Column: Adapting Oz, Volume II, Part Two

by Sean Gates

In 2003 I wrote the script for our film, “L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” In 2007 Clayton and I began making plans to shoot the film ourselves, an undertaking of a scale that neither of us had previously attempted.  Volume II in this series chronicles the process of preparing for the 2009 shoot with Mariellen Kemp as Dorothy, Steven Lowry as Scarecrow and Leah Copeland as Glinda.

Part Two: Chester

When I finished writing the script in 2003, I had a head full of visions and no way to capture them.  So I thought I’d do a little pre-viz for the movie to help pitch my idea when the time came.  I created a blurry image of a farmhouse zipping around inside a funnel cloud, and took some photos of a brick sidewalk at an 18th century church a few miles from home, which I then digitally adjusted in the computer.  But I wanted to create some images of the characters as well. 

The first Scarecrow puppet. Half.

I’m not a metalworker.  I’ve worked with metal a little in a sculpture class I took in college, and I’m rubbish with it.  I don’t know how to do CGI.  The easiest one to create on my own was obviously Scarecrow.  I didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t want to spend much to create a few photos, so I worked predominantly with stuff I already had.  I had a western-style shirt in my closet – black, not blue; and a black wool felt Stetson.  Photographed from the right angle I figured these would work.  I also had a pair of leather work gloves left over from my sculpture class.  As an art major just a few years out of school, I also had plenty of leftover paint and brushes, and there was tons of old rope and a spool of heavy twine out in the garage. 

So I drove half an hour to what was then the closest Walmart, and from their craft section bought a few yards of burlap.  On the way home I pulled over near a field and scooped up several handfuls of hay into a plastic bag.  That afternoon, sitting on the couch while watching a baseball game, I cut out and stitched together the two halves of Scarecrow’s head – using the heavy twine and a darning needle.  I’d never been taught to sew, but I did a passable job of it.  Then I inverted the bag so the seams were on the inside, and on the porch I stuffed it full of straw, then tied it off with a short piece of rope. 

I got out the western shirt and hat, and the work gloves, then stuffed the shirt with newspaper and tied off the cuffs.  I experimented with a pair of black jeans and some boots I had, but I wasn’t satisfied with the results, so I took the top off an old folding music stand and jammed the shaft up through the stuffed shirt, then strapped the collar and tail of the shirt around the shaft with some duct tape.  I tucked the head down on top, and turned the Stetson sideways so the brim would appear to be turned up in front, and would hide the rest of the hat.  This was my half Scarecrow puppet.  I set him up in the yard and took some shots.  I was reasonably happy with the results.

Big Hat
Half-Chester was briefly considered to succeed John Paul II, but his hat wasn't large enough.

Soon the Scarecrow’s head began to fester with insects, and I had to put it on the screen porch.  A few years later we began renovations on the house and my Scarecrow head was moved outside into the yard, where it stayed for about six months, from autumn to spring.  The winter killed off the insects, and the weather darkened the burlap until the painted face was barely visible, and the fabric had become very brittle.  By this time it was 2007, and when Clayton and I began discussing Oz, it was time to dust off the puppet.

The main thing I wanted to change was the hat, so I ordered a cheap witch hat online.  When it arrived, though, it was much too big for the puppet’s head.  I tried to weather it and batter it so that it would suit the character, and took a couple of photos of this as well.  Clayton and I used them in some of our early pre-viz work. 

As I wrote about briefly last week, when we knew we were going to be shooting in the summer of 2009, I had to build a working, full-body Scarecrow puppet.  I drew my inspiration from the C-3P0 puppet used in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  It was a full-size puppet that attached to the puppeteer’s chest, feet, and head, and had rods for the arms.  I figured I could build a serviceable rig out of PVC pipe.  I drew up plans for the puppet, making it up as I went along, only knowing what I wanted to do differently from the first time. 

It was a dowel rod with a PVC cross-joint bolted onto it in the neck area, with a couple of coat hangers for the shoulders and the pelvis.  I made wire forms for the hands and PVC feet, and hung them from the coat hangers with the heavy twine, at what I thought seemed about the right length for his arms and legs.  I bought some blue children’s clothes, cotton work gloves, a pair of child-sized pirate boots, and this time I discovered that they make children’s sized witch hats, too.  In retrospect that should have been obvious. 

I bought some fresh rope and a box of natural colored Spring-Fill.  I dumped the old hay out of Scarecrow’s head and stuffed it with Spring-Fill.  A big bag of the stuffing used in teddy bears and throw pillows became his body, and his arms and legs were padded out with Spring-Fill.  I put the old head on the top, and in the process poked a hole in it.  Like I said, it had gotten VERY brittle. 

Mein Farmer! I can walk!
New digs, old head.

For the moment, the hole only added character, so I went with it.  But the closer we got to shooting, the worse it got, until the night before the puppet was needed on-set, when the hole finally got too big to ignore.  I considered stitching it up but the burlap was so fragile that it wouldn’t hold a stitch.  In any case, what I had intended as a Denslow-accurate face had somehow become very un-Denslow the more we all looked at it.  It was time to make a new Scarecrow head.  So six years later I dug out the same burlap, cut two more pieces from it, stitched them together with the same twine and darning needle, and this time painted a much more pleasant and accurate face.  While I was at it, I took the opportunity to add some “weathering” in the form of paint to make the burlap appear to have been outside in the elements for some time. 

There are two separate rigs for Scarecrow.  One is an old drum stand with a free weight on the bottom to hold it upright.  This rig is useful when Scarecrow needs to stand on his own.  Then Steve, and if necessary an assistant puppeteer, can be out of frame operating the arms and head.  The second rig is the walking rig, which is the PVC nightmare inspired by Threepio. 

During filming, we often had problems with the puppet.  After all, it was the first (and to date only) puppet I’d ever built.  Things would break – the string in a leg would give out, the hands often drop out of place because the arm strings are a bit too long.  And the first time we put him on the walking rig, the legs didn’t operate as intended.  I’d hoped that by keeping them completely boneless, the feet would be flung forward with each step, stretching the legs in a peculiar shambling gait.  But I had to connect his feet to a pair of boots for Steve to wear, and not being able to machine custom parts, the rig I had built can only be used if the puppeteer takes careful, exaggerated steps. 

For some reason, whenever Steve would lift his own foot, Scarecrow’s foot would come up and back, rather than forward, giving him a chicken-legged walk like a Velociraptor.  It was awful.  It was disconcerting.  It was just plain creepy.  I was convinced that there was a way to move that would make the legs bend the same way as the puppeteer’s legs.  It seemed like common sense.  But it just wouldn’t work.  Steve and Clayton started thinking about ways to modify the puppet so it would work, and read my stubborn faith in my design as an unwillingness to modify him, so we had an afternoon’s bit of strife when they briefly considered going behind my back to modify the puppet.  In the end, we worked it out, and I agreed that a change had to be made.  So we went with Steve’s idea of putting some firm but flexible support in the lower portion of Scarecrow’s legs.  This put more than just his feet, but actually half of his legs, forward when he steps.  He has a weird walk, but then he’s supposed to have a weird walk.  It just isn’t the weird walk I imagined in my head.  Life’s like that. 

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.

In any case, he looks good in motion, and on film.  We’d filmed all the standing rig stuff we could while we worked to sort out the legs, and the walking rig turned out to be so awkward that filming it with Mare in that tiny garage would have likely been impossible anyway.  If you’ve seen our Scarecrow of Oz video on YouTube, then you’ve seen the post-modification walking test, and how successful it was.  You’ve also seen how we broke the puppet when we tried to take him back off the rig. 

What you didn’t see is, it was late and we didn’t have the option of running out to Lowe’s or someplace to buy a new dowel rod to replace his spine.  So we had to scavenge in the garage and we came up with a long handle like you’d use for a push broom or a paint roller.  I don’t know where it came from, I’d never seen it before.  But we sawed it to length and rebuilt Scarecrow around it.  That damn broom handle is still holding up.  I don’t know how, it’s thinner than the dowel rod.  I must’ve bought cheap dowels.  Well, that and we learn from our mistakes around here.  It was a very specific mistake that caused Scarecrow’s original spine to break, and it’s a mistake we’ve been careful not to repeat. 

There are a few things the puppet can’t do.  It can’t stand on its own.  Weirdly, it can’t reach the top of its own head.  And it can’t change the expression on its face.  But that’s what CGI is for -- Clayton gives Scarecrow his real face.  But there’s one other thing that Clayton gave the puppet: a name. 

No, he’s never given a name in our movie.  But behind the scenes on the set, he has a name, and that name is Chester.  Clayton’s sort of a nicknamer.  He nicknames people.  So I guess it says something about how much of a person the puppet is to us, that he was given a nickname. 

We only did a little bit of walking rig photography in 2009.  We did a little more in January 2011, but there’s a lot left to do.  The problem is that the rig is very physically demanding and it causes Steve a lot of pain to wear it.  We’re hoping that down the line we can raise sufficient funds to completely rebuild the rig and make it less uncomfortable for him to operate.  That, and we’d like to get him a proper greenscreen suit so we don’t have to wrap him up like a neon mummy.

But mostly the first thing.