Opening in theatres this Friday from Disney is the film JOHN CARTER starring Taylor Kitsch in the title role of a Civil War veteran who, while looking for gold, discovers so much more. His world, literally, is about to change as he wakes up on Mars.
Rescued by the 12-foot-tall Tars Tarkus (Willem Dafoe) and his daughter Sola (Samantha Morton), Carter quickly discovers there is a war of a different kind on this planet. A group led Matai Shang (Mark Strong) is trying to take over a people led by Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds). In order to arrange peace, Shang arranges a marriage between Sab Than (Dominic West) and the princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) who is not as eager to wed.
Carter joins the princess and the Tarkus in order to save the people of Mars and, find his way home.
Disney has been bringing animation and films with CGI to viewers and capturing their imaginations. Once again with JOHN CARTER, Disney fans will have a story that has been beloved for over one hundred years and see characters come to life.
I was given the opportunity to speak with Eamonn Butler, the Head of Animation and Peter Chiang, VFX Supervisor for the JOHN CARTER film.
Nice talking to each of you, especially from London!
Peter: Its great to be talking to you.
Eamonn: Thanks for taking the time to talk about JOHN CARTER with us.
I saw the film and its pretty amazing. Tell me how you got involved in the project?
Eamonn: The script was written a few years ago by Andrew was looking for someone to be a part of the visual and special effects of it. My background is in animation so I connected with Andrew on that level. Double Negative has focused over the years on photo-realism in digital effects. We won the Oscar last year for “Inception” and pretty much specialize in blending things in to make it look like they are really there. That was important to Andrew and I think that’s what brought me into half the film in the movie.
Peter: The visual affects were done over four different visual effect houses. Double Negative got the animation package, which was about 960 shots of the film.
How is it working with so many different people working with so many different things?
Eamonn: Its pretty typical in the movie industry for visual effects to share the projects. Because of the amount of time it takes and the schedule and if your making a Disney feature film for example it can take several years to complete it. We handled all the Tark animation, which are all the big green guys with multiple arms and most of the creatures are ours. We largely handled the large environment enhancements.
Speaking of the creatures, how is it to know that you’re going into the mind of someone who wrote the book so long ago and your bringing their creatures to life? How is that putting it on the screen?
Eamonn: It started with Andrews’s script and he came to us with a very clear approach. We have Tars Tarkus who is Willem Dafoe and he’s the leader of the dark hoard and Andrew was clear about how he wanted it to be. He even had scopes made in the computer, which he handed off to us. He was very clear Solas (Samantha Morton) who is very unique and unlike the other Tarks in that she has a lot of compassion and humility to her. Our job was to realize it and make it real and believable with the CG. We took the designs and explored how to make them walk the right weight, and make them look believable standing next to a human being and the faces express the right way. We did a lot of research and development before we started the film. Before we did any of the shots we did tested the images with Andrew to see what the issues might be. Like what the Tarks would look like and how their skin would be. Also, how to make thousands of them and be on the scene at the same time.
Peter: That was the bigger issues taking the Tars and making them really look like living and breathing creatures. In the issues of scope we had to create a whole tribe of these creatures. We have worked on the project for over two and a half years in May of ’09 but Andrew has been working with concept artists before we got the models from Legacy. Essentially they stayed true to his vision one year before we got our hands on the images.
Where you surprised when you saw the images?
Eamonn: We were blown away by the whole scale of the project. We loved the whole idea of working with Andrew and Disney on bringing this story to the screen. Andrew had a very pragmatic and sensible approach to the whole idea. We saw the images and were blow away and immediately became hooked by the whole idea. Luckily it payed off because he had the confidence in us to do the work. It was a dream. We always said every now and then a little golden nugget comes along and this was it. It was a lot of hard work and thousands of artists but truly, truly worth it and a remarkable experience.
What was the most difficult part of your work?
Peter: I think there was a big blending between where Andrew had come from in his animation world and what we do in terms of visual effects. I think the hardest part is always interpreting the director’s vision and making sure that respond accurately to what his requests are. Trying to place and make everything feel photo real. The complications of that are doing the massive crowds, the big worlds the Martian landscapes – just fusing that all together so the audience really isn’t taken out of the picture but moves and carries them along by the visual imagery.
Eamonn: From an animation standpoint creative one realistic Tark, that consumed us for months and we also had to make thousands of them show up on screen and all of them have to look as good as the hero Tark so it was a real challenge to have to make crowds of them and make them equally real. We have a huge library of all these images. It is a question of quality being held to the highest standard and that every Tark looks amazing.
How was it to work around the human characters in the film?
Peter: It’s always difficult to do that but in a strange way that’s what makes the Tars look like they are really there when they are interacting with Taylor Kitsch or Lynn Collins. You can put ten digital Tars in a scene but when you put a human in there and they are involved with each other – that really helps to sell that the Tars are there. It’s a massive amount of labor that goes beyond animation. Only a third of our crew were animators, the rest were compositors, riggers, televisions and a huge effort to integrate these characters into this massive world.
Eamonn: There is always a massive difficulty level when a human character is in a scene. Audiences are very perspective to fake CG and there is no way to hide a nine-foot alien standing next to Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) – it looks real or it doesn’t. The nuances that you get in the principle photography and the real actor, Taylor, you have got to carry it all the way through the scene. When you take it into an animation world where it’s made up there is a little bit of license because you’re creating the whole world. Here, Andrew from the outset wanted to shoot in real beautiful locations and used principle locations like Utah and Arizona for the landscape of Mars, Lake Powell and these served as fantastic backdrops. When your adding computer generated imagery to that there is no hiding, you either get it right or wrong.
Movies that have these grand CGI running through them – do you embrace the face that audiences are more clever?
Peter: Your absolutely right. Even the games people play, the games are looking photo real. They way they are rendering the images are causing the audiences to be more and more savvy. It’s harder to cheat them, the technology races on. Part of our industry is staying one step ahead of the audience and keeping the wow factor. You don’t get away with anything.
Eamonn: The audience keeps us honest.
Did you feel like you’ve created something new with your techniques?
Eamonn: We went into this to tell a great story, not necessarily to create anything new. But by the time we were done we had to try a lot of old techniques in new ways to create the world Andrew wanted. It was a lot of technology used. We had to put the story first and the needs of the director second.
Peter: I think your constantly learning. I think the challenge is that every film you work on makes you a better, more informed person. JOHN CARTER is amazing and the levels of technology being where it needed to be was fantastic. We learned from films like AVATAR, PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN and we needed to better that but how do we do that? How do we push ourselves to do that? That question alone brought about a massive learning process. One with the technology that you have got and another with just how you view things and what you need to do to keep that real quality.
I can’t imagine what it took for you to do this? Have you seen it all?
Peter: We have, we saw it this week at the world premier. It is amazing. It’s a lot to take in. It’s a movie for the whole family, with action and romance. There are monsters and I’m really looking forward for my two boys to see it.
Eamonn: When you work two and a half years on a project you get very close to it and it’s hard to be objective. The proof is going to be from people like yourself and see your reaction. I’m curious to see and hear the audience’s reaction.
Peter: I think it’s going to be a huge film.
Its based on a book written so long ago too?
Eamonn: It’s the 100-year anniversary of the writing of the book. The film got great source material.
Do you feel like that since 100 years ago there wasn’t any technology that the description in the book was a major effect in what you did?
Peter: Andrew’s interpretation is where we are at. I think the actual story spans more than one book. If you take the basic principles of the Edgar Rice Burroughs book and Andrew looked at that and the idea of framing it was a really good call. The interaction between the creature and John Carter was done so there could be interaction. The idea is based around the book but Andrew cleaned it up and made it a 2012 version exciting.
Have you both read the book?
Peter: Yes, we have. This is a match up of the first three books actually. The books were also very serialized like modern day comic books. Each one was very short and didn’t necessarily translate so Andrew put his moviemaker hat on and really did a marvelous job of putting it together.
Eamonn: It will be interesting to see the general publics feedback to it all. That is something we hold very highly. That’s whom we are making these films for and its important that there is a connection between the work we do and what the audience likes.
Peter: What matters is that your transported and that you have a great time watching the movie!
And you have done exactly that with JOHN CARTER opening in theatres this Friday from Disney! Hang on for a ride to another world filled with aliens, special powers but all with the will to be free!