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  • 03.11.13

Behind the Dazzling Paper-Theater Title Sequence in “Oz the Great and Powerful”

Garson Yu of Yu & Co. explains how he and his team crafted the movie’s spectacular, old-timey opening credits.

As movies go, the new Oz the Great and Powerful may not be blowing audiences away, but there’s no doubt it is powerful, having amassed $80 million at the U.S. box office this weekend. And yet there’s one thing the film’s divided audience can all agree on: The opening title sequence is spectacular. You’ll have to see the movie to experience it in full–the picture below provides only a glimpse. It’s an enchanting presentation of hand-painted (or seemingly so) backdrops that slide in and out of the frame, which sets a playful tone for the visual splendor to come. Co.Create tracked down the man responsible.

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Garson Yu, of Los Angeles design studio Yu & Co, describes the six-month process he and his 12-person team went through to create the old-fashioned 3-D sequence that introduces the newfangled 3-D movie. He also shared much of the vintage material, pictured all over this page, that they used as inspiration. Plus: How this differed from the work they’ve done on such memorable title sequences as those at the beginning of Life of Pi and Watchmen, and the inspiring takeaway at the end of Waiting for “Superman.”

The Bake-Off

“It was a competition, as always,” says Yu of the usual exercise of presenting ideas to director Sam Raimi in a kind of run-off against any number of opponents. “It was a very important film for them, so we went in and presented many, many different ideas. We read the script and saw a rough cut of the film, but Sam didn’t give us much direction: He wanted us to have an open interpretation.”

Yu cooked up one idea in particular that stood out above the rest: “I wanted to embrace the cinematic elements, the traditional techniques of moviemaking. Since the movie is all about [spoiler alert!] the illusions used to defeat the witches, I was inspired by the old silent filmmaker Georges Melies and his famous A Trip to the Moon. He’s truly a cinematic magician, and I kind of used the same idea of creating physical special effects from the old days that will expose the tricks–-show the wires connected to levitating objects, for instance.” When he presented his idea to Raimi, the director had to don old-school 3-D glasses, the cardboard ones with one red lens and and one green. “We did a 3-D storyboard,” says Yu. “It was all hand-painted artwork that I couldn’t have made without my team. And we won the pitch!”


Yu also drew inspiration from the documentary Film Before Film, by German director Werner Nekes, which chronicles the precursors to early cinema, with a tour of visual tricks and mechanical illusions that were used in the 17th to the 20th century–as seen in the images on this page, which inspired Yu and Co. “It was from this documentary that we borrowed the idea of creating a paper theater of perspective as the world for the opening sequence,” by which he means they created the illusion of 3-D by layering cut-out images in space.

When it came down to actually making the sequence, they didn’t create an actual diorama. “It looks so realistic because all lighting was created digitally in a 3-D environment. It looks like we actually created a physical diorama and we pushed camera through that, in miniature. But it’s all created digitally.”


The sequence begins with the Disney logo, the usual journey through the Disney castle, only this time the interior of the castle reveals a stage set in the Baroque style where a music box is playing and we meet Oz, the magician. “We wanted to have a certain naivety in the performance, evoking a small-town theater setup. In this theatrical setting, we have people holding sticks and cardboard artwork. Painted backdrops drop down and slide onto and off of the stage. Props and scene elements are levitated on the end of sticks and hanging wires. Everything has a sense of physical reality and gravity to it; objects don’t float or fly in–they are always supported by something tangible. “

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Foreshadow Puppetry

Each vignette foreshadows the storyline for one of the characters. “The content is drawn from the world of the movie,” says Yu, “but we reinterpreted so as not to simply mimic the story you’re about to watch. We want to prime the audience for the movie, but not give it away. There’s a lot of subtlety for the audience to discover, a lot of subliminal images hidden in the scenes.” When Mila Kunis’ name comes up, there is a shadow projected of a witch; there are monkeys around Zach Braff’s name, flying bubbles for Michelle Williams. They got playfully literal by associating each behind-the-scenes craftsman’s credit with an object: a tuba for the music credit, an antique projector during the cinematographer’s. “The opening was made for kids,” he says. “I chose all kids’ clichés that we’re all familiar with–monkeys and magicians, elephants in tutus.” Composer Danny Elfman’s music helped to further that. “We started out using ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ [as the temp music] and he put music box music in. It set up a very strong sense of wonder.”


A Font of Ideas

The typography was inspired by early circus posters and silent film titles, including those shown here, which Yu’s team found from the early 1900’s. “Many of those old posters used multiple fonts, and we decided to use different fonts for each credit. We used 37 different fonts for all the credits and attributes. We spent weeks researching the correct period fonts that would fit our theatrical design in this time period–Kansas, 1905.”


Another Piece of the Pi

Yu has been at this a while. His company has been making title sequences for film and television and crafting visual effects for movies, commercials, and games since 1998. One of their most memorable sequences was for Ang Lee’s recent spectacle, Life of Pi. When it came to making the playful opening titles for Lee’s film, Yu was tasked not with inventing an entire sequence–Lee had already shot the scene he intended to use for it–but with formulating just the typography. Yu used the animation of the letters to convey the spirit of the animals surrounding them. But when he did the opening sequence of Watchmen, he was actually charged with crafting a prologue to the movie that would fill in the backstory. (And, frankly, it’s another example of a time when Yu’s titles are actually better than the rest of the film.)


The closing sequence of the documentary Waiting for “Superman” utilized all of Yu’s background in graphic design. By allowing the viewer to read along as he composes and, in effect, decomposes words, he engages the viewer in actively processing the information, which is pretty complex. “That’s the only way to get the message across,” says Yu, who did something similar for director Davis Guggenheim’s previous film, An Inconvenient Truth.

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.

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