How do you tackle one of the most seminal works in science fiction history? The Oscar-winning director describes how he grappled with the challenges of bringing Edgar Rice Burroughs’ epic tale to the big screen.
How do you tackle one of the most seminal works in science fiction history that is, well, ancient history? Edgar Rice Burroughs’ epic space adventure, “A Princess of Mars” and the ten books that came after it in a series known as the Barsoom Chronicles, was first serialized back in 1912, the same year the Oreo cookie was invented. Arizona and New Mexico were just officially becoming U.S. states rather than “gosh darn lawless turratoreez” and early sci-fi geniuses like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Mr. Burroughs began capturing the imagination of generations to come with their crazy tales of space travel and alien invasions. Let’s see you make an “oldie but goodie” century-old futuristic tale of morality and redemption into a movie a 12 year old will enjoy, a 12 year old raised on “SyFy” and vampires consorting with wolves consorting with shape shifters while texting.
Enter Andrew Stanton, his Oscar for WALL-E firmly in tow, with a distinct vision of how to distinguish his first live-action film from all of the other sci-fi movies out there. The Pixar veteran talks about how he grappled with the challenges of bringing to the screen Burroughs’ tale of how one man was forced to choose between right and wrong, on Mars, with green aliens and a ten-legged pet.
AWN: How have you handled the transition from animation to live action?
AS: It’s not as extreme as I thought. I knew that the stamina demand would be incredible and that there would be incredibly long days. You're standing in every kind of whether, in every kind of environment, for 100 days. I don’t think you stand when you animate at all. Maybe to walk from one room to another and that's about it. But I must say that I’ve gotten used to the groove. The translation from animation to live action has mainly been taking everything that I’m used to doing in about 2 ½ to 3 years and concentrating it into 6 months. But it’s not as hard as you think, as the conversations I have with my live-action crew are extremely similar to the ones I have with my team at Pixar. I have a DP at Pixar. I have a costume designer. I have props. I have sets built. The roles are basically the same in each medium; it’s how they execute their jobs that’s different. I don’t work with computers at Pixar. I work with 200 craftsmen that are the best at their job. And it’s really the same with live action. The luxury in live-action is that I can have the conversation with all of the crew in the same room and we can actually see the result on the same day instead of six weeks later.
A lot of people at Pixar asked me after I came back, what was it like? I said imagine every meeting that we have about every issue, over the three years we're in production, and having them all in six months. They're all overlapped, they're all truncated, and everyone is talking at once. The nice thing about animation is that you can't put anything on the screen unless you planned it. So you become an incredibly great planner and I've got to say that's the weakest link in live action. There's a lot of thinking, “Let's just fix it as we go.” And so you’re more triage oriented. It was fascinating. I kept trying to apply my Pixar overplan mentality so that you don’t get any surprises. You could just see it just didn’t fit well with people. Then, the minute something was on fire, something was falling apart and we had no time left, everybody suddenly became twice as smart, twice as good and almost giddy. You’re like adrenaline junkies. This is a lot of what live action movie making.
The comforting thing is that making movies virtually isn’t as different as people think it is from making movies live. Certainly there are a lot of obvious differences, but the fact is that in both scenarios you’re still trying to make a great image on the screen that captivates you and moves the story forward.
And, to my surprise, I actually loved being outdoors and in a different environment every day. It’s a nice changeup from being in the same hallways and offices for years. I don’t mean to say one’s better than the other; they certainly each have their pros and cons. But it’s been a nice change-up after a long time of making movies in a certain environment.
AWN: What led you to want to make John Carter?
AS: John Carter is based on “A Princess of Mars,” which is a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs that was written almost 100 years ago. I stumbled across the book at the perfect age; I was about 10 years old, maybe 11. I fell in love with the concept of a human finding himself on Mars, among these amazing creatures, and finding that he has his own unique powers. It was a very romantic aspect of adventure and science fiction.
One of my friends had a bunch of brothers who all could draw and I would go to their house sometimes and we’d share comic books. I remember them always drawing this character with a sword, who was fighting these 9-foot tall, four-armed, green creatures with tusks. I asked them what they were drawing and they explained to me that it was John Carter from Mars fighting Tharks. It was the same time that Marvel comics had come out with a series based on the books, so I went the comic route first and then I came back and started reading the books. I read the books all the way into my high school years and my friends use to make fun of me.
There are actually 11 books in the series and I have always thought it would be cool to see them realized on the screen. I was really more of a movie fan. I wanted to see the ideas in Burroughs’ books up on the screen so I could go and see them there, but I never thought that I would be the person behind the movie being made.
AWN: How did you update this story, since the source material is almost one hundred years old?
AS: I’ve always been able to envision this early 20th century time period because that’s when the character of John Carter was created and that’s when the story takes place. It was considered present day at the time the stories were published in 1912. It’s very similar to what it feels like to read books by H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. The view of science and of future technology and fantasy is very reflective of how people understood the world at that time. I think that part of the appeal and charm of these books and of these characters is that they are not of our time; they’re of the post-Civil War era. I wanted not only Earth but also Mars to have a bit of that flavor, to place it in its own category and not make it possible to even accidentally compare it to other, more current, science fiction films or fantasy films.
But if I were to make the book literally the way it’s described, it would come across as cliché or antiquated. I felt the way to make it fresh was to make it feel even more authentic, to make it feel like a period film, but of a period we just don’t know about, so that it would have all the visceral believability of a very well-researched historical movie. It just happens to be that we’ve made up this history. For me it was all about authenticity, believability and transporting the audience to make them think they’re really there.
Because it’s science fiction seen through the eyes of somebody at the turn-of-the-century, there’s a cool old-fashioned feel that you can play off of. I wanted to be in real locations and make it feel like I was really in that time, whether I was on Earth or Mars.
For environments, for example, we are actually shooting locations in Utah that have an otherworldly feel. The thing about Utah is that it really was a dead ocean at one point, as is a lot of Martian topography, so it is easy to just stand in certain areas of the state and think that you are on another world; that you are on Mars. I wanted it to feel like a different world’s romantic period because one of the cool things I always remembered from the books was that everybody could sail on air. It’s the equivalent of tall ships having the wind in their sails, but these “air” ships can actually propel off the light that bounces off the surface of the planet, much like an air-hockey puck, so I wanted that sort of graceful gliding that comes from that period where things haven’t been automated yet. It’s also fascinating to me because Mars is a dying planet and there’s something very romantic and eerie about the desert.
AWN: How did you approach adapting the book?
AS: I was such a fan of the books as a kid and as a young teen, but then I sort of fell away from them and just sort of lived off the memories of them all through my 20s. Then I rediscovered the books in my mid 30s and read them again, now with the eyes of somebody that’s had to write their own stories and make films. It made me not only appreciate what was still really great stuff in the books, but also how much needed to be altered or edited in order not just to make a better story, but to also capture cinematically the feeling that you get from reading the books. I think that’s really more the job of the filmmaker when they’re adapting a book. It isn’t so much whether you’re incredibly faithful, it’s great if you can be, but more importantly, have you made the audience feel like what it felt like to read the book?
To me, that’s the sign of a good adaptation, so that’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve gone and looked in the other books in the series and sometimes found a character or situation that I felt might be better served to work in the first story and certainly added or embellished anything that I felt we wanted to explore more. There are an insane amount of battles and fights in these books and it’s because the chapters were originally serialized. You didn’t read a whole book, you read chapters in a magazine, and you waited until the next month until you could read the next one. So every chapter had a cliffhanger that was equal in size to the end of a movie.
So, Mark Andrews and I, and Michael Chabon, all worked very hard at balancing it all out so that you would get a much better rhythm and arc of what you expect when you see a movie, while still retaining the best of what it felt like to read the book.
AWN: How do you strike a balance between a story that feels authentic and believable and a story that includes nine-foot tall, green, four-armed Martians?
AS: When you describe the creatures and the ideas that Edgar Rice Burroughs came up with for these books, it seems like pure fantasy. That was the thing I really tried to overcome. How can you sell nine-foot tall, four-armed, tusked characters and have the audience completely accept it? The audience just needs to think that maybe they really could exist. I thought that the way into the film was not so much trying to be fantastical, but actually the opposite. How can I make you believe that these things really follow the laws of nature and the rules of reality on another planet?
That’s the way we approached it. To present this to you as if it’s another travel destination, an exotic location that’s in our universe, but we just didn’t know anything about it. And that’s really how, through those eyes and through those rules, we’ve made any decisions on this film.
AWN: Describe the visual style you bring to the film.
AS: The answer always seems to come to me if I look at it as a fan of going to the movies as opposed to being a filmmaker. What would make this feel fresh for me and not derivative of other things? My goal is to believe it. I want to believe it’s really out there. So I thought to treat it like a historical film, like a period piece, where we’ve done all our research correctly and it has a gritty reality to it. There’s dirt, a patina and a wear and tear to things that make it feel believable. I want the “Martian history” on this film to be done so well that it feels like some sort of remote place that you just didn’t know about. So that’s how we’ve approached it. Just that dirty, dusty, reality.
We went looking for landscapes where the rocks already had centuries of erosion and then did just the tiniest bit of computer work on them to give the illusion that they were constructed ruins. We added things like windows, doors and stairwells. Hopefully, if we did it right, people will look at the finished product and go, “Where did you find that man-made ruin?”
AWN: Describe the huge Palace of Light set used for the wedding scene?
AS: The wedding scene in the Palace of Light is our big finale of the movie and is probably one of the largest sets we had on the shoot. The reason it’s called the Palace of Light is because it’s all glass and about ten stories high. There will be an entire wedding going on with about 300 Heliumites and Zodangans filling up the balcony and the floor of the set.
The wedding party will be on a dais that floats in the middle of the ceremony. There is a big mirror in the palace roof that reflects the combined moonlight of the two moons of Mars, which then creates a shaft of light that hits a receptor on the dais, allowing it to float all the way up to the balcony level.
When you have a set this big, it’s a bit overwhelming. But you realize it’s something the audience will enjoy seeing on screen. People go to see these big action movies hoping there’ll be something they’ve never seen before, some element of spectacle that hopefully is very fresh, but still story related.
So, we did extensive previs. We actually built the set in a virtual world, shot the sequence and cut it together just like a movie. Then we broke it down exactly where the camera would be in every single shot. We had many, many meetings about how we would shoot each of these moments. Once you start to break it down into bite-size pieces, it becomes less daunting, less intimidating and more manageable. It’s sort of that old adage, “How do you eat an elephant?” You eat an elephant one bite at a time. And that’s pretty much how we’ve been attacking the sequences.
AWN: How extensive was the use of motion capture in the film?
AS: Many people mistakenly believe that with motion capture you put on a suit, it records your movements and then the data is applied directly to a computer model, and that’s the end of it; it’s suddenly finished. The truth is, anytime you’ve seen motion capture done well, there’s been a talented animator in the middle of that process who has been finessing that data, or more often fixing or supplementing the source material to really bring it to life, to a place that shines.
It’s the pairing of a great actor with a great animator that gives you the performances that you’ve been the most impressed by so far with CG characters and live action. And that’s not that different than fully animated movies. On an animated film, you get great vocals from an actor and sometimes we even record that actor on videotape to get references for their actions and gestures, but it all goes nowhere without an animator putting it all together into a great performance.
I’ve applied about a 50/50 ratio to the process of creating the Thark characters. I actually need much more of the physical performance of the actors and the physical reference of what they’ve done with their faces and what they’re doing in the physical space when they’re acting on the set, but I’m still dependent on a certain degree of the animator coming in and running with that captured information and taking it to the end. It’s not a competition; it’s these two great performers working together in concert making the perfect hybrid performance so that, hopefully, at the end of the day, you’re not thinking it was Willem Dafoe or Samantha Morton and you’re not thinking that it was an animated creation. You’re just thinking it’s the character. That’s really always the way to tell that you’ve done the best job possible.
I’m really pretty much using the same philosophies and approaches that I would have used on a Pixar movie on John Carter, but I’m just much more cognizant and appreciative of the material that I’m getting from the amazing cast playing our Tharks.
AWN: What is most interesting about the character of John Carter?
AS: The thing that fascinates me the most about the story is that it’s about a stranger in a strange land and a man who suddenly becomes, against his choice, extraordinary. It’s the analogy of somebody who is given gifts and has to decide whether to use them for the betterment of others or keep them to himself. John Carter is a man who’s at a crossroads with that choice. He’s this Civil War veteran who has lost the point of living and is very jaded. He goes to Arizona and tries to make his fortune so that he can basically isolate himself and tell the rest of the world to go fly a kite. In the course of this, he stumbles across this larger universal infiltration that’s happening that suddenly sends him to Mars. There, he miraculously finds that he can leap almost 50 to 100 feet because of the difference in gravity with his bone density, also giving him more strength, probably the strength of three or four men. He comes across a world in the middle of a crisis where the scales are going to get tipped in a direction that’s not good for the planet and he realizes he can play a key role to bring the scales the other way. The question is will he or will he not.
I like the idea of a damaged character, who has morals and values, but because life’s dealt him a bad hand, does not want to go back into the world again as the person he was before. What it takes for John Carter to engage again is to leave Earth and find his humanity among the Martians.
AWN: Describe the other cultures in the story, like the Tharks, and how you brought them to life?
AS: One of the most memorable characters in the series of books, besides John Carter, is a character named Tars Tarkas, who is the leader of the green men tribe known as the Tharks. These creatures are described in the book as anywhere from nine to 15 feet tall with tusks and four arms. It’s pretty fantastical, so one of the first things we attacked on the film was how to make them feel believable and indigenous to the desert, like a natural species from the planet Mars. So, we actually designed the physiology of these creatures using desert-dwelling people of Earth as a guide. We looked at the aboriginals; we looked at Masai warriors; we looked at the Bedouins. We made the Tharks very thin and very ropey, as if they have spent their whole life surviving in the desert and now they’re in tough times and their whole existence is in jeopardy.
There are a lot of multi-limb creatures on Mars. There’s a ten-legged pet, called a Calot, that’s sort of like a bulldog lizard. There’s the eight-legged Thoats and the four-armed White Apes, which are a big set piece of the movie, so getting the physiology right on the Tharks helped us find the smart physiology for all the other multi-limbed characters. Hopefully, as you’re watching the film you’ll never even think about it. You’ll just accept it like you would any new species that you might find somewhere else in the world.
AWN: How did you design the airships to reflect the period you were creating?
AS: The airships relate to our world in the tall ships era. Therefore, in thinking of the materials that they would have been made of to be equivalent to that period of history, we used old porcelain and wood materials, nothing manufactured. There’s no electricity on Mars, but there is an element called Radium, which is this very rare resource that they can use to sort of ignite energy, like a car battery would. As a result, everything in these ships is run by manual power.
The fun of it was to come up with the routines of how these ships are actually manned and flown and navigated. We created a whole language for it and a plan of how everybody works together as a crew just to give it that much more authenticity.
AWN: There are two warring cities on Mars and John Carter gets drawn into their conflict. Can you describe the two cities, Helium and Zodanga?
The red men, Heliumites and Zodangans, are a warring species who have a culture of tattoos that are red-based, depicting their station and rank. The two warring cities have been fighting for centuries. Heliumites, who display a blue flag, take a long-term view that they’ve got to do something to bring their planet back or it will die. The Zodangans, under a red flag, have taken the attitude that it’s every man for himself. Their city is always moving; it’s sort of like a moving refinery that just goes to different locations and drills for Radium, which is a resource that is getting depleted. The city picks a spot, hunkers down, takes what it wants and then moves on.
In a sense, Zodanga is a city of haves and have-nots. You’ve got the majority of poor citizens who 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; whereas the city of Helium is the opposite of Zodanga: it’s much more invested in the well-being of its citizens. Helium is described very well in the books because it plays a recurring role throughout the series. It’s the city where Dejah Thoris comes from, as well as her father Tardos Mors and another major character named Kantos Kan. Helium is a very grounded place, constructed of stone, very solid with high towers. There are two sections actually, Greater Helium and Lesser Helium, linked by a bridge. The Palace of Light is its centerpiece at the base of the city’s highest tower.
AWN: Who were the main people that helped you make this film?
AS: I’ll start with my comfort zone - the producers that I started this journey with. First it was Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins, who were both producers on WALL-E and then we brought on board Colin Wilson, who has extensive experience in producing live-action movies as well as big effects movies. He was the perfect complement to the other strengths that Jim and Lindsey brought to the table. Lindsey comes from the world of computer animation, so we felt, and she felt, that it was better if she ran all the animated stuff that was in nearly 50% of the movie and consumed all of our focus for the last year and a half of production.
Then there’s Mark Andrews. This whole project started from a conversation between Mark and me while working at Pixar. We discovered that we both had been childhood fans of this project. We even still had our childhood drawings of John Carter to prove that we had loved these worlds since we were kids. Very soon after, we brought on Michael Chabon to help complement our writing (who also had childhood drawings). And that was the base of our little team.
Next was Nathan Crowley, the production designer, whom we brought on early in the process. It was really interesting because he and I sort of came together right at the height of all the awards season that was going on for WALL-E and Dark Knight and it was exciting to be working with each other, based on the hype of everything that was going on with our latest films.
That choice turned out to be a real godsend because Nathan Crowley doesn’t come from the world of fantasy. He’d never done a fantasy project, but he’d always wanted to. So he brings a real fresh eye and original perspective to rethinking architecture and just designing the functionality of a world that is so different from ours.
Soon after that we got our cinematographer, Daniel Mindell, who is quite eclectic. It’s a little hard to pin down exactly what look and style he has. He’s done a range of films, from Enemy of the State all the way up through Star Trek. He came highly recommended from people in the effects world who had worked with him because he really understood that the principal photography part of production isn’t always the be all-end all of a large scale special effects film like John Carter.
Then there’s Peter Chiang, who runs Double Negative, which is a big effects house in London. We had to figure out who was going to do all the computer-animated characters for the film so we met with him and his team. Their group really reminded me of how Pixar felt in its early days, so it was good match.
AWN: How did you and co-writer Mark Andrews get together?
AS: Before the film was even green-lit, I found out that Mark Andrews was a fellow lover of the books at Pixar. Mark was the head of story on Ratatouille and The Incredibles. We were considering him as another potential director at the studio, and he asked me, just as a favor, to be his test case for hearing some of his ideas he might like to direct. In the middle of hearing them over lunch, I said, “That one’s sort of like John Carter.” He stopped everything and said, “You know John Carter?” And I said, “Yeah, I grew up with the books, loved the books, loved the Marvel comic books in the ’70s.” Neither of us had ever met anybody else at Pixar who knew those books, so we were geeking out. And then it turns out we both knew, from a fanboy standpoint, what was going on and what historically had gone on with the books being developed as a movie.
We made this weird little pinkie swear, thinking nothing would ever come of it, and said, “If ‘John Carter’ ever falls in your lap or my lap, we’ve got to work on this together.” That was back in 2005 and then, lo and behold, ’06 comes around and another studio’s then current movie deal with the Burroughs estate falls through and suddenly the rights to the stories fall in my lap. I turned to Mark right away and said, “You and I are writing this together.”
Dan Sarto is publisher of AnimationWorld Network.