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Special Effects Makeup Artist Howard Berger Talks “Oz the Great and Powerful”, Working with Mila Kunis and Zach Braff

We had the opportunity to speak with Oscar winning makeup effects artist Howard Berger, the makeup supervisor on Oz the Great and Powerful. We hadn’t yet received our advance copy of Oz, which we did later on the same day we spoke with him. The Blu-Ray/DVD version (not packed with the 3D version this time) offers a rich supply of bonus features, including “Mila’s Metamorphosis”, which features Berger and Mila Kunis talking about – and sharing – some of the makeup process. Berger has also worked on The Walking Dead, Hitchcock, and the Narnia films. He won the Oscar for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe“, and was nominated in 2013 for Hitchcock.

Blu-ray/DVD Box Art Copyright Disney

MS: You’ve worked with Sam Raimi previously. Did he approach you for Oz the Great and Powerful?

HB: He did. I’ve worked with Sam since 1986, on one of his early horror films. We had caught wind that Sam was going to be doing Oz the Great and Powerful, and of course we wanted to work on it – because, who wouldn’t? Sam called us and said (mimicking Sam’s voice), “Hey buddy, what do you say about working on this movie Oz?” And I said, “Absolutely Sam, I’d do anything for you”. And that was the beginning… it was December 2010 that we met with Sam and we then started designing and figuring out what certain things might look like, working with him hand-in-hand, along with the rest of his creative team like (Oscar winner) Robert Stromberg, who was the production designer, and Scott Stokdyk, who was the visual effects supervisor, and Gary Jones, who was the costume designer. We all worked together as one big team to help re-envision the wonderful world of Oz. And that is something else…we wanted to make sure we did not disrespect the source material, being the book that Baum had written that we were basing the film on, as well as the memory of what the 1930’s film was. It gave us all an opportunity to help Sam paint a new portrait of what the land of Oz is like, and the Ozians that inhabit it. It was very liberating, because we didn’t want to recreate exactly what was in the original film, but use it as a leaping-off point and inspiration, under the watchful eye of Sam Raimi.

MS: What were the challenges in designing the characters in a way that didn’t resemble the original characters too much?

HB: It was a big design process. We had….for me, I had Winkies, and Tinkers and Munchkins…and then of course, the witches. The witches were the toughest thing. The Wicked Witch of the West on Mila Kunis was difficult, because, when you have an actress like Mila Kunis who is absolutely gorgeous, wonderful and charismatic…you don’t want to design a a makeup that will take any of that away from her performance. I sat down initially and looked at Mila’s face, and the things that really stood out for me were her eyes. I didn’t want to change the shape of her eyes or disguise them, or make her eyes a solid black. I wanted to keep the life of that character, and the life of Mila beating within her eyes. I felt like if I took any of that away, it would have been a mistake. She’s completely covered in prosthetics, her whole face is covered in silicone and foam rubber prosthetics. The only thing that’s exposed are her upper lip and of course her eyelids. Everything else is completely covered. Every day she’d come in at like three in the morning, and we’d do an hour and a half makeup job on her. She’d shoot for 14-16 hours, and then take about a half hour to clean up, and then we’d do it again the next day…because Sam likes to shoot for many, many hours. We certainly went down a long path to find the right looks for the makeup. Even the color went through numerous changes and tweaks as we were shooting. I would take a look at dailies and go “I just want to change the nose a teeny little bit, maybe do the chin at a slightly different angle”….just increments that nobody else would ever realize, but for me it kept bothering me and I kept tweaking the makeup through the course of the show until we ended up with what is in the final version of the film. But Mila had a lot of say in it too, which was great. I always say that to an actor, I want to know what they are thinking and what they want out of the makeup. And so Mila had a hand in her look, of course, because I wanted her to be comfortable. It’s her face on the screen, she’s going to wear this the whole time. She worked over 30 days in the makeup, and her double Mia Serafino did as well. Normally we’d always have two witches being made up at the same time. So it was a big task. And then the maintenance on set…it’s a very delicate makeup, I would never leave Mila’s side, I always watched her. She has a very bouncy personality and Mila’s not one to sit still and not talk and be very careful with the makeup…she was very careful with the makeup, but she’s still Mila Kunis, and I had to allow for that to happen. I would always be standing by her…so after I’d do this exhaustive makeup, I would spend the next 14-16 hours standing next to her, making sure she was being maintained. It was a big task.

MS: Her transformation was maybe the most talked about aspect of the film. How long did it take for you to create the makeup? I know you went through many colors of green to make sure it wasn’t too much like the original.

HB: It took about three months to design the final witch. We get a bunch of tasks, and with every task you do, you’re like “Yeah, this is it, this looks good, I like this!” And then you look back on it and think “Oh, my gosh…this is terrible, I’m so glad we didn’t go with that witch”. But it was a lot of different looks…the very first witch I tested on her was a different sculpture, it had a bigger hook nose and a bigger chin. We actually had black contact lenses in her eyes, and the green was more of a forest green…and kind of a beauty makeup over it, kind of high fashion. It just didn’t work. And Sam said, “I want her to look like she doesn’t have any makeup on…like she gets up in the morning, and this is what she looks like.”. And I’m like “Okay, I understand what you’re saying”. Because before I had done some stuff with her lips, and reshaped them…and then I would just darken her lips, and then I would stipple over the base color so that it just kind of muted out that darker color and it looked like a natural tone underneath the green…a slightly different shade of her lips. So we went that route, and I really kind of argued the point about the eyes and got Sam to agree that we needed to have something different for the eyes, and not these black lenses because I felt they looked soulless..and when doing black lenses, you never know where the eye is looking. You have no point of reference. And I felt that would be a mistake. We wanted her to have a soul, even though her heart is pitch. It took a while, I kept tweaking it through the course of the shoot. I see the differences when I watch the movie, but I don’t think anyone else would.

MS: You not only worked with Mila, but you also worked with Zach Braff on Finley to some degree.

HB: Yeah, we did. When we were designing Finley, that was really fun. Visual effects just wanted a stand-in, a stuffy they call it. But I wanted to do something different, I wanted to do a hand puppet – and I knew Zach was into that sort of stuff, he’s a really creative guy and I thought, “If we make a little ventriloquist Finley, I got a funny feeling we’re going to use this more than we thought”. And it was always going to be digitally replaced, which it was. Scott Stokdyk’s department did an amazing job on that character. We sculpted a full Finley, and built it a costume, and all that. And that just assists the digital guys with more information, lets them know how things look in certain lighting, and spatially. We even built big wings with feathers, it was all reference to the digital effects guys and it worked really well. We had puppeteers. That was really fun, we got to work with everybody…with every cast member. Sam’s childlike enthusiasm is very infectious, so you look forward to going to set, you look forward to getting the chance to work with Sam Raimi everyday because it’s very, very fulfilling and it’s really great fun.

MS: What were your hours like, because it sounds like you had a hand in an awful lot!

HB: Yeah, the hours were monstrous. I hadn’t worked that hard since the first Narnia movie, and we certainly did over 100 hours a week on set. I would start my day on Monday at like three in the morning, and do Mila’s makeup, and then I would do probably 3 or 4 other makeups for other characters. I ran a crew of like 75 makeup and hair people. Everybody would do a Munchkin, a Winkie and a Tinker, and then I would also do Mila as well. And then you go to set, and Sam likes to shoot between 14 – 16 hours a day, and then you have to clean everybody up – that was about an hour and a half. And then you go home, and you eat something and go to sleep and then you get up and have to go back to work. That would go on (laughing) for the whole entire week. It was pretty exhausting.

MS: I’m impressed, I couldn’t do it!

MS: What did you enjoy most about working on Oz the Great and Powerful?

HB: There is a lot I liked. I mean, I always love working with Sam Raimi because it’s super enjoyable. But I just felt it was a really lovely family environment. The whole attitude of the movie starts at the very top. Sam is the very, very top. He’s the master and commander, and he’s a very kind and gentle person. That just trickled down all the way. Everybody got along, there was wonderful camaraderie on the movie. Again, it reminded me of the experience I had on the first Narnia film, which was that. I just looked forward to going to set every day, seeing Mila Kunis and seeing all the other actors, and being with all of my friends on set. It was just a great feeling. When we ended the movie, it was very sad. It took a while to…not be blue. I enjoyed the experience so much.

Thank you to Howard Berger for a very fun and enjoyable interview!