How a test using a plate from ‘Jumanji’ helped sell the CG approach on ‘Mars Attacks!’

Behind the ILM test footage.

Woah, Jumanji is now 25 years old. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been lucky enough to look back at ILM’s CG work on the Joe Johnston film for a couple of different #retrovfx stories. Here’s one from VFX Voice, and another here at befores & afters.

I also got a chance to speak to ILMers Jim Mitchell and David Andrews a little while ago about a Jumanji link to another film they both worked on, Mars Attacks! (as VFX supervisor and animation supervisor, respectively). At one point the Tim Burton movie was going to feature stop-motion aliens, but this was going to be a tricky exercise. ILM used an existing plate from Jumanji to show how the aliens—and, importantly, their glass helmets—could be achieved in CG.

Here’s Mitchell and Andrews on that Mars Attacks! test and how it used a plate from Jumanji. Parts of this conversation were previously published at vfxblog.

Jim Mitchell: I was on Joe Johnston’s Jumanji as a computer graphics supervisor, and Mark Miller was the visual effects producer at ILM. We had been working with Larry Franco, Joe’s producer, and he was getting ready to go and work with Tim Burton on this movie called Mars Attacks!, and he was asking whether we might be able to help. He told us it was initially going to be all stop-motion and they were going to composite these stop-motion characters against bluescreen into miniature sets. At that point, the animation supervisor, Barry Purves, had already been developing the stop-motion and there were some amazing 12 inch articulated models of the different martians that they were doing tests with.

But they were running into one big dilemma, and that was that the martians had these glass helmets on, and so to do any sort of facial work with them they would have to take off the helmet, change the face, put the helmet back on, and shoot the animation. I mean, what they were thinking was, ‘How do you create the mattes for that?’

Some of the original maquettes and armatures created for the stop-motion martians originally intended to be used in Mars Attacks!, as seen at a Tim Burton Exhibition.

I don’t know how I got it in my head one day, but we found the trading cards and those characters looked like so much fun, that I was trying to work out how this could be done. But what really made me think about working on the film was the fact that we can do glass in CG and it’s just so easy. It’s just an automatic matte and it just makes things transparent.

So I put a little test together. I grabbed a plate from Jumanji and I built one of the martians in this glass helmet and his green suit and some sort of death ray gun in his hand and had him walking very crudely, because I’d built the model and did the animation and compositing myself. I showed Mark and somehow we slipped it to Larry to take a look at, and he was blown away. But he knew that it wasn’t polished enough and so he didn’t want to get it in front of Tim without a little bit more effort.

We had some amazing animators at ILM, they all loved that sort of tradition that Tim was bringing along with stop-motion, and you just knew that we were all excited about the possibility of working with Tim. So we put some more effort into another additional test, again with another Jumanji plate, and Dave Andrews came on board to animate it.

David Andrews: We used the plate from Jumanji where there’s a street and a cop car and the elephant walked over it (which was animated by Daniel Jeannette). We took this car that was all mashed up and Jim cut it out in 2D and then he animated this car up and down, up and down, because I told him I wanted to have the martians trying to steal the bumper off of it. And then I went to work on putting a couple of martians in there. And I just added weird shit, right? Who knows what a martian does. Maybe it collects bumpers, I don’t know. Well that made us laugh, so we went for it.

Part of the original plate from Jumanji.
Wireframe from the original Jumanji shot.
Final ILM shot.

Jim animated the spaceship coming down in the background on the square. And then there’s the Sarge martian who comes in from screen right and he goes, ‘Hey you privates, quick get that bumper off and we gotta get outta here.’ And so they go, ‘Sir, yes sir,’ and then they all march off. For that I did the opposite walk that has been the walk for every single cartoon character, basically.

I did it so that when you get to the middle position of the martian’s stride they’re not at their highest, they’re at their lowest. They have this kind of bouncy weird walk that is not like a human walk, but they’re bipedal. So I just kind of screwed that up, and it’s like you look at it and go, ‘That’s a bad animation,’ and I go, ‘Well, it’s just an idea for a martian who walks and sort of looks like he’s gotta run to the washroom or something in a hurry.’ It was just about trying to do something different with it to make it not feel like every single cartoon character from all the days of yore.

And Mark Miller totally had our back. So that made it really conducive for doing good work and having a lot of fun because we were all partners in crime on this test. And Jim Morris who was the president of the company at the time, said, ‘That’s a quirky little Tim Burton film, I don’t see why you guys, you first-timers, shouldn’t be able to do it with Mark Miller as your guiding light. Since if you get in trouble it’ll be all his fault.’ So we were kind of given the keys to the car like a couple of teenagers with Miller in tow.

Jim Mitchell: That was what we put in front of Larry and he ultimately put it in front of Tim, and it just changed the course of it. I think Tim realised that this was how he was going to get his movie done. Not that it was going to be easy for us, I mean, the stop-motion was going to be hard, it’s still animation. Animation is animation. But there was some obvious benefits that pushed it towards the CG realm and made it practical for doing the film that way. And we were off and running at that point.

David Andrews: The CG solution was really to deal with some of the obvious problems you run up against in stop-motion. I even seem to recall one of Tim Burton’s comments that he didn’t want the kind of look you get when King Kong’s hair buzzes because of the fingerprints of the animator touching it. There had been that sort of effect on the space helmets. Also, Tim didn’t want it to look animated. He wanted it to look photoreal so people would feel a ‘War of the Worlds’ vibe. And what’s interesting is you’ll notice in the credits I’m given a visual effects supervisor credit because Tim didn’t want it known that there was animation in this movie. He wanted to pull a sleight of hand with these martians.

Buy issue #1 of befores & afters in print