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John Carter & The World of Yesterday

One of a half dozen or so maquettes we created for Tars Tarkas

One of a half dozen or so maquettes we created for Tars Tarkas

I'm new to blogging, so please make your mom proud and be kind.

Last week our John Carter of Mars reel popped up on the internet. I hadn't looked at that work in a long time and as surprised as I was, I guess I was happy to see it out there, even if it never made the local multiplex.

It was also nice to see that a lot of people thought the work was good. I did too. So, since it's out there, I guess now is as good a time as any to share some insights into that period.

After Sky Captain, Paramount offered us John Carter of Mars, a movie people had been trying to make for 75 years and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little overwhelming. I mean the Sky Captain experience was amazing in a lot of ways, but it was still a small movie with a small budget (don't believe everything you read online about budgets). As a lot of you probably know, we started that movie in my brother's apartment on one antique Mac. When the producer who took the project on asked us what we wanted we said $3 million. Not for us, for the whole film. It was going to be a quirky black and white thing with a cast of no names. Never in our wildest dreams did we ever think we'd end up with the cast we did.

Still, in our heads, it was always intended to be a little movie, not a summer tent pole. In truth we wanted to play it like some lost bit of history buried in Paramount's sub-basement. The plan was to pretend it was recently unearthed and pop out this ridiculously over the top thing that could in no way have been produced at that time. It was a fun idea… and it would help justify some of the lesser techniques we had in mind at that time.

Of course it didn't turn out that way. And while I'm not complaining, sometimes I wonder what might have been if we'd made that $3 million dollar version.

Our small crew was largely made up of young inexperienced people looking for a chance to do what they loved. But what our team lacked in experience was made up for with great talent, wild enthusiasm and a ridiculous work ethic. I think about those people often and I'm pretty sure I will never work with a better group.

As the production designer, I ran the art department, which was easy because it was one person, me.

It turns out we were developing a new way to make a movie even if we weren't always aware of just how new. For me, I saw an immediate opportunity to dive in with the CG artists and use them as my own. But, at that time anyway, you didn't do that. CG supervisors supervise CG artists, not production designers.

I didn't know about the gap between the guy responsible for the look of the film, and everything in it, and the CG artists bringing his ideas to life. There are obviously a ton of very talented CG supervisors out there with a wide range of skills, but there are also a lot who aren't designers or illustrators. In terms of our film, that disconnect seemed stupid to me and still does.

So with no one to tell me not to, I descended on the team, starting with the modelers. I could go on forever about those guys and the way we worked together, but I'll be brief and just say it was fantastic—and highly efficient. I am convinced no other group of people has ever done as much with as little as we did on that film.

Wait, I was talking John Carter, right? Yeah, I was. I'll save the Sky Captain stories for another time.

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Working on a movie that was likely to cost $150 million or more meant I wasn't going to be a one man art department anymore. And nobody was happier about that than I was.

Suddenly we had a real development budget and I could hire artists—and man, did I.

One reason I wish that movie would've been made was just to see what that team of super-powered dreamers would have done! Given the opportunity to put a team together I went right after the big boys and it still feels weird writing about it all these years later.

Star Wars was finishing up, so the first guy I went after was Ryan Church. I'd had the pleasure of working with Ryan's wife-to-be, Tracy, on Sky Captain and I knew this was the first guy I wanted to land. Fortunately he said yes, because he helped grab our second guy, Iain McCaig. Iain in turn, lured Erik Tiemens aboard and later, Brom. Obviously the work these guys have done over the years speaks for itself and I am happy to be called a fan.

Emboldened by snagging the Star Wars guys, I went after a list of artists whose work I had admired forever, William Stout, Mike Kaluta and Bernie Wrightson. Seriously, that is about as studly a group of guys as any movie could ever grab and in Bernie, I would be working alongside a guy I had idolized since first discovering Swamp Thing.

But I saved my biggest move for last. I was going after the guy who defined John Carter for me as a little kid. I wanted Frank Frazetta.

I knew Frank was in poor health, unfortunately, I didn't know how poor. After his stroke, Frank could no longer paint with his right hand, so he taught himself how to paint with his left. The guy really was a superhero. The truth is, I didn't care if he could paint, I just wanted to hold stuff in front of him and get his approval.

For all the talent in that art department, there wasn't a single guy who didn't feel like Frazetta wasn't from another planet.

If you watch our reel you will see an image of floating mountains and some dragonfly inspired flying creatures with four wings. Sometimes I wonder how Avatar, and therefore Hollywood history, would have changed if we'd finished that film. We would have been released maybe two years prior to that record breaking movie—a movie with floating mountains and some dragonfly inspired flying creatures with four wings.

The basic stories of John Carter and Avatar are virtually identical. A soldier from Earth finds himself on an alien world in the middle of an uprising, falls in love with a princess and saves the planet.

My brother and I were lucky enough to spend some time with James Cameron and he was very kind to us, so I don't point that out to be a jerk and certainly I'm not the first one to point those similarities.

But the floating mountains? Those were mine!

They aren't in Burroughs book, but to me, they seemed like a logical extrapolation from what was there, so I pitched it to Kerry and we went with it. I was able to do that in part because there wasn't really a script at that point—and to be honest, I'm not sure if we ever really saw a completed version of one or not.

So why didn't we finish that project? I wish I had a better answer, but the truth is as simple as this, a regime change.

Happens all the time in Hollywood (heck, it just happened to me a few months ago) and every other business I guess. But when our backers went packing, our project went along with them.

I know we would've made a good film, one that would be true to the source material while also updating it enough to work for today's audience. I mean it would've been cool, but then, I suppose we'll always have Paris (I mean Avatar)!