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October 14, 2019

Wizard of AB

Todd Cherniawsky works his magic in Hollywood, transforming film sets into ethereal lands that sometimes resemble his home province.

2012 WALT DISNEY PICTURES/ ENTERPRISES INC. – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

When you think of the Emerald City, you probably envision a yellow brick road, while the “We’re Off to See the Wizard” refrain plays in your head. You wouldn’t equate the capital city of Oz with the real capital city of Alberta.

That is, unless you are Todd Cherniawsky, supervising art director of the Disney production, Oz: The Great and Powerful, scheduled to come to theatres next month. The Hollywood art director, who grew up on an acreage outside of Ardrossan, spent about three weeks planning the Emerald City’s streetscape for the film, and helped with the designs, which took over two years along with four dozen artists.

“It’s not overt, but in a bizarre way, the set is like an elegant, romanticized version of Edmonton. A river like the North Saskatchewan even winds through the town. And the curving streets with … cul-de-sacs and parks are reminiscent of Glenora,” says Cherniawsky, whose art direction and production design work is featured in many films including Armageddon, Hulk, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, War of the Worlds and two Oscar-winners (in the field of art direction, among others): Avatar and Alice in Wonderland.

While people likely won’t recognize the subtle similarities between the two cities, Cherniawsky says no matter how surreal the world, he always tries to ground some aspect of his designs in fact. “Even if you have a ridiculous monster running around, the director might want the medicine right, the science right,” he says. So, it makes sense that he had a real city in his home province in mind when he designed the fictional one.

2012 – COLUMBIA PICTURES/ ANNAPURNA PICTURES/ ZERO DARK THIRTY, LLC – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Right out of high school, Cherniawsky thought architecture would be in his future; he just didn’t envision that it would be in the form of designing a fictional city for a Hollywood film. But after graduating from NAIT with an honours diploma in architecture in 1988, he wanted to combine his love for designing with his passion for art, so he completed a BFA in industrial design at the University of Alberta, where he was introduced to the use of art in film by several professors.

Cherniawsky’s never been the kind to wait for something to happen. He headed to San Francisco via private plane, thanks to a student pilot friend looking to bank some hours in the sky. Once in California, Cherniawsky dropped off his portfolio at Industrial Light & Magic, a special effects studio created by George Lucas initially for Star Wars – since then, it’s done everything from putting Forrest Gump in the same shot as JFK to making newspaper photos come alive in the Harry Potter series. While Cherniawsky was turned down in minutes, he’s since worked on films like Avatar and War of the Worlds, with some of the special effects by the same company that rejected him 20 years ago.

He was inspired to complete an MFA from the American Film Institute and shortly after got a job designing furniture for the film, Sphere, a 1998 adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel, starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson. Having this experience helped him get his next job and his career snowballed. “My trick is to never say ‘no’ to anything. One job leads to another. My next gig was because of Sphere – after Armaggedon was Inspector Gadget,” says Cherniawsky.

Cherniawsky recalls one of his first assignments in architectural school. He was asked to design a dream home or just one he’d like to live in. “What 90 per cent of the people do as the actual aesthetic and floor plan is the one they grew up with. It’s almost an unconscious thing; your past tends to follow you,” says Cherniawsky.

The Emerald City in Oz: The Great and Powerful is like the Hollywood version of this assignment, just switch out “dream home” for “dream city.”

Flight Instruction

Despite living in Los Angeles for 19 years, Todd Cherniawsky still maintains strong ties to Edmonton that go beyond his desire to put the occasional Glenora-esque cul-de-sac in a fictional on-screen city. Each film requires extensive research, and this means consulting with experts on everything from the way the aircrafts operated in Avatar to the creation of a helicopter fashioned after the one used in the assassination of Osama bin Laden for the recent Kathryn Bigelow film, Zero Dark Thirty. For both films, and many others, Cherniawsky consulted with his long-time, high school friend, Jon Lee, western regional manager for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, who still lives in Edmonton and is the same guy who flew him to San Francisco when they were both students.

“There’s no traditional hiring or headhunters for this research stuff; nothing exists. Sometimes it’ll be 3 p.m. and I need something for 7 a.m. You can’t go to the Yellow Pages – you need people you can call in an emergency and Jon’s one of my main guys,” says Cherniawsky.

Lee’s knowledge extends across all kinds of aircrafts “from ultralights and hang gliders to Boeing 747s and helicopters,” but he still found it challenging when asked his opinion about what a special operations stealth helicopter might look like for Zero Dark Thirty.

Providing details for a helicopter might seem straightforward for someone who’s spent his life studying aircraft; but it’s made much more challenging when all that remains of the chopper used in the assassination of Osama bin Laden are a couple blurry photos of the back tail rotor section. So, Lee gathered details from the special operations aviation regiment in Edmonton, which sometimes deals with high-tech helicopters. They were able to give insight into things like green lighting used for night vision goggles in stealth machines. In the end, the helicopter was constructed in London, England. But the research came right from Edmonton, says Cherniawsky.

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