Detailed Behind The Scenes Look at the Making of Disney’s “John Carter”

Today, February 22, marks the Red Carpet Premiere of Disney’s “John Carter.”  Therefore, we’re taking this opportunity to post a detailed behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film.  In this article, released by Walt Disney Studios, the cast and crew discuss the locations used to re-create both the Earth and Martian locales used in “John Carter.”  For all the latest news, press releases, images, trailers, cast Q&A, etc. from “John Carter” click here.

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, London and Longcross Studios in Chelburn, over a four-­month period.

BTS - Director Andrew Stanton watches Lynn Collins (Dejah) and Taylor Kitsch (Carter). A Stage, Shepperton Studios, UK ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Although “John Carter” has a proportion of visual effects, the filmmakers 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 minimize the amount of digital set creation, so that the audience always feel like they are grounded in real places.  We hope this will add an additional layer of authenticity that will heighten the believability and realism of the film.”

In the UK, the “John Carter” production was based at Longcross Studios in Chertsey.  This is where the art department, costume, special effects, visual effects workshops and editing were situated.  The production utilized Stage 17 for Sab Than’s ship deck and bridge action scenes.  Stage 14 was used for the smaller interior sets, including Colonel Powell’s stockade in Arizona, the Apache cave and the interior of the arena dungeon where Carter finds Tars Tarkas and is forced to battle the fearsome White Apes.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


The backlot at Longcross was the site for two set builds: the Zodangan Streets set, where Dejah Thoris and Sab Than lead the wedding procession to Helium for the ceremony at the Palace of Light, and the New York City Broadway 19th century set, where Carter dodges the man in a bowler hat and sends a telegram to his nephew.

The interior of the Palace of Light was built at a disused warehouse in Greenford, West London. The enormous structure—the largest of the set builds—took over four months to  build  and  had  to  be  strong  enough  to  hold  the  400  extras  required  for  the extravagant wedding ceremony of Dejah Thoris and Sab Than.

Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Production designer Nathan Crowley explains: “The Palace of Light is a great glass structure and the setting for the final sequence of the film where Dejah is being married off to Sab Than. The Palace is the glass jewel that sits in the center of the great tower of Helium.  The concept for the shape was a bird sitting with its wings folded up; it is very feminine and delicate but it is where one of the biggest fights of the movie takes place.”

Studio space was also utilized at Shepperton Studios. Stages A, B, C, D and H were used for the interior sets of the Zodangan Palace, the Helium Hall of Science, the Thern Sanctuary, the interior of Tars Tarkas’ tent and the Ancient Ruined City where Tars and Carter watch the Heliumites and the Zodangans battle it out, while the Tharks place bets on who will win.

"JOHN CARTER" Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Filming also took place on location in the UK to capture the exterior scenes set on Earth: The Bluebell Railway, Sheffield Park Station, was the location chosen to double for the Hudson River Railway Station where Thompson meets Edgar Rice Burroughs to take him to Carter’s mansion.  The volunteer-­run Bluebell Line was the UK’s first preserved standard-­gauge, passenger railway.  Over the years, it has developed  into one of the largest tourist attractions in Sussex, yet it remains true to its main objective, which is the preservation of a country branch line with its steam locomotives, signaling systems, stations and operating practices.

The scenes taking place at Carter’s mansion were filmed at Ham House, a 400-­year-­old National Trust property in Surrey.  Situated along the River Thames, the imposing house and its garden is an unusually complete survival of 17th century architecture.  Ham House was largely the vision of Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart, who was deeply embroiled in the politics of the English Civil  War and subsequent restoration of the monarchy in England.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


On a dank day in February, the film crew traveled 40 miles out of London, to Henley-­on-­Thames, to film one of the most emotional scenes of the film.  John Carter returns to his farmhouse in Virginia to find his home burnt to the ground and his wife and child dead.  Again, with just one day to cover the scene, both first and second units worked simultaneously to capture all elements before losing the winter daylight.

In mid-­April, 70 core members of the UK film unit flew across the Atlantic to  join an American crew in Utah, USA.

Producer Colin Wilson explains how the filmmakers came to choose Utah as a film location: “We are creating our imaginary world by taking a natural environment and working to make it look like Mars with digital manipulation.  We did extensive location scouting all over the Midwest of America and decided on Utah because it has a vast variety of different landscapes, textures and rock formations—all of which have become the basis for the set design of the film.  The process started with concept illustrations, which we then extended beyond our physical set locations so we can create something unlike anything seen before.  It is a place you have never been to but unconsciously you believe it exists because it doesn’t look synthetic; it has a gritty real feel to the environment.”

Camera boat filming Carter (Taylor Kitsch) and Dejah (Lynn Collins) make their way down the River Iss. Lake Powell, Page, Arizona Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Director Stanton adds, “The thing about Utah is that it contained one of the biggest lakes on earth 25,000 years ago.  The lake wasn’t fed by streams or rivers—it filled up with rainwater, so because of the soil it became very salty.  It really was a dead ocean at one point and so are large portions of Mars.  The topography of the two places is very similar, so it’s easy to stand in certain areas of the state and think you’re on another world.”

Stanton continues, “There’s also something very romantic and eerie about the desert.  I wanted to let the natural world and the environment that we came across inform how we use them.  For example, we found these rock formations that are the size of buildings, even larger, and by digitally tweaking them just slightly they became ruins.  That way, the audience will retain seeing a large percentage of reality when they’re looking at the screen, but the 20 to 30 percent we have tweaked will give the illusion they are man-­made and start them thinking, ‘Where did they find that location?’  Capitalizing on the natural erosion of these rock formations will help the audience believe that a lot of time has passed on Mars when the story begins, rich with history.”

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Filming kicked off with the Earth scenes at the Arizona General Store, where Carter is ridiculed by Dix the storekeeper before the Calvary arrive, and Fort Grant where Carter is taken to meet Colonel Powell.  These scenes were shot at Esplin Ranch in Mt. Carmel, a short drive from Kanab.  Kanab has a history of hosting film crews and boasts credits, including “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” “Daniel Boone” and “Planet of the Apes.”

L to R: John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


The production designer chose stunning Lake Powell as the location for the scenes where Carter, Dejah and Sola travel down the   sacred River Iss.  Lake Powell is a man-­made river used mainly for recreation but is also a major water source for a number of states downstream.  The river, at 186 miles long, boasts nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline—more than the entire West Coast of America.

A half an hour drive from Lake Powell, Big Water, bordering the Grand Staircase National Monument, was the chosen location for the Ancient Ruined City and Thark encampment.  93 millions years ago, this area was the bottom of the ocean.  The dusty, Mars-like surface is called the Tropic Shale and it consists of layers of shale and limestone that formed in the ancient Cretaceous Period. The cliffs surrounding the Ancient Ruined city set were tweaked in postproduction to give the effect of a sprawling, crumbling old port city, where Tars Tarkas takes Carter and introduces him to the Thark hoard.

Behind the Scenes: On Saturday, June 5, 2010, crewmembers, working on location in Utah, found a large bone protruding from the ground.  The Bureau of Land Management confirmed it was in fact a Sauropod bone — either a femur or scapula — from a dinosaur that could have been 60ft long.  An excavation is currently taking place to retrieve the rest of the prehistoric skeleton discovered by the “John Carter” crew.

Matai Shang (Mark Strong) with Warhoons ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Matai Shang spies on our hero and his two travel companions from the top of the Abyssal Trench.  The scene was filmed at the spectacular Dead Horse Point aka Utah’s Grand Canyon, just outside Moab.  Legend has it that in the 1800s cowboys used Dead Horse Point to catch wild horses.  With sheer cliffs on all sides and an access only 30 yards wide, the point made a perfect horse trap.  Cowboys herded horses on to the point and built a fence across the narrow exit to create a natural corral.  According to legend, a band of horses left corralled on the waterless point died of thirst within view of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below.

The crew then moved inland to Hanksville (where the US space agency, NASA, has tested robotic vehicles) to film scenes taking place in the Martian wilderness, including the Xavarian ship landing to rescue Dejah.  The location was chosen specifically for Factory Butte, an imposing freestanding cliff that looks remarkably like a castle built on top of a hill.

This site is another ancient seabed called the Mancos Sea, which is known to have covered much of what is now Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.  Although it has very little vegetation, the area is protected by the Bureau of Land Management as it is home to three species of very rare cactus.  These species are only indigenous to the Central and Eastern parts of Utah and are listed as threatened or endangered.  The crew took extra precaution to protect the ground surface and leave the location unharmed by filming.

©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


“It’s what I call our little slice of Mars,” says Producer Colin Wilson, talking about the Utah locations, though ‘little’ might not be the best word to describe a filmset which stretches as far as the eye can see.  Using the vast splendor of the natural backdrop (and purpose-­built set pieces in the foreground), the ruined remains of a Martian city will be completed digitally in post production.

“Our philosophy has been to use practical locations with real sets and set pieces that create a cornerstone for our digital world,” explains Wilson.  “The buildings have one level finished here, but in the movie you’ll see towers upon towers.”

Behind the Scenes: While filming in Utah, the film crew came across a small space center called the Mars Society Desert Research Station.  No one was home but the Website reads: “Teams of hard-working volunteers, working in full simulation mode in the barren canyon lands of Utah, continue to explore the surrounding terrain, cataloging more waypoints, and analyzing the geology and biology of this fascinating and remarkably Mars-like region.”

From an actor’s standpoint, Taylor Kitsch feels that the rigors and joys of shooting in Utah are about equal.  “I loved it there. Maybe it was just being outside after being on the stages in London for so long, but it was the first time I really had the feeling that we were making an epic adventure movie.  We did some Lake Powell scenes and the sets were remarkable.  That really felt like something special.  I think audiences are going to love this movie.”

©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Samantha Morton sums up the valid reasons for working in the Utah desert: “The locations we have been to have been incredibly inhospitable.  Places that people have said we ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’ film, but the reply is, we want to make it look like we are on Mars; we want it to feel real.  You need to have a sense of reality.  It sounds a little old fashioned but I like it personally.  I think what Andrew [Stanton] has chosen to do by being in these environments, by filming on 35mm film, in real places, with actors is wonderful.  There is a sense of simplicity in his storytelling that as an audience member, I know I love.”

Keep watching “Adventures by Daddy” for all the behind-the-scenes information leading up to the March 9th opening of Disney’s “John Carter.”  For more adventure movie news, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.