With the recent revelation by NASA that a crashed meteorite seems to indicate the existence of life on Mars, the timing of the release of the new Warner Bros. film Mars Attacks! makes the scientific discovery seem like an outrageous publicity stunt.
Coincidence aside, the latest project from director Tim Burton, Mars Attacks! is an over-the-top alien extravaganza based on an obscure series of trading cards originally published by the Topps Chewing Gum Company in 1962. Also inspired by low-budget B-movie science fiction flicks of the time, Burton explains his motivation to create the film; "I wanted to do something fun, [make] the kind of movies I grew up watching. Growing up on all those movies about Martians with big brains sort of stays with you forever."
Maybe it's the fact that I've already seen the film three times, but it seems that Burton's vision will, as he says, stay with me forever. Upon first viewing, in fact, I felt that the images were too graphic, particularly the scenes in which the Martians burned hordes of unsuspecting humans to a crisp with reckless abandon. But looking at the imagery from an artistic perspective, I just had to admire the spectacular production design and effects. And while I wasn't busy analyzing the animation techniques, the action had me on the edge of my seat, either grinning or slack-jawed. At once horrifying and hilarious, the apocalyptic comedy gave me an unnerving yet calm feeling of acceptance of this extremist fantasy of universal evolution. I just have to wonder: What would Darwin think?
It Started With Stop-Motion
From the start, Burton had always envisioned the Martians in the film being animated with the type of stop-motion techniques used in his earlier films Vincent, The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. The animation was originally intended to be done by Burton's previous collaborators at Skellington Productions, but Henry Selick and company were still busy working on James and the Giant Peach. So, while still in the initial stages of screenplay and visual development, Burton turned to artists in Manchester, England.
To create the intricate Martian puppets, Burton contracted the services of model makers Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders, whose credits include the creation of puppets for Paul Berry's Academy Award-winning stop motion shortThe Sandman. Mackinnon noted that, "It seemed a rather brave route to be taking, but Tim has always been a great believer in the artistry of puppet animation." Within a few weeks, Mackinnon and Saunders had amassed a large team of sculptors working in L.A. and the U.K., who were busy building hundreds of identical 15-inch Martian puppets. Mackinnon, overseeing production in Los Angeles, was soon joined by contemporary master puppet animator Barry Purves, creator of such festival award-winning short films as Next, Screenplay and Achilles. With Purves acting as animation director, elaborate sets were constructed and filming began. "We spent months working on bizarre little Martian gestures and ways of moving," Purves recalled. "The animation tests were looking good and suitably creepy." But the newly formed "dream studio" of a stop-motion facility, dubbed "Stickman" was short-lived.
In November 1995, Warner Bros. decided that the time and technical demands of blending stop-motion animation convincingly with live-action were just too challenging a task to be dealt with in the year left before the film's scheduled release. And so, nine months into the stop-motion production, the model animation team was dispensed with and replaced by 3D computer animation. (Purves gives a first hand account of this experience in the April '96 issue of Animation World Magazine.) Not all of the model work was done in vain. Movements and gestures developed by Purves' team were adapted to the computer characters. Mackinnon and Saunders' puppets were digitally scanned and rendered into computer models, while the 15-inch puppets were cast into enlarged full-scale Martians to be used in several of the film's live-action scenes.
Enter Industrial Light and Magic, creators of some of the most stunning visual effects in recent years, including Jurassic Park, Jumanji, The Mask, Death Becomes Her and Terminator 2. ILM's visual effects supervisor, Jim Mitchell notes: "We were really excited about working with Tim because of his animation background and strong sense of design." Working under Mitchell were nearly 60 full-time ILM staff creating all of the Martian character sequences in the film; twenty animators choreographed the Martians' movements, while 27 technical directors generated the texture and lighting effects for each frame and ten match-movers placed the characters in perspective in the 3D digital environment.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros.' newly formed visual effects facility, Warner Digital Studios, created the computer-generated flying saucers, death rays, photo-realistic global destruction, and atmospheric scenes. Michael Fink, vice president of Warner Digital and senior visual effects supervisor on Mars Attacks!, is no stranger to this type of work. His previous experience includes directing the famous 1993 Polar Bear commercial spot for Coca-Cola and Tim Burton's Batman Returns. In working on the production design, Fink and his team watched all of Burton's films to bring his signature style to their work. "We really studied Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, because there are things in the way those characters move and in the design of them that carry through to our animation," notes Fink.
In all, the film contains some 120 computer-generated shots. However much of an avid stop-motion fan I am, I admit that I can't imagine how much of the visuals in the film could have been pulled off without at least the aid of computer animation. After production was completed, Burton commented that, "At the root of it, animation is animation. Each form requires its own special set of circumstances and expertise." Maybe so, but it seems a great injustice that there is no mention of Barry Purves' work in the "Mars Attacks!" credit roll or even in the otherwise excellent Ballantine book, The Art of Mars Attacks!, by Karen R. Jones, in which Mackinnon and Saunders' contributions are celebrated. Well, as they say, "That's Hollywood!"
Mars Attacks! (Warner Bros.) Director-Producer: Tim Burton. Producer: Larry Franco. Screenplay: Jonathan Gems. Music: Danny Elfman. Animation & Special Effects: Industrial Light & Magic. Visual Effects Supervisor (Martian Character Sequences): Jim Mitchell. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Glen Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Bosnan, Danny DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Lukas Haas, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lisa Marie, Sylvia Sidney, Paul Winfield & Pam Grier.
Wendy Jackson is Assicuate Editor of Animation World Magazine.