Friday, December 13, 2013

Return to Oz: Tik Tok

Spit and polished: the Royal Army of Oz.
In L. Frank Baum's 1907 book Ozma of Oz, Dorothy discovers a clockwork man in a chamber cut in rock in Wheeler Country.  "He was only about as tall as Dorothy herself, and his body was round as a ball and made out of burnished copper."  Illustrator John Neill's accompanying pen and ink drawings provided the key to re-creating Tik Tok for the 1985 movie, Return to Oz.  Three variations were built for the film—two "dirties" in various states of disrepair (today one resides at Skywalker Ranch), and one "bright 'n shiny" used only in the coronation scene at the end of the film.  The shiny model, pictured here at Disneyland's offsite Entertainment Development in 1985, is now in the Disney archives.  

So utterly likable, Tik Tok is my favorite character in the film for his design.  He's a wind-up, walking-talking marvel of steampunk wonderfulness. Where do I begin to explain what I love about this guy? Let's start at the top:

The concentric rings of Tik Tok's construction can't be fully appreciated in the film, so I'm grateful to the mystery photographer (reflected in Tik Tok's shiny pate) who appears to be bridging the prongs of a forklift with his own two legs.  That's dedication!

As with the Tin Man, Tik Tok's body design implies clothing—or in this case, a turn-of-the century military dress uniform, complete with fancy "oz" buttons.

Fortunately for Dorothy, the Patented Clockwork Mechanical Man comes with instructions, cast in metal and screwed to his back.

His "action" key is located smack in the middle of his back.

The key for "thinking" can be found behind his left shoulder. 
Do you wonder what he's thinking about?  Let's wind up his speech and maybe he can tell us.

The keys that supposedly power Tik Tok to do "everything but live" were actually battery-powered so they could run down on cue. The "speaking" key is located behind his right shoulder.  And speaking of shoulders,  Tik Tok's are beautiful:

The small chains that drape from shoulder to elbow to wrist were purely cosmetic. They didn't actually do anything at all, except look terrific.

Tik Tok is made of lightweight Kevlar, a super strong polymer, cut into sheets and pieced together. Though a difficult material to work with, its sturdiness reportedly held up to Tik Tok's many face-forward dives during filming.

It's great fun watching Tik Tok come to life in the movie, especially in scenes that show him walking. Tik Tok's peculiar stomp was acted out by a live performer crammed inside his spherical torso—a 23 year old gymnast named Michael Sundin.

Creature creator Lyle Conway described the grueling process in Cinefex Magazine: "Michael was about five five and Tik Tok's about four foot.  So Michael had to bend with his head between his legs, bolted in, and he did the actual walking around in the thing—backwards.  Sometimes, in the morning, he wouldn't be able to fit; so it was just a matter of forcing him in.  Then everything loosened up, and his body settled into it.  When you took the suit off of him, this rush of hot air hit you and there were pools of sweat at the bottom of the thing." At first Sundin was imprisoned within the mechanical man for no more than fifteen minutes, though by the end of shooting, he could endure almost an hour.

 Watch this amazing—and baffling—rare footage of Michael Sundin performing as Tik Tok. This is 100% pure "people generated" movie magic.

Michael Sundin, himself, has a fascinating story, and in his short lifetime —he passed away tragically of AIDS at the age of 28—his career took some interesting turns. He was a dancer in the original London stage production of Cats when he was discovered by Disney and cast as Tik Tok.   Following Oz, Sundin performed as the creepy March Hare in Jim Henson's film Dreamchild (1985) and went on to become a television host of the long-running British kids' show Blue Peter.   In doing my research for this article on Tik Tok, I was struck by Sundin's unique life and saddened by the loss of this talented young person who seemed well on his way to a bright future.

One of Tik Tok's memorable lines in the film is "I am not alive and never will be, thank goodness."  But inside, he had a human soul.


Read Part One: Jack Pumpkinhead
Read Part Two: The Tin Woodman
Read Part Three: The Gump

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Return to Oz: The Gump

"I should've quit when I was just a head."
Loosing one's head was a concern for pretty much everybody in the 1985 film Return to Oz.  The Gump, however, had to get by with only a head. Nevertheless, the stuffed hunting trophy, brought to life by a sprinkling of magic powder, was one of the most charming and delightful characters in the movie. 

Click on all of the pictures to make them huge!
Magic powders can only accomplish so much, of course.  In actuality a team of puppeteers were required to coordinate the Gump's moves through a system of long cables.  I believe the Gump in these photos to be a second version which was radio controlled for shots where the cables needed to be out of sight.  Packaged in the crate alongside the Gump was a Futaba (model airplane) radio transmitter  with toggle switches for controlling his movements.  Rechargeable batteries went into both the transmitter and inside the Gump's head.

The Gump's horns were hollow cast resin and beautifully detailed, just like everything else about him. 

Those big baby blues give him a sweet, soft look.  I like how the Gump has a slightly worn, musty appearance just like an old taxidermied animal.

Open up and say "AAHHZZ."
A pliable foam rubber skin was fitted over the Gump's mechanized fiberglass underskull. His mouth and lips were very expressive when speaking. Incidentally, the Gump's deep voice was provided by Lyle Conway who was in charge of the animatronic design for the film.

Some of these photos are a little intense!  Beautiful work, though.

All this leaves one to ponder what a whole living Gump might look like.  It's easy to imagine a four-legged beast, but no one can say. Would he have toes like a camel?  Hooves like an elk?  Even Baum in his original stories (and John Neil's illustrations) offer no answer.

Only one rare example of Oz merchandise—a hand puppet— has ever been produced that attempted to solve the age-old mystery of the Gump's body:

Yeah, I'm not convinced either.

Part One: Jack PumpkinheadPart Two: Tin WoodmanPart Four: Tik-Tok

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Return to Oz: The Tin Woodman

There was once a simple woodcutter in Oz named Nick Chopper who fell in love with a Munchkin girl. Out of spite, the Wicked Witch enchanted his ax so that he gradually began chopping himself to pieces. A tinsmith made replacements for each body part until, bit by bit, the Woodman was completely tin. Even his head.

Don't forget, click on all of the pictures to make them huge!

As with many of Baum's most endearing creatures, the Tin Man comes with a harrowing backstory which makes this tall, clanking, silvery fellow with the happy smile so easy to love.  Although he has a comparatively minor role in the 1985 film  Return to Oz, the Tin Man is exquisitely designed, and a fitting tribute to Oz illustrator John Neill's original drawings.  Many of the nicest details are easy to miss in the fleeting moments he appears on the screen.

Minimal facial features were handled by radio-controlled servos that operated his mouth, eyes, and the old-fashioned square nails that are his eyebrows.  One of my favorite details is the single copper rivet "freckle" under his right eye.  It's apparent that great care was taken to avoid symmetry in his construction.

Totally un-readable in the film is the advertising plate on his hat for "Baum Hardware Co—Fine Funnels for Kerosene, Gasoline & Coal Oil"

A spiral bail handle hangs from the back of his head—a clever touch that emphasizes the fact that his head is just a re-purposed tin pail. That tinsmith of Oz was certainly resourceful!

These photographs were taken in the spring of 1985 in the parking lot behind Disneyland's Entertainment Development facility, south of Los Angeles.  Fresh out of his crate from Elstree Studios near London, the Tin Man reflects the warm Southern California sun. 

Something I particularly like is the slight suggestion of clothing in his design, such as the brass rectangle approximating a breast pocket and the row of rivets down his front like buttons.  A second metal patch on his chest is a subtle reminder of the heart given to him by the Wizard, making the Tin Man the kindliest person in all of Oz.

Even his hands and feet possess so much character and charm.  Notice how the thumbs of the left and right hands are attached and move in completely different ways, as if the hands were crafted at different times.

Mis-matched pant legs and silver shoes covered in brass spats finish the look. It appears the Tin Man wears a size ten and a half shoe.  Same as me!

Isn't it delightful to appreciate these characters from a different perspective!


Read Part One: Jack Pumpkinhead
Read Part Three: The Gump
Read Part Four: Tik-Tok

Monday, November 04, 2013

Would you please check my head for signs of spoiling?

The stuff nightmares are made of.

Return to Oz is one of my favorite movies ever.  I'm convinced most people who say they don't like the film have likely never seen it, or they're simply die-hard Judy Garland fans who can't accept an Oz that's not in three-strip Technicolor.  But if you were a kid within the last 35 years, the odds are pretty high that you like it—and even higher that you love it.

The movie has beautiful art direction, one of the finest scores in its genre, topnotch acting, quotable lines a-plenty (one of which is the title of this post), and Academy Award-nominated "practical" visual effects like puppetry, animatronics, stop-motion animation, matte paintings, big real sets on big real sound stages, and absolutely no "computer-generated" anything. This movie had a gigantic influence on me when I was getting into production design.   Oh, did I's also deliciously creepy!

Jack Pumpkinhead mechanized "trolley puppet" operated by Jim Henson's son, Brian.

But I'm not about to argue the film's merits because, here on my blog, things I like are unanimously accepted to be 100% awesome from beginning to end except for the scenes with the Wheelers.

Some backstory: In the spring of 1985, the Disney Studio had high hopes for a summertime blockbuster.   As was the custom in those days, there were consumer products and promotions galore tied to the release.  There were Little Golden Books, Topps bubble gum cards,  plush hand-puppets from Smuckers Jelly, an obligatory Dunkin' Donuts "Munchkins" tie-in, and even a New York engagement at Radio City Music Hall, complete with a musical stage show starring the Rockettes®.   

Meanwhile here in Anaheim, Disneyland's Entertainment-Art Department was drawing up plans for an "Oz" addition to the Main Street Electrical Parade with brand new music tracks by Don Dorsey and, most exciting of all, a float displaying some of the actual character costumes and puppets used in the movie itself.

Oh admit it... Given half the chance, you would put the pumpkin on your head too.
And so, here's the honest reason for this post....I've secretly hoarded the following photos for over 25 years, and it's time to share them with the world. As several enormous boxes from England's Elstree Studios arrived in Los Angeles, the shredded newspaper used as packing material was removed and the contents laid out for photo documentation.  Let's start with one of my favorites, Jack Pumpkinhead!

The Jack Pumpkinhead costume
There were actually three life-sized Jacks in the film; two were puppets and one was a 7-foot body costume worn by a skinny street mime named Stewart Larange.  The pumpkin head was cast rubber, and the actor was able to see out through the narrow slice of Jack's teethy grin.

"Shoulder joints" designed to look like wooden sticks lashed together with twine, stuck out through holes in Jack's polka-dotted shirt.

Shoulder "joint"

The little sprig of silk leaves placed on Jack's vest (above) must've broke loose from the pumpkin stem on top of his head.  I'm doubtful it ever got replaced properly.

Rubber "bark" texture surrounds Jack's leggings...and check out those fantastic handmade shoes with jute laces. I want a pair of those!

The human performer's neck and chin were obscured in a leather wrap, also resembling wood bark.


These incredible long rubber gloves look just like stick 
arms, and have more faux wooden joints at the elbows.

Fascinating stuff, huh?  The craftsmanship in every detail of these characters is so good.

So, going back to our story....the movie, unfortunately, was not the whopping success it was hoped to be and, combined with the now-infamous episode of the Electrical Parade "Oz" float nearly burning up, the characters were packed back into their boxes and stored in Disneyland's offsite Olive warehouse for several years, basically forgotten.  In 1988, I helped prepare several of the characters—the Gump, Tin Man and Tik-Tok—for their journey to Orlando for display at the soon-to-open Disney-MGM Studios park.

But Jack's crate sat around in the warehouse for a few more years, until... at a Halloween event in 1995 I was shocked to witness this "high-spirited specter" in green leotards dancing in a "go-go cage" in Tomorrowland!  By this time, his true identity was so obscure, he could easily be dismissed for any old go-go dancing jack-o-lantern.

But not for long.  A whole generation of little kids had already been collectively freaked out by the movie (thanks to home video) and were in the process of growing up haunted by nightmares of headless princesses, insane asylums run by evil doctors, and Emerald citizens turned to stone.  Today the movie has a massive following (some would say a "cult") and I believe the unique appeal of "Return to Oz" will eventually earn it classic status. As recently as this past August a collection of  props and costumes were exhibited as part of a larger "Oz" display at the D23 Expo in Anaheim.   Jack's head was there, too, wide-eyed and grinning—and with absolutely no signs of spoiling.


Read Part Two: The Tin ManRead Part Three: The GumpRead Part Four: Tik-Tok