Director's Chair: Andrew Stanton — 'John Carter'
Issue: April 1, 2012

Director's Chair: Andrew Stanton — 'John Carter'

HOLLYWOOD — The line between live action and animation is becomingly increasingly blurred these days, with some very high-profile cross-fertilization going on. After directing the first three films in the mega-franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, Gore Verbinski and ILM teamed up to make their first animated film, Rango, which just won the Oscar. Brad Bird, the director/writer of Pixar’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille, successfully took over the reins of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.

Now animation wiz Andrew Stanton, who won Oscars for his work on the Pixar hits Wall-E and Finding Nemo, has directed his first live-action film, the big-budget, sci-fi epic John Carter, which is stuffed to the gills with bizarre aliens and a ton of VFX shots. Disney reportedly spent $250 million on the new Martian odyssey set on the mysterious and exotic planet of Barsoom (Mars) and based on a classic novel by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. 

Hiring Stanton to helm the huge live-action production, which tells the story of John Carter (Friday Night Lights’ Taylor Kitsch), a disillusioned Civil War veteran, who miraculously finds himself on the surface of Mars — and stars a large cast, including Willem Dafoe, Bryan Cranston and Samantha Morton — was a calculated risk on Disney’s part. 

Here, in an exclusive interview, the director talks about making the film and the transition to live action, dealing with all the effects, and his love of post.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make? 
ANDREW STANTON: “I wanted to capture the timeless, mythic adventure aspect of how the book made me feel when I read it when I was about 11 years old. The book was published in 1912 and I felt that if it could touch me at that age, there was already something timeless and mythic about it.”

POST: What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together?
STANTON: “It was the same thing I felt as a kid — I wanted to believe I could really go there. I wanted it to feel like a period film or historical film, so it was all about realism and a gritty, grimy feel. And not just the look of the environment, but any kind of creature described in the books had to be as believable as possible. There were these amazing creatures — things sort of like horses but not really, eight-legged horse-like creatures called Thoats, and main characters 10-feet tall with tusks. So those were the main challenges: How to make these things come across as totally believable.”

POST: How far did you push the technical limits of filmmaking to make this happen?
STANTON: “It’s funny since I never felt we had to invent new ground. There may be some specific visual effects things that happened with the houses we used, but I felt it was more a case of fully embracing what both mediums — live action and CGI — had to offer. In that sense, it was really a 50-50 movie.”

POST: How tough was it making the transition from animation to live action?
STANTON: “Not as bad as I expected. It was very hard just from the physical stamina standpoint, but as far as the actual creativity — the thinking behind it, the artistic discussions and problem-solving that went on whether we were on a stage or out in a desert — it was almost identical to everything I’d gone through over the past 20 years.”

POST: This was a very complex production. How tough was the shoot?
STANTON: “We were originally going to shoot on location in the US, but due to great tax breaks and logistics, we moved to London — and then most of the effects shots we did inside. We shot at Shepperton and Longcross Studios, and also converted a huge warehouse in North London into a massive stage for the greenscreens. We then moved to Utah for another two or three months for all the location work, and also had a huge exterior greenscreen set at Lake Powell in Arizona.”

POST: Was there ever a time when you went, “What have I got myself into?”
STANTON: “It’s more, was there ever not a time? (Laughs hard). But again I’ve had that feeling on an animated film many times where, despite the freedom of CGI, you’re still limited by time, money and technology. It’s no different.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 
STANTON: “I do, although the truth is, I don’t love any part of the filmmaking process. When I’m writing, I hate writing, and the same with directing (laughs). But after the fact I love it all. I really love putting on a show, when it all comes together. People get confused about post now, with all the digital stuff. 
“During the shoot I kept saying, ‘Stop calling it post — it’s not post, it’s digital printable photography. We’re going into a year-and-a-half of post after the six-month shoot.’ For me, we were making an animated film as equally as a live action one. In fact, there are more character animation shots in this than there were in Finding Nemo. So it was like making two movies. I did the live action and then began doing what I’d do on my next Pixar film.”

POST: Where did you do the post? 
STANTON: “Because of the tax incentives, we had to do all the initial post in London, and then we moved back to the States.”

POST: The film was edited by Eric Zumbrennen. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked?
STANTON: “He edits all Spike Jones’ films — Where the Wild Things Are and Adaptation — and Wild Things really prepped him well for this since he had to do so much digital post with all the creatures. He was already there mentally and knew what would be needed of the animation production side. He was in London, but usually a few miles away from the set. He’d get all the dailies and start making early cuts. Then I’d visit him in between shooting at Shepperton and Longcross Studios. When we were in Utah for two months, he was based in LA and would come to the set every so often. But once principal photography was over, that’s when we began editing in earnest, and we were in the same room for almost two years, working on cuts. 
“The unique thing on this film is, we shot tons of plates and with several scenes, what you shot is what you get. But there was so much where what we shot was the background with representation of what would ultimately be there — whether it was a performance by an actor or scenes with creatures. So much was still missing in terms of information to tell the story. We had to do this whole middle step in 2010 where we had to storyboard all these missing elements that we’d be adding later, just so someone — whether it was us or the studio head — could actually see what we planned to do with the rough assembly of the live-action footage.”

POST: Where did you edit and what equipment did you use?
STANTON: “We did it all on Final Cut Pro, which we decided on very early. After starting in London and LA, we set up our post in San Francisco where I’m based, a mile or so from Pixar, so I could also do my Pixar duties for the last year or so but also work on this.”

POST: Your VFX supervisor was Peter Chiang, who runs Double Negative, the London-based effects house. How did that relationship work?
STANTON: “We auditioned all these VFX house as we had to figure out who was going to do all the computer-animated characters for the film, and when we met with Peter and his team, their group really reminded me of how Pixar felt in its early days, so it was good match. They were up-and-coming and their passion and talent eclipsed their inexperience at that point. I loved that! I could tell Peter really had a great eye. You’re not hiring people for their equipment or even their resume. You’re hiring them because they’re artists with great eyes and instincts, which is what saves you when you hit all the inevitable problems.”

POST: There’s obviously a huge number of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there, and what was your approach to dealing with them?
STANTON: “It’s in the thousands! There are far fewer non-effects shots by a huge margin. In the end the VFX work was so heavy no one place could do it all and we used three visual effects houses. Cinesite did all the environments and any inanimate objects, like ships. Double Negative did all the character animation and anything with actors or creatures involved, but even that was an overload, so we then brought in MPC. So that we kept the continuity to all the VFX, we found a couple of standalone sequences and gave them to MPC (who did 180 shots).”

POST: What was the most difficult VFX sequence/shot to do and why?
STANTON: “There’s a couple. One is in the middle, where Carter saves princess Dejah and it’s pretty much a confluence of everything we had to do in the film, all in one big action scene. So we left it to the end, as we had to work out how our airships and environments would look. And it felt like we were taming that beast to the last shot. Then there’s a later scene where we had to convey technology that’s so advanced beyond anything we know, that it’s like synapses in the brain. I felt I was trying to describe this for three years, and it took so many passes to get it close to what I’d imagined.”

POST: Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
STANTON: “I never approach it like frosting. It’s a major element — as important as casting and script. It can carry the heart and soul of a film, though hopefully it’s not masking a problem. We did all the mixing at Skywalker. I’ve been so spoiled as I’ve always done sound there.” [The Skywalker team, which worked on the Kurasawa Stage employed the AMS Neve Gemini.]

POST: The DI must have been vital? How did that process help? 
STANTON: “We did it at Efilm with colorist Mitch Paulson. He’s young but has worked with [DP] Roger Deakins for quite a while and was strongly recommended, and it was huge as we had so many elements coming from so many different places. On top of just getting an even look, we needed to make sure all the different VFX matched, and then you have all these characters who are more tanned and red-skinned than Carter, so that took a lot of dialing-in.”

POST: What’s next? Animation or more live action?
STANTON: (Laughs) “I never left animation in terms of doing this, but I definitely loved doing live action. To me, this is the future, and people will eventually stop talking about animation and live action as different mediums. They’re just tools that everyone will use.”