With a number of 12-foot tall, four-armed talking aliens to portray, Stanton has been working to avoid the kind of wooden acting that afflicted those who worked opposite CG characters in the Star Wars prequels. Yesterday he spoke extensively about recruiting actors of the calibre of Willem Dafoe
, Samantha Morton
and Thomas Haden Church
. They play the alien Tharks, which required all three to act in mo-cap suits, on giant green stilts, in the 110 degree heat of the Utah desert.
"I had spent most of my life imagining what it would be like to talk to these characters, and I wanted it to be instinctive," said Stanton. "I felt that if the actor was really there looking into the eyes of the other actor – the human one – you would sense it ... So we actually put the characters on stilts in motion-captured grey pyjamas with these helmets and cameras they used on Avatar pointing towards their faces. It was a very odd-looking set. You would have the actor really there, you would have these guys on stilts representing Tharks and you would have people in green gimpsuits making sure they didn't fall over and hurt themselves. Some days on the shoot I sat there and thought: 'What the hell am I doing?' But man did it pay off, and if we were to shoot another one tomorrow I would do exactly the same."
"The instincts that we were able to document, and then were able to transfer to the animators ... spoke volumes. Often it was a case of what the actors did not do. You didn't realise it was interesting just to watch somebody just stand there and not do anything. And you would never have the guts to do that as an animator. As an animator you would think, 'I'm being paid to do this', and then start overacting. You see what Willem did: Willem did nothing. He had the confidence of an actor in that role to know to do nothing, which helped keep everything grounded."
In terms of scale, John Carter is way beyond epic, and is going to require a spectacular suspension of disbelief from any audience that goes to see it. It's been almost a century since anyone sensible believed in the possibility of intelligent life on Mars, and I'm not sure anyone ever rated the concept of astral projection – by which Carter is transferred from one planet to another – as serious science. So it's hardly surprising that Stanton is going out on a limb to ensure that the inhabitants of the world he's created appear as genuine as possible.
The cities and buildings of Mars are also based on real locations in the US desert, with ornate dwelling places and crumbling alien facades superimposed on to them via CGI. John Carter has a very different – I would say more natural – look to it than the Star Wars prequels, whose use of all-CG environments saw them lose a lot of the original, Earth-filmed trilogy's vivacity and charm.
"I thought: how do we show a planet that's older than ours that's dying? So we found places on Earth and with a little bit of photoshopping we would turn them into man-made structures," said Stanton. "Your eyes are seeing more that is real than is fakery. That turned out to be a huge win."