John Carter: The Original Space Adventure
Before Star Wars and Avatar and all the rest was Edgar Rice Burroughs' influential Under the Moons of Mars, which later became the more familiar novel, A Princess of Mars, followed by 10 more in the "Barsoom" series. Pixar's Andrew Stanton had waited most of his adult life for someone to make it into a movie, and finally decided to take the plunge himself after Disney purchased the rights at his urging. The result has garnered more attention for its marketing missteps and opening weekend box office disappointment (an estimated $30.6 million) than for its thrilling moviemaking and stellar VFX.
Indeed, Stanton has delivered the mythical goods, using the familiar iconic story and visual shorthand to remind us where it all came from and why John Carter's stranger in a strange land conceit is so timeless. While many have quibbled about the narrative deficiencies (Stanton's original script with Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon was more epic in scope but scaled back for budgetary reasons), the animation by Double Negative and Barsoom environments by Cinesite are praiseworthy. Additionally, Halon's previs (under the supervision of owner Daniel Gregoire) amped up the White Ape gladiatorial fight sequence with a hand-held observational style that suited Stanton's vision.
Dneg owner and production VFX supervisor Peter Chiang says both lead VFX companies raised their game to deliver Stanton's naturalistic vision (they called it "No Country for Old Men with Martians"). MPC and Nvisible also contributed when the workload increased to more than 1,500 shots.
"We introduced Andrew to new tools and he took the stylistic renderings of Pixar to a more photoreal level," Chiang observes. "He's so used to signing off shots early in a grayscale stage or with very simplistic models and approving that animation, knowing that when he sees the renders, he's sure of what he's approved already. And so it meant that the pipeline for us could be far more streamlined. And he would accept signing off on animation before we would start to do the cloth sims and creature effects -- all those additional layers after the principal animation had been signed off. So it made it far more fluid. He dialed into the shots and what changes he wanted made and we would guide him on the reality and getting the lighting in the comps."
This represented the biggest creature work for Double Negative and so they rewrote all of their tools to handle the scope and complexity, right from rigging to muscle systems, eye renders and the complexity of eyes to cloth sims to creature effects. "We had to rebuild everything," Chiang admits. "I started in May 2009 and we did a very simple proof test that ILM's Roger Guyett supervised at a shoot in Vasquez Rocks involving two dozen shots with full creature on 35 mm by cinematographer Dan Mindel. We did lots of cheats for muscles before we developed the full muscle system. There was facial capture for the Tharks so we had to really get into the performance and render it in a very shrewd way. And from that we learned the demands of the film for Andrew. We rebuilt our creature pipeline, and did facial capture on set with two NTSC cameras and translated that into FACS shapes (using Mova capture) and then into the Tharks face. There was no translation to a real-time 3D model because the 3D model was too complicated and it always got filtered, and the throughput of that data didn't work for the Tharks. Therefore, Andrew would sign off on the capture on set by looking at the straight video feeds of the NTSC cameras. Animation software was Maya and rendered in RenderMan and composited in Nuke."