from the fxguide article:
Edgar Rice Burroughs’ early 1900s tales of a fictional Mars (known as Barsoom) have been brought to the screen with modern day visual effects in John Carter. The film, directed by Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, sees the titular Civil War character, played by Taylor Kitsch, transported to the red planet where he meets the nine feet tall Tharks and all manner of civilizations. Visual effects artists from Double Negative, Cinesite, MPC, Nvisible, Legacy Effects and Halon Entertainment all collaborated on the alien world and its inhabitants.
In this roundtable interview we sit down with the film’s overall VFX supe Peter Chiang, and Double Negative’s head of animation Eamonn Butler and animation supervisor Steve Aplin to discuss the Tharks, Thoates, Woola and the white apes. And look out for more coverage of John Carter in an upcoming fxguidetv with Cinesite about their work for the mile-long walking city of Zodanga.
Planning and prep
fxg: What kind of research did you have to do to fill out the fantastical environments for Mars?
Peter Chiang (VFX supervisor): Well, we spent two-and-a-half years on the picture – we started in May ’09 – and Andrew Stanton and a series of concept artists including Ryan Church and the production designer Nathan Crowley had already been working with Legacy Effects. They did all the ZBrush sculpts on the characters and created the worlds. So when we arrived on the project there was already a great portfolio of artwork. We went to the Viking images of Mars and referenced rocky terrain and it was used as a springboard. In the end, Andrew wanted to use real locations in Utah and to build sets that resembled Mars but didn’t take it into that barren, rocky, geological landscape – he wanted more interesting architecture of past civilizations.
fxg: One of the things you brought to the screen was some very humanistic qualities to the Tharks – how did you plan for them as characters and what proof of concept or testing did you need to do?
Eamonn Butler (head of animation): One of the first things we did was a test back in 2009. It was really just diving in and creating a small scene with a live action actor and a Thark, using our tools as they were and our pipeline as it was. We were trying to find out what the questions were going to be on the shoot, instead of trying to solve it in one go. We learnt that the Tharks were nine feet tall – they’d been reduced from 15 feet in the books – just so we could actually frame them appropriately with a six foot actor. It was still quite high, so if we had to frame things a certain way then we ended up doing things like animating the muscles in the abdomen so when the Tharks talked you would root the voice there. Up until then, we’d always looked at facial animation as just from the top of the forehead to the chin, in terms of putting in controls for the animators. On this film, we decided that because the characters’ necks are so long and they’re such elegant creatures, that our facial anim started at the top of the head and went down to the chest height.
The context for believability on these Tharks was always going to be when you had a real actor standing right next to one. We had to make sure the Tharks didn’t have a made-up methodology or biology for how those muscles would fire and how those faces would work. So we talked to Andrew about maybe re-working some of the muscles on the Thark design so that they made more sense biologically. We re-worked the sub-structure and muscle form so that they made sense to our riggers and subliminally made sense to the audience too because we just didn’t want to have everything be fantastical.