Today HBO Max launched. I broke in the service for myself by watching what might be the greatest movie of all time, The Wizard of Oz, which I have seen more times than I can count, including multiple viewings in the theater. To me the theatrical experience of this film is miles beyond the home video experience, but at any scale this is one of the best movies ever made, a truly vibrant and nourishing example of how cinema can transport us completely.
One moment that always works for me, that always brings with it a wave of emotion and awe, is the famous transition from sepia toned Kansas to Technicolor Oz. It’s the moment when the film shifts, when cinema itself shifted, and the secrets behind it are incredible. I think this is the greatest special effect in movie history.
What makes the effect work so well is the simplicity of it. We have just had a lengthy, FX-heavy sequence where Dorothy’s house is caught up in the tornado and we have seen multiple images and characters fly by her window. It’s loud, cacophonous, and the Wicked Witch’s infamous theme rises as Miss Gulch transforms into the witch. Then the house lands, and there is silence. Dorothy, shaken, gets up to see what has happened, and we see her walk through the sepia-toned house.
She comes to the front door, and the camera is filming from her back. We see her back as she reaches to the knob and she steps out of frame as she opens the door, revealing a shocking landscape of vibrant, explosive color. Then Dorothy steps back into frame, her dress now vividly blue, and walks out into a whole new world.
It’s a stunner, even in 2020. There’s a lot that makes it work, and one of those things is how understated it is. It’s not a huge reveal, it’s not an in-your-face moment. The camera presents the door opening for us, which is another part of why it works so well. The reveal comes after a few quiet moments, which builds a hushed anticipation.
But most importantly it’s a stunner because it’s motivated by story and character. Very early in the process of making The Wizard of Oz – a process that included a ton of screenwriters, a trio of directors and major cast replacements – the decision was made to film the Kansas sequences in a colorless way and save all the color for Oz. This is the guiding ethos of the film, that Dorothy’s worldview explodes when she steps foot in the Land of Oz, that she sees things as she has never seen them before. Before a script page was turned in, this decision had been made.
So the effect isn’t just thrown in there to wow us, it’s in there to tell the story. We understand fully how different Oz is from Kansas because of this intense visual cue, and we are transported as viewers. The film takes its time in Kansas, and we truly get used to the sepia look of the world (these scenes were shot in black and white and given a brown color bath to achieve the proper look, which was old timey even for 1939). Audiences going to The Wizard of Oz in 1939 knew there would be color, but they were also very used to black and white films, which made up the majority of releases. They likely would have settled into the sepia look, and would have been delightfully jarred by the change in visuals. Even knowing it’s coming it’s a thrill.
But what makes the effect so special to me is the way it is accomplished. The original plan had been to hand paint the frames inside the house sepia, which would have been a very lengthy and intensive process. But during reshoots overseen by King Vidor, the decision was made to use classic trickery. Everything you see in that sequence was done in camera.
The crew constructed and painted a sepia-toned version of the Gale home, and then Judy Garland’s double, Bobie Koshay, was dressed in a sepia-toned costume and given a sepia-toned makeup job. She walks out, and we only see her from behind, and she opens the door, revealing the rest of the stage just beyond the set. Then Judy Garland, in her full color costume, steps into frame and magic happens. What you’re seeing on screen is what you would have seen on set that day.
It’s worth noting how hard the production worked on getting all that color right. The Wizard of Oz was certainly not the first film to use color photography, but it was definitely pushing the envelope. It took a week of tests to find the right color to make the Yellow Brick Road read on screen (most yellow paints made it look green when filmed). Technicolor worked so closely with the production that they would bring their expensive, at-the-time advanced cameras to the set every morning and take them away at night. The care and attention paid to the color is part of what makes the effect work – the shock of bright, insistent color is bracing.
I’ve watched this moment hundreds of times, and every time it gets to me. The more I learn about the making of the movie, the more it gets to me. The Wizard of Oz is a film that exists for me on multiple levels – as just a musical movie, as nostalgic return to a different era (when I watched it on TVs so low quality I didn’t know Dorothy’s hair was red/chestnut), as fascinating story of against-the-odds filmmaking in the studio era, as deep emotional text that teaches real and lasting lessons – and every time I watch it I get something new from it.
But this scene, every time I watch it, I get the same thing. The sense of awe and excitement, and it all comes from some clever staging and some painting and makeup. It’s so simple and yet so transformative, and that’s why it’s still the greatest special effect I’ve ever seen.