Andrew Stanton and the Team for Disney’s “John Carter” Created Mars in the Utah Desert

In the Utah desert, Andrew Stanton and his production team found the perfect location to recreate Edgar Rice Burroughs landscape of Mars.  In fact, the location was so perfect they even stumbled upon an abandoned “Martian” testing site used by scientists for the Mars rovers.  Continue after the break for more details from Director Andrew Stanton, the production team, and cast members, on what went into adapting Burroughs’ “Princess of Mars” into the feature film “John Carter.”  Click here for all the latest news, press releases, and images for Disney’s “John Carter” coming to theaters March 9, 2012.

BTS, L to R: Director Andrew Stanton, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) Photo by: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.

Feature provided by Walt Disney Studios:

There are few places on earth as beautiful, otherworldly and geographically distinct as southern Utah.  Red earth carved by the waters of ancient Lake Bonneville 25,000 years ago, soaring, sand-colored cliffs and massive stone arches coexist majestically under an endless dome of sky.  Hardy desert plants like yucca, mesquite and agave dot the landscape.  Aside from the physical beauty and uniqueness of this place, there are other, less tangible things in this high desert world, too: the soft smell of alkali, the sharp smell of salt-soaked earth, the sweet smell of wind-blown pollen and the pungent smell of sagebrush, rabbit brush and creosote.

All of these elements are exactly why Academy Award®–winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “Wall•E”) chose Utah to shoot the exterior scenes of his first live-action film, the epic adventure sci-fi spectacle “John Carter.”  Because a large part of the film is set on the planet Mars, Stanton knew that Utah would give him the perfect visuals to create the planet in a way that no one has ever imagined it before.

“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,” says Stanton.  “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.

(L-R) John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


“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.”  Producer Jim Morris agrees that the story and the landscape in Utah were a perfect fit for the story of “John Carter.”  “Because the film takes place just after the Civil War, around 1875, the technology on Mars was about the same as it was here on Earth.  The tribes on Mars fight each other with swords and single shot muskets, but the one thing they’ve figured out is transportation.  Instead of using sailing ships and steam engines, they have found a way to harness light rays.  They have sailing ships that actually float on and are maneuvered by light.  This gives the film a retro feel, like you’re seeing an alternative history.  It’s as if this film is a period piece about a place and a time that people never knew existed before.

Jim Morris, Producer "John Carter", photo by: Jessica Lifland, ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


“We wanted the film to have a very gritty realism to it—to feel as if the world we created could exist,” Morris continues.  “We wanted it to feel much more grounded. For instance, our Thark characters are 9-foot-tall, four-armed green men, but instead of seeing them as strange aliens, we’ve actually tried to model them after desert-dwelling cultures we’re familiar with on Earth, such as Masai warriors, for example, who are very tall, gaunt and ropey.  We tried to keep things very organic.

“Utah was perfect for creating that look and feel,” Morris says.  “In fact, one day we stumbled on a Martian test area. A group of scientists had built a site to test equipment for the Mars landing because the conditions out here are so much like Mars.  We also shot at Lake Powell and we found some fantastic rock outcroppings.  It really did feel like we were on another planet when we were shooting sometimes.  I think it’ll be a really provocative and stimulating landscape for the film.”

Tharks, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe, center), John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, right), ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Production designer Nathan Crowley (“Batman Begins”) elaborates on the artistic and design goals at play in “John Carter.”  “We are on Mars in the film and it’s a dying planet, so it needs to be clear that the cities you see are ancient,” he says.  “This culture is at the end of its days.  For instance, the Tharks, who are characters in the story, are from an ancient culture that is 2,000 or 3,000 years old.  Their buildings and temples need to show that kind of age.  It’s kind of like us finding the Egyptian ruins.”

Crowley continues, “We’ve had to invent an architecture for the planet.  I call it ancient modernism because I’ve taken modernism and made it 2,000 years old.  When I say ‘modern’ I mean modern shapes rather than classical ones from Roman, Greek or Egyptian design.  Hopefully, we’ve come up with a new style of architecture that people won’t recognize.

“In Utah, we found real places with real rock formations that, with a little bit of a twist, look like they could actually be ancient cities,” Crowley says.  “The only interiors in ‘John Carter’ were shot on a soundstage.  Everything else was shot here, in these giant landscapes.”

(L-R) Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang is also thrilled with how the production went, but for different reasons.  To make the Tharks appear as real as possible, they were played by actors—Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Samantha Morton and Polly Walker—who walked on stilts, wore gray jumpsuits covered in black dots and had helmets with cameras filming their faces at all times.  They were filmed with facial capture and 3D- tracked using witness cameras and later, in post-production, they were digitally altered and turned into the nine-foot tall, green, tusked creatures they are.  This same process was utilized in “Avatar” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  It makes for a seamless visual universe that makes audiences forget they’re watching special effects at all.

Says Chiang, “All of the actors took to the technological aspect of the shoot very well.  If technology gets in the way for actors it’s a hindrance, but they really embraced it and understood why it’s necessary.  We tried to make the technology as unnoticeable as possible and Andrew was fantastic at explaining things like why he needed to have two stereoscopic cameras pointed at black dots on their faces or why they had to use stilts.  We wanted the actors to really be able to act and do what they do best while we captured that.”

Thomas Haden Church agrees with Chiang that it’s been helpful in creating the reality of the film and to creating his character to adopt the jumpsuits, stilts and face cameras.  “Using stilts was brought up to me early on, way before we got into production,” he says.  “Andrew Stanton mentioned to me that he wanted them, but that it was just one possible way of getting us the height we needed to play Tharks.  You can also use platforms, but Willem [Dafoe] and I really pushed for using stilts.  I was comfortable on them and Willem was also quite good.  They helped me get into my character, Tal Hajus.”

Willem Dafoe attends the D23 Expo in Anaheim, August 2011, Photo by Todd Wawrychuk ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.


Willem Dafoe chimes in, “We had a little school before we started production.  We developed the language of the Tharks and practiced stilt walking.  It really helped with framing the shots Andrew needed and the movement of my character.  It helped me with my timing.”

Samantha Morton, who plays a Thark named Sola, is equally enthusiastic about the production and the stop motion process she has learned to play her character.  “I had never worked in motion capture before, but I like to think that I developed a new skill and technique.  It’s a new string in my bow, if you like.  It didn’t change the way I played Sola, though.  I didn’t think of myself as playing an alien or a Thark.  I was playing a character, so whether it’s a murderer or Mary Queen of Scots or Sola, I still perform in the same way.

“It is a bit different to not just be giving Andrew what he wants,” she concedes.  “I also had to listen to Peter [Chiang] and what he needed as well.  It was a three-way relationship and I had to make sure that everyone was getting what they needed all the time.”

The actors playing Tharks also had to learn the Tharkian language and accent, which was developed for them based on the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs by Dr. Paul Frommer, a linguist at the University of Southern California, who also developed the language in “Avatar.”  Dialect coach Roisin Carty, who previously worked on the “Lord of the Rings” films to develop the Elvish language, says, “Tolkien based his Elvish dialect on the Welsh language, so it’s very lyrical and light in quality.  The Thark language is quite staccato and earthy, with thumped consonants.  There are only about four scenes in the film that required that the actors speak Thark, but at Thark camp, before the film started shooting, the actors were very into working as a group and practicing their lines in a circle.  They would copy each other and influence each other and they shared ideas.  I’ve also worked with them individually.  Willem Dafoe, who plays Tars Tarkas, speaks the most Thark and he’s learned all of it very well.  We went through the scenes and I spoke one line and he spoke the other and we really began to communicate in the language.  It was amazing.  Samantha Morton and Polly Walker also really brought it to life.  That’s the sign of a good actor!”

(L-R) Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Sola (Samantha Morton) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Costumes are also a hugely important aspect of “John Carter” and they reflect the high desert qualities of Mars and Utah.  Costume designer Mayes Rubeo, who worked on “Avatar” and “Apocalypto,” was the natural choice for Stanton when it came to creating the looks to be worn by the tribes on Mars.  Says Rubeo, “We started designing the costumes from scratch because we realized that while there are tribes on Mars, the look should reflect how ancient their civilization is. ‘John Carter’ doesn’t have a futuristic look to it.  It’s not supersonic or anything.  The audience will see an ancient world on Mars and that’s what we tried to create when we pulled elements from all over the world.  We looked at China, Mexico, many countries in Africa, ancient Italian civilizations like Piceni, Mesopotamia…you name it.”

As for Taylor Kitsch, who plays the human John Carter, a Civil War veteran who finds himself mysteriously transported to Mars, 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.”

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


When asked what drew him to the project to begin with, Kitsch doesn’t hesitate for an instant before answering.  “Working with Andrew Stanton was a no brainer.  I’d do anything that he’s attached to.  The script was great and I get to play an incredible arc, so as actor I was excited about taking on that challenge.  It’s also the most physical role I’ve ever done in my life.  The jumps, the stunts and the sword training have all been very rigorous.  I’m also on wires in almost every scene that takes place on Mars.  Just that alone has been pretty intense.

“Working 102 days out of 102 day schedule has also been interesting,” Kitsch says with a smile.  “Let’s just say that I learned to conserve my energy.  Once John gets to Mars, everything becomes a life and death situation.  I had to play the stakes as high as I possibly could.”

Lynn Collins and Andrew Stanton attend Disney's D23 Expo, August, 2011, Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez, ©2011 Disney Enterprises, Inc.


Co-star Lynn Collins, who plays Princess Dejah Thoris in the film, has also been both tested and gratified by the “John Carter” experience.  “I love Andrew. He has such an amazing dialogue with his actors.  I was also excited about playing Dejah because you so rarely get to play a benevolent, powerful female who is also beautiful and sexy.  I just ate it up and had a blast in Utah.  My fear of heights was annihilated.  They hung me every which way, and Taylor, too.  They dropped us—safely dropped us—a number of times.  Let’s just say that working on ‘’John Carter’ was a great way to get over any squeamishness I had about doing physical roles.

“When I was cast, I instantly started reading the Burroughs’ books, of course,” she continues.  “For the life of me—and I’m a creative person—my imagination couldn’t grasp the visuals.  It really couldn’t.  It was so gratifying to watch this come together and actually see Andrew’s interpretation of what was written on the page.”

(L-R) John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Sola (Samantha Morton), Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.


Peter Chiang probably sums up the many elements that have gone into creating and realizing the amazing world of “John Carter.”  “Bringing a cinematic feel to Burroughs’ book has been the most amazing aspect of working on this film,” he says.  “When people see the story evolve and the characters develop, the visuals are going to be an incredibly exciting aspect of that.  Linking story with nature and technology is probably the most amazing aspect of ‘John Carter’ for all of us.”

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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.