Based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs story “A Princess of Mars,” published in 1912, the action-adventure film follows John Carter, an American Civil War veteran, who finds himself teleported to Mars, where he becomes extraordinary. There, a stranger in a strange land, he battles the barbarians, rescues a princess, fights evil, and finds himself a hero.
Credited as the first planetary romance, the 100-year-old novel and Burroughs' subsequent “Barsoom/John Carter” series have inspired scientists, science-fiction writers, game developers, filmmakers, and one 10-year-old boy named Andrew Stanton. Stanton would grow up to write and direct two Oscar-winning animated features, Wall-E and Finding Nemo, receive Oscar nominations as one of the writers for Toy Story and Toy Story 3, and, most recently, direct his first live-action film, this year’s John Carter.
“About the same time I read these stories, I saw Star Wars with imagery I didn’t think was possible,” Stanton says. “So ever since 1976-1977, I wanted to see these stories on screen by somebody. I had never thought it would be me.”
The Walt Disney Pictures production stars Taylor Kitsch as John Carter; Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas, an unusual Thark whom Carter befriends; and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Helium. Filmed in Utah and on soundstages in the UK, the production features CG characters and creatures acting alongside live-action actors. Carter is always Kitsch, the Heliumite princess Dejah Thoris is always Lynn Collins, but the Thark Tars Tarkas is a CG character voiced by Dafoe, who performed the character on set.
When Stanton took a detour from Pixar to direct the film for Disney, he brought along as a writer Mark Andrews, head of story on Ratatouille the “John Carter” books, and then invited Michael Chabon (Spider-Man 2) to join the team. Wall-E producers Lindsey Collins and Jim Morris, Pixar’s general manager, became the producers along with Colin Wilson (Avatar). Filling out the group were production designer Nathan Crowley (The Dark Knight), cinematographer Daniel Mindel (Star Trek), and visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang (The Bourne Ultimatum) from Double Negative.
Three Soho studios created the visual effects for the movie: Double Negative (DNeg), Cinesite, and The Moving Picture Company (MPC). Legacy Effects provided physical maquettes and sent Pixologic ZBrush models to DNeg. Halon and NVisage did previs, with Halon handling the majority of shots.
As for the visual effects, “We started by splitting the work between DNeg and Cinesite,” Chiang says. “Cinesite did 860 shots with the red men, who are human actors tinted red with tattoos. They fly in spaceships designed by [art director] Ryan Church and Nathan Crowley, so Cinesite created that hardware and the cities. Double Negative took on everything with the Tharks, just over 1000 shots. But, at some point, there was an individual Warhoon sequence, in which John Carter meets these almost Neanderthal thugs, that we handed to MPC.” In addition to the Tharks, DNeg created various multi-legged creatures.
While Double Negative and The Moving Picture Company artists had their hands full of character development and animation, Cinesite moved ahead with the environments, eventually creating four different areas of Mars in 800 shots: the city of Zodanga, the city of Helium, the air battles, and the thern sanctuary Sue Rowe led the visual effects effort at Cinesite.
In Edgar Rice Burroughs' version of Mars history, and in the film, Zodangans and Heliumites, two cultures of men whose red tattoos depict their station and rank, have been fighting each other for centuries, largely in solar-powered airships with wings that spread for hundreds of meters to capture light.
Zodangans live in a mile-long metal tanker that crawls over Mars, a moving refinery that drills for radium, a disappearing resource. Stanton describes Zodanga as a city that “picks a spot, hunkers down, takes what it wants, and moves on. A majority of poor citizens live wherever they can within the superstructure, just trying to make do, and then you’ve got the few elite who reside up in the palace.”
Helium is the opposite. A solid city constructed of stone, grounded, with a Palace of Light in the center. “It’s white, pure, like a blue droplet of water in this harsh Martian environment,” Rowe says. To Heliumites, the well-being of its citizens is important. This is home to Princess Dejah Thoris, John Carter’s love interest in the film.
Rather than use matte paintings, Rowe had the artists at Cinesite build complete 3D environments. “I was keen about that after doing Golden Compass and Prince of Persia,” she says. “You need to build these things because of the scope you can get within a big 3D city. And, because there’s always a time when the director says, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if…,’ and we were able to accommodate that with Carter.” When we first see Zodanga, it’s a power-of-ten shot through the clouds onto the surface. “Suddenly, you’re behind the city, looking at these holes in the ground where the city mined the resources and left it,” Rowe says. “When you go inside, it’s like Mumbai, a huge, bustling, overpopulated city. Then, when you go to the top, the quarters are all clean and beautiful.”
Cinesite modelers built Zodanga working from artwork by art director Ryan Church. To populate the giant vessel, the crew photographed people on set and used Massive software to control their movement.
“We shot on sets in the UK in winter, and every day it rained,” Rowe says. “The sets weren’t big enough. There were trees, motorways. I thought, How will I make this look like Mars? But we did a lot of preparation with greenscreen coverage. In a lot of the wide establishing shots, we removed the real set and replaced it with a digital set. That’s the advantage of building [complete 3D models of] these cities for real. We can swing the camera around and do what we want. One of the things I’m most proud of is the city of Zodanga.”
The production crew built the set for Helium in a warehouse in North London, which had enough interior ground space. “The problem was that it wasn’t very high, and the camera needed to look up 400 feet at a central building. So, working from Halon’s previs, I did a tech vis.” In the tech vis, given the camera and film format, Rowe calculated which lens would give the director what he wanted and where to place the camera.
Stanton shot much of the film in Utah, so Rowe and a few others came from London to shoot photo reference and watch the process. “It was the hottest place I’ve been in, but the environment was amazing,” she says. “My matte painters did a great job making sure the footage taken in London had everything we got from that red-hot environment. They used a lot of the HDRI photography and added their own touches, working in our Nuke environment, which can cope with these huge environments.”
Huge, in fact, describes the entire project. “It was the hardest and smartest thing I’ve worked on,” Rowe says. “We went from one city covered in dust, scarred, with metal gratings, to another made of glass, where we worried about getting lost in raytracing hell, and then we had a huge Master and Commander battle in the air. I’m glad I had done this for a long time before or it would have scared the pants off me.”
In the Martian world revealed in the film John Carter, a peculiar kind of nanotechnology plays a starring role. Called “thern,” which is also the name of a tribe, the always CG nanotech assumes many guises.
“It’s like a Lego set of building blocks that can form into different entities,” says Simon Stanley-Clamp, one of four visual effects supervisors who worked on the film at Cinesite. “It can build a gun, a cannon, a control panel, a sword, a transporter.” Or, thousands of these blue, fractal-like therns can grow an entire sanctuary, which Cinesite created for 80 back-to-back shots.
“One thern looks like a fiber-optic strand, bigger than a needle, more like a pencil, but short,” Stanley-Clamp says. “The tips have a bright light that dies off as soon as they form, and multiple threads interweave in patterns.” The sanctuary began as a corridor that grew ahead of people walking, on a soundstage, on an opaque lightbox underlit with white light. Eventually the corridor opened into a massive chamber made of thern.
“It’s like a wicker basket, a tight mesh of interlacing thern. When a thern is fresh, it’s bright blue. When it cools, it goes through a color change to a slightly deader blue, almost gray. So, we had residual lighting within the basket weave to give a nice ambient glow to the thing.”
One of the first times you see the thern, it is a gun. “One character motions to give it to another character, and rather than passing it across, it climbs off one hand like a Slinky, across to the other guy’s hand, and then reforms around his hand as a gun,” says Stanley-Clamp. “It’s like a bit of armor; his hand is inside the gun.”
The Cinesite team designed and built the thern using Autodesk’s Maya, Side Effects' Houdini, and custom software. An advanced Houdini simulation combining particles and fluids and augmented with proprietary software sent the thern from hand to hand when it formed the gun, along the corridor, and up the walls of the room to create the sanctuary—and elsewhere. The thern grow along an animated path using a proprietary vegetation-generating system. Because the algorithm for growing the thern is separate from the algorithm that created the geometry, artists could change the animation without re-generating the model for each iteration.
“Initially, we generate a model of the shape and then generate a ‘scaffold’ pass. We grow the thern onto this matrix and then animate it procedurally. Once animated, the geometry goes to lighting for custom glow and internal light passes, then to rendering and compositing. Conceptually, this was a difficult thing, to nail how the technology would be realized, what color it is, how fast it moves. But, this is the kind of stuff I love to do.”
For the animators, working with a director who had come from the world of feature animation was a particular joy. “I learned a huge amount,” says Eamonn Butler, animation supervisor at Double Negative. “Andrew [Stanton] brought that Pixar legacy; it reminded me of my days at Disney. It was great to have a director who could talk our language. Andrew is skilled at getting the best out of people. He knows how to inspire without micromanaging.”
Steve Aplin, second animation supervisor at Double Negative, agrees. “He’d treat the animators like actors and would direct them like actors,” he says. “He’d try to get you emotionally involved in what the characters were doing. I knew we would learn an incredible amount working with Andrew Stanton, and we did.”
Stanton is now one of many directors who have made the leap from live action to animation, and vice versa. But, these days, when it’s difficult to know what to call some films, it makes more sense than before: Is Tintin an animated film? Should Andy Serkis have been considered for a Best Actor award? Does it matter?
“There’s this assumption that I want to do everything animated, but I don’t go to the church of animation,” Stanton says. “The only reason you’ve never seen me do a movie like this is that I didn’t think I had the skills. But after 20 years at Pixar, I’ve become more knowledgeable about filmmaking in general.
“When I read the books, I would always picture a real person standing next to really tall creatures, and to do this movie, to realize that kind of imagery, you need to have CG characters with live action to make the whole idea work,” Stanton continues. “I think that’s what gave me the guts to [make the film]. When half the equation was something I was familiar with, I was willing to take the leap.” And, like John Carter himself, Stanton’s leap was extraordinary.
— Barbara Robertson for CGW