A change in plan for Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! left two Manchester-based companies with a lot of unused work – here’s what happened.

Tim Burton had veered away from handling a big blockbuster movie for a few years after he’d wrapped up 1992’s Batman Returns. The movie had been exhausting to make, and whilst it was a hit, it did generate something of a backlash. It’s comfortably one of the darkest movies to get a McDonald’s Happy Meal tie-in. Instead, Burton would move on to produce The Nightmare Before Christmas and focused his energies on arguably his best movie, the Oscar-winning Ed Wood.

But he was tempted back to the world of big movies with Mars Attacks!, his 1996 sci-fi comedy starring, well, pretty much everyone. That said, this was a film that was very much in flux for much of its production, and much of that was down to a late change in just how it was being approached.

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The movie tells the story of a Martian invasion, with the basis of it the Topps! trading card series of the same name (and comic book that followed). Burton had a vision for the movie that would have seen it hark back to the stop motion work of titans such as Ray Harryhausen. That the Martians of the movie were to be brought to the screen via stop frame work.

As such, in came a Manchester-based company by the name of Bare Boards. It had been one of several firms competing for the job of realising the film’s invaders, and the company’s Barry Purves took a call from Tim Burton’s office in the March of 1995. The request was simple: get your ass to Mars, there’s work to be done. As such, he and his team decamped to Hollywood, and began work on the project. He and his team had the job.

They build puppets and flying saucers, and even got as far as beginning production on the first scene in the movie. As Purves told Empire magazine back in its March 1996 issue, “we’d done this Martian speech talking to camera, with wonderful puppets”.

Those puppets in turn brought in the services of another Manchester-based company, the modelmakers Mackinnon & Saunders. “They’d all been costumed”, Purves said, “and we’d invented a Martian language which I spent two weeks learning”.

The problem though was that the moviemaking ecosystem was changing around them, and in turn the production itself. Disney’s Toy Story had come out in 1995, revolutionising people’s expectations of what computer graphics could do. Furthermore, as we discussed in our podcast on the film, problems with the glass helmets of the Martians were cropping up. There were limits to what stop frame could do, particularly within the budget Warner Bros was willing to spend.

Reluctantly, Burton accepted he’d had to go the other way. After some test work done on plates that had been created for 1995’s Jumanji, he accepted that the Martians of Mars Attacks! would need to be CG. And that meant the stop frame work had to be abandoned.

There had been pressure from Warners too over this. The cost of the movie had continued to escalate as work had continued on the project, and the studio was getting antsy. Even before casting had begun in earnest and a star signed up to the movie, the aforementioned Empire piece quoted an estimate that $13m had been spent simply developing the film and on its animation.

Bottom line: the studio wanted the project retooled. With a new budget set of $70m – lower than the $100m price that the film was heading towards – changes had to be made. The lower budget quickly meant less screen time for the Martians themselves, and all of a sudden, the two Manchester-based companies found themselves off the project.

Purves for one had spent nine months in Los Angeles working on the movie, watching as the script kept changing and the budget kept expanding. At the height of he and his team’s work on the project, over 100 animators were working away on film (albeit with no sign of the live action element of the movie going before the cameras). Purves was understandably disappointed when his time on the film came to an end, although noted that at least some of his animation team got other work in Hollywood as a result of it.

The end result was clearly visually very different as a result of the changes made, and as it would happen, its thunder was a little stolen by Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, which of course had a massive practical effect at the heart of it.

On the brighter side, Mackinnon & Saunders would go on to produce puppets for further Burton productions, his stop frame animated features Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie. You can find the company’s very much live and kicking website, here.

Purves too would eventually be lured back to the movies. He was part of the team that brought Peter Jackson’s King Kong to the screen, and he’s also extensively worked on small screen productions such as Postman Pat, Bob The Builder and Chorlton And The Wheelies. He also picked up an Oscar nomination in 1993 for his short film Screen Play. You can find more on his work over at his website, here.

As for the eventual shape of Mars Attacks!? The rest of the story is told in our podcast episode right here…

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