London’s leading vfx houses Double Negative, Cinesite and MPC have spent the last two and a half years working on the vfx for Walt Disney’s recent release, the sci fi 3d action adventure John Carter.
Directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E), John Carter is perhaps the biggest vfx-heavy feature film so far to have chosen London for its effects work. It features vfx on a similar scale to Avatar.
The film is set on an imagined version of Mars, with the action taking place in two ‘city states’ – the beautiful Helium, which has a large glass palace in the middle, and the mile-long rusty metal tanker Zodanga, which crawls slowly around the Mars landscape.
Cinesite’s key task was creating these cities and their extensive environments, which amounted to over 830 vfx shots. The company also handled the 2d to 3d conversion of the movie.
Meanwhile, Double Negative created and animated 12-foot tall barbarian creatures called Tharks, along with other creatures that inhabit the planet, and worked on over 1,900 shots for the film. MPC also handled a proportion of the wide-ranging vfx work.
A team of up to 310 people worked on the film at Cinesite, lead by vfx supervisor Sue Rowe, who also attended the studio shoots – studio locations included Pinewood, Shepperton, Long Cross and an ex-Woolworths warehouse – and went on location for the duration of the shoot in Utah for three months last year.
“Zodanga, the bad guy’s city, was based on brutalist architechture, while the city of Helium is beautiful and elegant,” says Rowe. “[Concept designer] Ryan Church did lots of concept images for the city and environment, which gave us a really good starting point.”
“With Helium, to take it from concept to the build in cg, we needed to be true to the scale and materials the environment was built in, and we needed to put in a great level of detail. We had 300 people involved overall over about two and a half years. While we were shooting we were also busy preparing the environments.”
Part of Cinesite’s work involved a battle sequence with two intricately detailed airships: “We had to turn Ryan’s concept drawings for the airships into photo-real cg models – the glass and the cracked surface of the ship were probably the most challenging aspects,” says Rowe. “And the environment we shot in – in Utah – had a very fine red dust, so the ship needed this too.”
“The airships travel on light, so we gave them solar panelled wings, and worked on a shader that gives off different colours (gold to blue and purple) depending on how it hits the light; like the scales of a fish.”
For Double Negative, animation supervisor Steve Aplin says: “It was a huge undertaking for us, with many different characters, including runts (baby Tharks), full-size Tharks, Thoats (a creature with eight legs and a broad, flat tail) and Woola, the side-kick dog.”
“The principal race we were dealing with was the Tharks. We not only had hero action performances with the Tharks, but also shots where there were thousands of them on screen at any one time,” says Aplin. “For the background Tharks, we created 800 animation cycles, dropping them in and switching them out. The closer the Tharks were to the camera the more involved we were with the animation. For a mid-range character we would drop in the cycles by hand. And for the ones close to the camera we used motion capture to give them very detailed animated facial expressions.”
“We used a stereo camera to capture the facial details of the actors playing the Tharks, and tracked the left and right images and transposed them onto the cg Thark faces. The 3d mesh of the actors’ face gave a very natural feeling result,” says Aplin. “The difference between an animated feature and vfx is, in vfx there’s a live action character next to a cg character, so the cg character has to have the same level of fidelity in its face. So you have to capture very subtle movements.”
When it came to representing the Thoat characters on set, “We had to figure out a big contraption to replicate what they would look like,” explains Aplin. “We did test cycles, which gave us the measurements for the creatures, and then Chris Corbould of the special effects team created a vehicle with a skeleton on top of a saddle, which was given inputs for the creatures’ movements, derived from our animation. We got a pretty similar motion to what we were after using this.”