out and makes the marionette clap; everyone gasps at the feat.]
PH: So she can do the applause, and that’s a very fast movement for a marionette. It’s very unusual and it took me a whole evening to work that out. What I try to do is anticipate what they need at any given point and string it in. She has the ability, see, to lift her hands with palms up as if she's questioning something, and if I go high enough she actually flips those hands around. She was also given very special wrist joints that I’ve never seen on a marionette before that I developed particularly for her, and they are quite close to the human wrist joint in their range of action and the way that they work.
Question: Have you ever done anything where you’ve had to wear anything like this?
PH: This is the first time I have ever worked in a blue screen suit.
Question: And are you listening to Joey as well?
PH: I am. Yeah, I have the headset, so I’m listening to Joey and the other actors that are mic-ed. I can hear everything through there and the director as well.
Question: Biggest challenge in turning that design into a marionette?
PH: It was the fact that she has a large head with this hair that sticks out. Now the problem being when the hair sticks out like this, it wants to grab all of the strings, and in the original design, the hair actually was very uneven back here. I went ahead and I crowned it down fairly smooth, so that she would still have the head action that she needed. She wouldn’t be able to turn her head like that; it would be getting caught in the strings. Those are things from a design standpoint that you have to think about with a marionette.
Also, originally they thought she was going to be designed with a costume that was all China as well, and when we tested her of course we put her in a very stiff skirt and, suddenly it’s like a bel; So when she goes to sit down, she’s trapped by it, she’s unable to move or bend her waste. So they went back to the soft costume, and I asked for a special way to have the upper arm here covered with a sleeve, so that she could have a very loose shoulder joint there, because the shoulder joint is really crucial in a marionette. The other crucial joint is the hip joint, and fortunately that’s covered by the dress.
I actually rebuilt the body completely. They had one rigged body, and I carved it out of wood in segmented sections, so it moves again pretty close to human body action with the waste and how far she can bend back and forward. So she tries to duplicate the human anatomy as close as possible. They also did not have a joint at the base of the neck. It’s absolutely required for the freedom of action with her head action. So when I put in that joint, I added the necklace to help cover that line.
Question: How much time would you say it took to create her?
PH: It takes on average about 300 hours. I did not have that luxury of time. I think I probably created her in about 200 hours.
Question: It seems fascinating that you are in many ways the man behind the curtain. Was there a discussion with James Franco at all about that. He’s sort of playing a version of an illusionist actually.
PH: Yeah, he is. Well yeah, this is an ultimate illusion, too. We’ve never had that discussion, no, but there are lots of parallels in the film with that. It was Sam’s concept to have a marionette work with the actors, which I think is a very good one, because it employs me, number one, but number two, it really helps them, because it gives a performance for them to relate to rather than a ball on a stick, or even when they are looking at just a face on a monitor, it doesn’t mean as much. And the great thing is that Joey is absolutely wonderful. She is so sensitive to what the marionette is doing vocally. I can feel her and she can feel me, so the two of us working together feels wonderful. It’s all a great experience.
Question: When you met her, did it change the puppet or how it moves at all?
PH: No, not really, because a puppet moves pretty much the way it wants to move, and I try to think like a little girl obviously when I’m working her, but Joey is not 18 inches tall, and that’s the problem. Even if she walks the scene, I can’t duplicate what she does, and she can’t duplicate what the puppet needs to do.
For instance something like this on the ground, they have roots going across the Yellow Brick Road. Well for Joey, she can just walk along, but for her suddenly it’s an obstacle. She has to stop and hop over it. So all of the actions that go in with the marionette are really called for by the marionette. If there are specific things that Joey thinks about that she says she likes, then we try to get it. She wanted the hands to clasp together in front, and this is an action that I had actually created very early on for the screen test when I first went in with Sam, because they had the maquette or a drawing of the figure in that pose, so I went ahead and did it.
For this one, I wanted it different. I have to remember where I put all of the strings. She pulls the hands together like this instead of one on top of the other, so it gives her a different look. She can bring that up to her face and look lovely that way.
Question: In the scene you just shot, it looks like James picks her up and puts her down. Were there any more complicated human interactions with her that you had to work to make happen?
PH: Yeah, all of that is very complicated, because I’m changing levels all of the time and I have to try and keep her balanced and focused, and I have to anticipate where I am stepping. We couldn’t put a box to help me get down out of it, because it would be in James’s way, and he’s acting. So I just had to eel where I have to go. I don’t even think about that, because I’m too focused on her. But yeah there’s a lot of extra complications that normally I wouldn’t have in my own show.
Question: Are you never going to wear anything blue again?
PH: Yeah, I don’t think it’s exactly my color. I don’t know… (Laughs)
Question: It might be the cut.
PH: [Laughs] I guess so. My nickname has been Mr. Cellophane, because I have the ability to disappear anyway. Literally, it happens to me in restaurants. I’ll be the only one at the table that the waitress will not take the order from; she’ll just ignore me.
Question: Do you find your self leaving the set, looking at the floor and thinking “How am I going to get over that?”
PH: I try not to take my work home with me.
[Everyone begins to thank him for his time.]
PH: Thank you. Pleasure.
Another component to making China Girl come to life is the voice of young Joey King, who has appeared in such films as QUARANTINE, BATTLE LOS ANGELES, CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and perhaps most famously as Ramona in RAMONA AND BEEZUS. When Raimi is ready to shoot, King goes into an off-set, soundproof booth and puts on headphones so she can hear what's being said on set. When Franco is speaking to China Girl, he's actually looking at both the puppet and at a small monitor with King's face, so he has her expressions to react to.
In the room where King has her booth, there sits an almost identical booth that actor Zach Braff uses to voice the character of Finley, a flying monkey who acts as sidekick to Franco's Oz. Both booths have photos of their characters pinned to the outside, but thanks to a friendly series of pranks, Braff's booth interior includes an autographed RAMONA AND BEEZUS poster, while King's booth walls include an image of Braff in his "Scrubs" get-up, with the personalized note "To my #1 Fan!" Clearly, they found ways to have fun when they were separated from the rest of the cast and crew.
Please enjoy our talk with Joey King…
Joey King: Hello.
Question: I’m curious, RAMONA AND BEEZUS was a film that had some fantasy sequences, but mostly it was shot in the very real world of Vancouver, and now you’re running around Oz. How great is it when you step on to the set? Is it exciting?
JK: It’s really cool to say that I can walk on the Yellow Brick Road, because my mom, whenever she steps on the Yellow Brick Road, she’s like “I’m on the Yellow Brick Road!” And I feel the same way since I saw the original WIZARD OF OZ movie; it’s really exciting.
Question: What was your favorite part of the original WIZARD OF OZ movie?
JK: I love that when she lands in Oz it just turns so colorful since; it goes from black and white to color. I think it’s just really spectacular how they did that, because you get to see how colorful Oz is. I love everything about the movie. [Laughs] I love the Scarecrow, the Tin man, everything…
Question: And you talk a little bit about your character in this film? Who do you play?
JK: I play two characters. In Kansas, when Oz is in Kansas I play a little wheelchair girl. She meets Oz while he’s doing a magic show and she asks him a favor that he can’t return really. And I play China Girl, which is my main role. I’m a little two-foot-tall girl, and she’s really cute, she’s really sassy, and Oz just takes her in and he becomes like an adopted father to her.
Question: We were hearing how you're shooting this where you go into a booth. Can you talk about that?
JK: Yeah, I do have to go into a booth for filming, because they're filming my face in the booth, but since I’m two-feet tall, I can’t really be standing out there squatting. So I have China Girl’s body, my heads on her, so it’s very interesting. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before. It’s not like a voiceover and it’s not like being on set; it’s just really different and Zach Braff is doing the same thing and we are in the same booth together. It’s really fun. He’s really funny.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about filming the circus stuff? I know you guys have already filmed that. What was it like for you being in a wheelchair?
JK: The first scenes, there were a lot of people there, like we had clowns there, which I’m afraid of clowns, so that was fun. We had some fireeaters there and different acrobatic people, so it was very interesting to see all of those people there. For me filming, I had to wear a wig for it and I had long blonde hair, and it wasn’t just any old wheelchair that you see in this movie; it’s this old wheelchair that’s wooden and it’s like… I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s very creepy.
Question: Like a lot of wicker and with really creepy wheels?
JK: Yeah, those giant wheels. So it was really fun getting to film in the circus. They turned a studio into a circus and it really looked like a circus, and they had all of the tents set up, and it was really, really fun filming in the circus scene. But Oz is pretty amazing, I love filing in Oz, because there’s the Yellow Brick Road, Glenda’s palace, the Emerald City…
Question: But you physically don’t have any scenes where you're on the Yellow Brick Road itself as China Doll?
JK: Right. Unless I’m rehearsing, I don’t really step foot in there.
Question: So are you making sure you get a lot of pictures of you and James Franco and Michelle Williams, so you can say to your friends, “No, I swear to God that was really me in the movie.”
JK: [Laughs] No, they’ll know. They'll believe me, of course. No, plus we're are not supposed to take pictures on set anyway of their wardrobe and everything, because I barely see them out of their wardrobe. I don’t even know what they wear when they come in, because they're in their wardrobe most of the time.
Question: There’s a lot of makeup in this movie. Are you a little bit sad that you are not wearing all of these prosthetics?
JK: Yes, I’m very sad. Like I said, it’s different than anything I’ve ever done, and I’m used to waking up in the morning, getting up early, going to hair and makeup. And it’s kind of sad that I’m not there anymore, because I make friends with the hair and makeup team. In the beginning of the movie, because I had to have my hair done and my makeup done, I got to know them, so I still go visit them sometimes and we chat. So it’s sad that I don’t get to be a part of that, but it’s still fun to try new things and do different things.
Question: Can you talk about China Girl’s personality? I know when she begins her legs are broken, and she’s the last of her town.
JK: Yes, she’s the last of her town, and I think the last of her family. At first her legs are broken. She’s very sassy, very sassy. She has some attitude, but she’s also very sweet. Oz first discovers her in China Town, and he sees her crying there, and he takes her in with Finley, Zach Braff’s character. So it’s just a story where her, Finley and Oz are trying to go kill the Wicked Witch, and that’s all I’m going to say. [Laughs]
Question: Talk a little bit about how you got involved in this role.
JK: Well my mom got the script for it, and I had an audition for it and I got a callback for a screen test, which is where we're doing it on the set filming.I’m meeting Sam, the director. It kind of came after me, but I also went after it. I’m really happy that I get to work on it. I would have been so bummed if I didn’t get hired, so I’m so glad I am. This set is just so friendly and fun and cool, and I’m the only kid on set, so it’s very different like working with all adults. I have a swear jar, so if they have potty mouths, I make them pay, so that’s what it’s like being on set with adults.
Question: How much money have you made so far in the swear jar?
JK: I don’t know. I haven’t counted, but the piggy bank’s name is “Dirty Word Deana.” try to make people pay up as frequently as I can, because she gets hungry.
Question: Who swears the most?
JK: That’s a really good question.
[A publicist jokingly says, “Don’t reveal that.”]
JK: I don’t know; there are a lot of swearers. Some times they get off easy and they don’t pay. But K.C. [Hodenfield], the first assistant director has a down payment, so he’s good for a while. He put in 20 bucks.
Question: There are a lot of incredible sets that have been built. Talk about the ones you have gone into, your favorites, even if you haven’t filmed on them.
JK: They're all amazing sets, like the circus scene. Glenda’s palace is awesome. The throne room to the Emerald City. Everything is just so amazing. They're building a couple of sets right now. They are actually building my village, China Town, and it is really amazing, and my teacher, Eva, was really excited when she found out they were using her China patterns on the tea cups. She was like “Oh my God, that’s my China patterns at home.” But I don’t have a favorite set. All of them are so amazing and they're building one where Oz meets Theodora right now, so that’s going to be cool.
Question: You’ve done a succession of pretty big movies back to back. Is it tough when you're not working to adjust to living a normal life?
JK: I hate it! [Laughs] No, I love normal life, but I will go crazy if I’m not working. I will be like, “Mom, I’m going crazy. I’m going stir crazy.” I love my house. I love my family. I love my animals, but sometimes I just want to work whether it’s on location here in Michigan or in L.A. I just want to work. It’s what I love. It’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. So yes I do go a little bit crazy when I’m not working.
Question: You’ve got to feed that pig.
JK: Yes I do have a pet pig. I do actually have a real pig. I miss her. She’s at home right now. I have three dogs and a fish.
Question: How is it working with Sam? He’s kind of a character.
JK: He is awesome. He's so nice and he is so smart. He’s so much fun to work with. I just love him.
Question: Does it feel like his inner child is not that far down? You don’t have to dig too deep to get to Mr. Raimi’s inner child? Does he seem like he’s having fun?
JK: He does seem like he’s having fun. He has fun with it. He really thinks about it. But this movie is really big, and he never really seems stressed. I was like, “How are you not stressed?” If I were in his position, I would be like, “Oh my God, what am I going to do next?” So he’s really mellow and calm and nice and just really serene. So it’s really nice to have him as our director. He’s super fun to work with.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about your schedule? Talk a little bit about how it works for you on a daily basis.
JK: Well, I wake up, I come in, and I usually start off with school in my awesome school room. My on-set studio teacher, Eva, we decorated it and it’s so cool. It has a Yellow Brick Road. It has trees. It’s colorful and pretty. So I go to school and then after a couple of hours of school, then I get called on set. I have to have three hours of school a day.
Question: Can you talk about the voice of China Girl? Do you change your own voice much?
JK: No, not really. She’s kind of tiny, so she can’t have a deep voice. I just talk usually the same, and people tell me, “Your voice is perfect for China Girl” and I’m like, “Thank you.” So no, I don’t really have to change my voice much for her.
Question: This is a big Disney release. Do you hope that this is going to lead to an all-access pass for Disneyland for life?
JK: Yeah. I love Disneyland, but my favorite park is California Adventures, because I love the big rides. I love Tower of Terror, which I just went on a couple of weeks ago and I was so scared, but I had so much fun. I love California Screamin’, Soarin’ Over California. I love Disneyland, because the tea cups are so awesome, but California Adventures is so fun. But yeah I’m hoping they will give me an all access pass. [Laughs]
Question: Speaking of the Disney corporate empire, have people shown you what your action figure will look like yet, or are they keeping the toys from you? Have they even started on doing the designs for them yet?
JK: I don’t know, but they do have a puppet for me. I am a marionette puppet, so I’m not like a sock puppet, but that’s what I am. They're putting my face on her little face, and she's really tiny. Phillip [Huber], the puppeteer, he is so good at doing all of those things. He even has a string that he pulls and it makes her blink. He can make her move all different ways. He can make her put her hand on her hip. It’s so cool, my puppet. It’s awesome.
Question: Well how long are you filming here until?
JK: I came here in June [the visit took place in October 2011] until July, and then I went home for August, and then I’m here until December; I came back in September.
Question: I know Zach Braff is a very fun guy to be on set with, Sam Raimi loves to improv while he films. Do you have that opportunity in the booth?
JK: Yes, I do. Even though I’m not doing my own motions, I can add lines, adlibs, take some away. Zach still does it. I still do it. James does it. Michelle does it. Mila does it. Everybody does it, so yeah I still get that opportunity.
Question: What are you going to be for Halloween?
JK: That’s a great question. I'm going to be Lady Gaga!
Question: Which Lady Gaga?
JK: Well I’m not being any sort of her own outfits, but my mom is helping me make my costume, and since she always has themes for outfits, I’m sewing keys on my outfit, like a bunch of different keys and locks. Halloween is the only day I can wear high heals and my mom cannot say anything, so I’ve got the heals and I’m wearing them.
Question: So you’re not going to go as the meat costume.
JK: No, that’s disgusting.
JK: I mean if I did, I would buy like dog toy meat things, like the rubber one. So no, I’m not going as meat dress.
Question: You should go talk to Howard Berger from KNB and have him help.
JK: Okay, I will. I want him to do my makeup. That would be really, really fun. He asked me if I wanted those pointy shoulders, and I’m like “No thanks, I’m good.” But no, I want him to do my makeup. Thank you, guys.