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The costume designer behind such films as Avatar, Apocalypto and World War Z, Mayes Rubeo is an old hand at creating outfits for aliens, bygone societies and ravaged worlds. However, when the opportunity arose to join the crew of Disney’s John Carter, Rubeo jumped at the chance to design the garb of the ancient warrior civilizations of Mars.
“Mars has always been an important focus matter in science fiction,” Rubeo told Spinoff Online.
Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp adventure novel A Princess of Mars, John Carter tells the tale of man transported from 1860s Earth to Mars, called Barsoom by its natives. Carter is quickly drawn into a war between the cities of Zodanga and Helium for the fate of the dying planet.
Rubeo said it was Burroughs’ depiction of Mars that initially drew her to the project.
“The way Mars has been portrayed in science fiction has always been in the very distant future — very far off, very futuristic,” she said. “The vision Edgar Rice Burroughs had when he wrote these novels at the beginning of the 20th century was an unusual one. This movie is different because it’s a science fiction movie set in an ancient civilization. This is something I don’t think you do often in science fiction.”
The second draw for Rubeo, and much of the production team, was a chance to work with Wall-E director Andrew Stanton.
“Andrew Stanton is a fantastic filmmaker,” she said. “When he hired me I felt very lucky because I knew when we started speaking about it, we were on the same page from the get-go.”
Citing the director’s hands-on approach to the design and production process, Rubeo added, “It’s so wonderful to have a filmmaker who is so involved in the creative process of this and who doesn’t get tired or annoyed about the bulk of the work we have to do.”
While the film’s production designers looked to ancient Mayan, Egyptian and Greek cultures to create the Barsoomian cities and crumbling temples, Rubeo turned to a different era and place for her costume designs.
“I went to go see many kinds of civilizations, including an old civilization that existed in the Adriatic on the coast of the Adriatic Sea at the time of the Etruscans [late 700 and 600 B.C.],” she said.. Modeling Barsoomian wear primarily on the clothes of the early Adriatic peoples, Rubeo looked at smaller and less well known ancient civilizations as well as other the societies of ancient Mesopotamia.
“We have two different cities, one is Zodanga and one is Helium. They have to be physically different, both of them living in the same time period, which is, you know, ancient Martian time,” Rubeo said, explaining the hodgepodge of civilizations she referenced.
If that weren’t enough, Rubeo also researched clothing of late 19th-century America. “We also have John Carter who lives in 1865, which is a fantastic fashion period. He was in Arizona, Virginia, but also in New York City and you can see in the movie all this. Visually it has so many faces to this time that designing it there were many different sections,” she said, adding with a laugh, “It was a great, great challenge, but a good challenge — not a difficult challenge.”
While Burroughs’ Barsoom novels have been remade as comic books and illustrated by fantasy painters like Frank Frazetta and Frank E. Schoonover, Rubeo said that other than glancing at what had been done before, she didn’t concern herself with pre-existing images of Mars.
“We looked at everything but we didn’t really look at the comic books,” she said. “We stayed with Andrew’s vision of what he wanted to do.” Expressing her admiration for the fantasy illustrations, she added, “You look at the artwork of the Princess of Mars stuff you find in 1976, 1945 — they were brave! They were fantastic! But I think we did our own thing a little bit without being so different or far-fetched from it.”
In fact, the hardest part for Rubeo about creating the Martian costumes was figuring out how to reflect the various armies, societies and alliances that crisscross the planet.
“Doing the rank for the soldiers that we had to figure out was [hard],” she said. “It’s two different ranks for two armies. That was elaborate but we did it!”
And while tongues have been wagging over the Swarovski crystal-encrusted wedding dress (embedded with more than 120,000 crystals) worn by Dejah Thoris, Rubeo confessed the costume closest to her heart is the one worn by Matai Shang, the villain played by actor Mark Strong.
“I like the scene of the wedding and I like many of those costumes, but I also like Matai Shang’s tunic, who is our villain, because in that tunic we put so much fabric and also it moves nicely,” she said. “I think it looks really cool.”
Rubeo also designed the costumes for the Tharks, the computer-generated green aliens that make up half the population of Barsoom. While no stranger to designing for CG characters, as she has done on films like Avatar, Rubeo confessed the technology has moved so quickly that the process for digitizing and detailing her computer-worn costumes has shifted as well.
“Both costumes and special effects had to get together and work it out, and this was very exciting for me because it’s this cutting-edge technology, and I feel this is where the movie magic comes,” she said. “They digitized my costumes, they put them on people to wear. It was great!”
Rubeo praised Stanton, the production team, the CG animators and production designer Nathan Crowely as true collaborators, saying they often met to share ideas on bringing the culture of Barsoom to life visually.
“I think if I go back and do another 3D movie that involves a lot of CGI it’s going to be different because its always progressing so quickly,” she said. “The technology goes forward, so by the time I do another movie with this kind of technology it’s going to be different, because it’s already different from the three movies I’ve done.”
But no matter how fast technology changes, Rubeo noted with a laugh that that one thing will remain the same.
“What comforts me is that they still need the real costumes for the movie,” she said, “so there’s still jobs for costume designers!”
John Carter opens nationwide March 9.