The Mars Needs Moms director tells us why performance capture was such a good fit.
As the great-grandson of H.G. Wells, and a 25-year veteran of animation and live-action (including The Time Machine remake, The Prince of Egypt and Balto), Simon Wells was perfect director for Mars Needs Moms, adapted from the Berkeley Breathed children's book, and the final feature made by Robert Zemeckis' ImageMovers Digital.
Bill Desowitz: What do you think of performance capture?
Simon Wells: I'm absolutely in love with the process because it has all the best parts of both. I get the joy of working with actors live in the moment -- the chemistry and the immediacy of the performance. And you have to work very, very hard in animation to get that liveliness to happen. You can do it, but it's pushing a rock up hill; and it comes naturally when you have people like Seth Green and Dan Fogler making it happen. So this was great because you get all the fun of working with the actors and doing the scenes without having to do all the starting and stopping and coverage. So you get the perfect take and all of that technical cinema stuff you do later. And it's kind of fun to bring the animation sensibility and knowledge of things like facial performance to work with the animators in bringing those performances to life in the 3D figures. So, for me, it was really nice to blend this weird collection of skill sets that I'd accumulated from a whole lot of different sort of movies.
From a philosophical point of view, there's no point in doing performance capture for films that certainly should be live-action, and there are animated films like Madagascar that certainly shouldn't be performance capture. So I think there's an area in the middle that's the perfect meet for performance capture and it's neither animated nor live action. One of the things we deliberately did with the Martians in this film was so they couldn't be people in suits. And actually you could push it much further with people that aren't human but being driven by the human performances.
BD: What was the learning curve like?
SW: When we were writing, we'd hung out on set because Bob was shooting A Christmas Carol, and I was very keen how you direct motion capture. I had visited Bob on the set of Polar Express but that was still very early days. So, part of it was just an educational thing: How do you run the day? How does it work? But when it came to actually shooting, I found it surprisingly natural. I don't mean that in the arrogant -- Oh, I know how to do that! It really fit in a comfortable way I felt working with the actors. I knew in the back of my head how it was going to work with the cinematography later. And I knew what I would be able to do through the animation process. I didn't have to worry about the actors exactly hitting their marks, because I could always shift the figures later to get the compositions right.
BD: Did you do it the same way as Zemeckis, doing performance first and then concentrating on the environments?
SW: Somewhat. It was a play back and forth. Some things had already been built in 3D, but it's relatively easy to shift and change and alter those. We were slightly different from Bob's process in that we cut a performance assembly before we started making things into 3D figures. So we only had one solve in 3D of all our favorite bits of performance put together, whereas Bob tended to solve several takes and then choose and cut between them. But, otherwise, we worked the way Bob did. It's basically the same crew and much of the same system. Sometimes, things had already been built and we worked within the environment as it was; in other places we decided to build the environments literally around the movements of the actor.
BD: What were some interesting happy accidents?
SW: I think the degree to which the actors generated their characters. Dan [Fogler], in particular, who made more out of Gribble than what we had written on the page. He produced much more emotion, much better lines, more manic behavior than we had anticipated.
There were some other interesting things. At one point, we showed the first cut of the movie to Bob and he had one of those huge notes for us. There's a conversation between Milo [Seth Green] and Ki [Elisabeth Harnois] where they first meet and then separate and meet again later, and he told us that it's great but that it happens at the wrong place in the movie. And that's the kind of note that, if you were in a live-action movie, you realized that it requires three weeks of re-shooting. And now it's really easy. You take what you've got and just change the backgrounds around them. And you put it in a different place. Wow! I appreciated a lot of what you could with MoCap, but this is one of those things where you could make huge structural changes in the movie. You know, all of the performance remains the same, but where they're doing it and where they are in the story can be changed and it literally glues together. So that was sort of a revelation.
BD: And what do you think of 3-D?
SW: I feel fairly neutral about 3-D. It's a slightly different mindset to moviemaking, and I think there are certain parts of the movie that benefit enormously from having 3-D, but I'm not a 3-D political crusader.
BD: In terms of story, there's obviously a connection to War of the Worlds.
SW: Berkeley actually started off the book with a lift from H.G.'s War of the Worlds. Something about the hungry-eyed look that greeted our planet. So it's inherent in any story you tell about Martians.
BD: And what about the theme of a split society on Mars, which evokes The Time Machine?
SW: Yeah, I think it's in the DNA. But our Martian society has all the discipline and control divided among one group of people and all the love and fun divided among another group of people. But to be a proper parent, it needs to be a mixture of those two things. I honestly think that parenting is a job that you should actually think about. You don't just give your kid everything that he wants -- much as you love them and want them to have everything they need and want. Actually, a degree of discipline and understanding that things have a cost or things have a value are issues that are important to instill in children.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.