Confederate army officer John Carter is an honourable and courageous man, but the ravages of the American Civil War have left him broken, dispirited and personally defeated. Accidentally transported to Barsoom (Mars), Carter realises that his strength and jumping abilities are greatly amplified in the planet’s low gravity. He reluctantly begins a journey to rediscover his humanity while at the same time saving his newfound world. Along the way, he encounters a couple of very cool monsters…
Oscar-winning filmmaker and writer Andrew Stanton is the magician behind John Carter, a sweeping action-adventure set on the mysterious planet of Barsoom. The film is based on the classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Princess of Mars. It tells the story of a war-weary former army captain named John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch) who is inexplicably transported to Mars, where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions among the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).
In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realises that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands. The timing is spot on: 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the Burroughs character John Carter, the original space hero who has thrilled generations with his adventures on Mars. In fact, Carter has become something of a heroic paradigm across all forms of pop culture, from novels to comic books, from artwork to animation, TV and cinema.
A fan of the Barsoom series of books since childhood, Stanton says he stumbled upon the books at the perfect age: “I was about ten, and I just fell in love with the concept of a human finding himself on Mars, among amazing creatures in a strange new world. I always thought it would be cool to see this realised on the big screen.”
Filming of John Carter began in the UK in January 2010. With growing public interest and multiple fan-sites speculating on the production’s every move, the bulk of the movie’s stage work (along with exterior sequences set on Earth) were filmed at Shepperton Studios in London and Longcross Studios in Chelburn.
By late April, the production had moved to Utah for an additional 12 weeks of shooting, with locations in Moab, Lake Powell, the Delta salt flats, Hanksville (where the US space agency, Nasa, has tested robotic vehicles), and Big Water – a vast mesa of granulated shale and sandstone set before a towering ring of red cliffs which border the Grand Staircase National Monument.
Although John Carter features a fair number of visual effects, the fillmmakers wanted to use real locations and landscapes to film the action. Producer Jim Morris explains why. “As much as possible, we decided to shoot in actual locations and minimise the amount of digital set creation, so that the audience always feels grounded in real places.”
“It’s what I call our little slice of Mars,” says producer Colin Wilson of the Utah locations, although “little” might not be the best word to describe a film set that stretches as far as the eye can see. Using the vast splendour of the natural backdrop (with purpose-built set pieces in the foreground), the ruined remains of a Martian city were completed digitally in post-production. Explains Wilson: “Our philosophy has been to use practical locations with real sets and set pieces that create a cornerstone for our digital world. The buildings have one level finished here, but in the movie you’ll see towers upon towers.”
On set, however, the blending of traditional filmmaking and computer-generated wizardry is elevated into an art form as Stanton and his production crew bring the story to life. For production designer Nathan Crowley, creating the look of three distinct cultures in the film formed the starting point of the production design. “We’re dealing with three main cultures on Barsoom: Zodanga, Helium and the Thark culture. With three different cultures, we needed three different types of architecture. For example, I’ve created what I call ‘ancient modernism’, and over-scaled it for the Thark 2,4 m-tall creatures. I’ve taken (modernist Earth architecture of the 1960s) but translated it into oversized Martian versions and then broken the buildings down to create the crumbling cities. That idea developed as we found our real locations because I wanted the natural landscape to form the architecture.”
Along with the costuming, the process of bringing the characters to life fell to the director and the actors, along with the skills of visual effects masters and make-up wizards to provide them with their individual and tribal characteristics. For actors Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins (Dejah Thoris, princess of Helium), who appear in human form on screen, the process was straightforward but physically taxing. “It’s the most physical role I’ve ever done,” says Kitsch of John Carter, the character who has been freed from the physical restraints of gravity on Earth. “The jumps, the stunts, the sword training… I mean, almost every scene on Mars, I’m on wires.”
“They’ve hung us every which way,” agrees Collins, whose character’s princess-like qualities are certainly matched by her warrior skills. “After this film, I think my fear of heights has been completely annihilated.”
For the actors playing Stanton’s Martian “Thark” characters, however, the process is more complex. On screen, Willem Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas, for example, will appear as a 2,7 m-tall alien being with four arms, towering over John Carter. On set, Dafoe replicates the character’s height by performing on stilts. His body is covered in a grey jumpsuit marked with black dots, a reference point for the animators who will recreate his movements digitally in post production. Similarly, his face is covered with black dots as two cameras, suspended from a helmet, record his facial movements.
Director Andrew Stanton is excited at the opportunity to deliver the same sense of excitement that first captivated him as a boy. “My goal is to want to believe it,” he says. “To believe it’s really out there.”
John Carter opens in South Africa on 9 March.
Video: Visit John Carter trailer to watch the official trailer of John Carter – due for release worldwide
on 9 March 2012.
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