Chewing Over John Carter: My Conversation With Andrew Stanton

I think that Andrew Stanton‘s John Carter is just about as good an example of pulpy space adventure as you’re going to see in cinemas for a long, long time. It’s witty and polished and there clever little filmmaking choices that mark it out as something special, and lasting.

I spoke to Stanton last weekend about the film. I wanted to know about his cinematic approach to the film – how he arranged his shots, and what he put in them. It would have taken hours to dig as deep as I wanted to, but we still skimmed across a lot of interesting ground in a quarter of an hour or so.

Here’s some of what Andrew told me.

I’m fortunate that I’m a writer and a director, so I’m thinking about economy of storytelling from the get go. Part of the satisfaction of good writing or good cinematic storytelling is how quickly things can be evoked with how little information. It’s the absence of information and how strategically it’s placed that really involves the reader or the viewer. I think that’s part of the beauty, and the secret joy, of editing. Whether you’re editing words or whether you’re editing images.

Telling the story with juxtapositions of shots is certainly taking advantage of what is one of the wonderful qualities of one of cinema. You can’t do that on the stage. But, also, you use whatever works. Sometimes you just want to hold on something forever, sometimes you want to tell the story through the juxtapositions.

I think that in the last ten or twelve years we’re in a place where, cinematically, if you’ve got the means or talent you can put on the screen literally what’s in your head. That’s one of the joyous things about being alive at this time in cinema – seeing such a match between imagination and what can be on the screen.

I definitely started out with a hunch about how I might want the film to look but my bigger goal, always, was that I didn’t want to sacrifice believability. My bigger goal was always “Can I make this as historically accurate as possible?” even though it was fiction. I know that sounds weird but the book doesn’t read like science fiction, it reads like a traveller who’s exploring a new country, a new culture that while we never knew about it, it has always been around.

I wanted to believe in the authenticity and the history of this culture, and these people, whether they are green or red. And that guided how green something could be, or how red, what the costumes were like and where we shot. I would ask “Does it add to the visceral sense of being placed back in time?”

I kept saying it’s a period film about a period we didn’t know about. When you read the Burroughs books you’re not having to suspend disbelief and pretend it’s real, you immediately just buy into the reality of it. Why would I want anything less than that for people watching the film?

I always asked “How much reality can we put in front of this camera? How little will we have to modify it or put CG on there?” In other words, I wanted to know what percentage of the screen real estate could be what we really caught on camera versus what we had to add. For an example, if we want to see old ruined cities and things like that in the dessert, things that had been around for thousands and thousands of years and had eroded just like the pyramids in Petra, then let’s shoot something of that scale that’s really out there. And then we’d do a slight bit of CG adjustment. Your eye and your brain say “That’s real” because it is. Much more of it is real than not.

And that’s why we went through the pain and the frustration of putting great actors on stilts and having them be in front of the camera on a hillside in the middle of nowhere in a hundred and twenty degree heat acting against Taylor. We did for all of the unsaid stuff that you catch from a good live action drama.

To be honest, you need both motion capture and key frame to create these characters. I’m not sat around with a status sheet going “What’s the percentage of one to the other?” but I’ve known all along that whether it’s a voice behind the microphone or an actor in front of the camera, if you’re ultimately going to animate it you have to have a great performance from a great actor at the beginning, and a great animator knowing all of the great ways to know what to keep, what to throw away and what you should expand upon. Anything in between, whether it’s mocap on stilts or whatever, are just tools between those two ends. You have to have those two on either end. And no matter who tells you what about motion capture, that’s actually the case.

Animators are invisible. And sadly, that’s been the bane of animation since the beginning. There’s only been nine old men that have ever made it above obscurity. But Pixar do not shy away from the truth of who did what and where the talent comes from. Moviemaking is a team sport and making a big animated film is probably the ultimate team sport and you get nothing by being siloed or being individual. We learned a long time ago, and it really comes from [John] Lasseter down, to give credit where credit is due.

I’m pretty good about gauging the time I’ve got left against the work I’ve got to do and, touch wood, I have yet to work on a film where I walked away with regrets. I know that I’m a rarity but I’ve yet to know what that feels like.

Bob Whitehill lives, eats and breathes 3D. He cares about it so much. He really believes that there’s a way to do it subtly, do it gracefully and to attach it to story-driven reasons. That’s a full time job. I don’t live, eat and breathe 3D so I’m going to give somebody that does care about it that much the job, like I would with lighting or anything else. And, also, I had to finish the movie. I couldn’t be in two places at once. Whitehill was the perfect person to save my butt and to make the 3D worthy of the content. It’s not that I’d be driving people to see this in 2D. Maybe I would have before I saw what Bob did, but I was converted. I really was. I really get what he’s done. There’s strengths in both versions.

Go see John Carter this weekend. I think you’re going to like it.