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Mars Needs Below-the-Liners

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Mars Needs Moms (Photo ©ImageMovers Digital LLC. All Rights Reserved).
Mars Needs Below-the-Liners. Or, at least, they did. This story comes at a peculiar juncture – mere days after Mars Needs Moms (a play – from Berkeley Breathed’s source picture book title – on the old B sci-fi film Mars Needs Women, which, peculiarly, most reviews, puzzling over the name, seem to have missed) has been pronounced one of Hollywood’s biggest recent “bombs.”  And looking at the stark data of production costs versus admittedly dismal opening weekend receipts, it’s hard to conclude otherwise.

The film itself, however, is a reasonably solid piece of work – not Toy Story 3, perhaps, but what is? Based on the aforementioned picture book, it tells of a mom’s kidnapping to Mars – after an angry son wonders aloud the necessity of such parents, and the son’s subsequent rescue, and of course, appreciation of her.

The sequences added for the movie – essentially everything involving the prolonged stay on Mars, and Martians themselves – weren’t in the book, but make for a diverting enough matinee. It’s the kind of movie I’d take my own sons to – if they were several years younger. But they’re not, and no one took their sons – or daughters – in significant numbers to the movie after all.

Was it the bad luck of opening against a globally-diverting earthquake, tsunami, and unfolding nuclear meltdown? Or was it something about the motion capture  – “mo-cap” – used to make the movie?

Mo-cap worked in Avatar. But here, we still have, in addition to the Martians, lots of animated humans. Do they still look too uncannily-valleyish? They’re given a more “animated” hue, but then you do have a mid-30’s actor like Seth Green playing the nine-year-old lead, Milo. They shrink him down and de-age him with the digits, and get a kid to provide his actual voice.

Mars Needs Moms (Photo ©ImageMovers Digital LLC. All Rights Reserved).
When Green himself spoke to the press about the fun of mo-cap – free of needing to wait for lighting set-ups – he explained that it enables the actors to continue on a more unbroken pace approximating live theater or improv. He said it also left casting wide open: “You can have that dragon played by Jeremy Irons! I could never play this part in any other medium!”

But is casting adults as children the best use of this sibling to digital animation which is still regarded – outside either Gollum’s cave or the planet Pandora – with some skepticism?

“The tools get better,” production designer Doug Chiang said of motion capture technology. He’d been working with Robert Zemeckis as far back as Forrest Gump on the visual effects side, but has overseen design on all four of mo-cap films produced by the director’s ImageMovers Digital – a studio now “shuttered” by its sponsoring studio.

He liked being able to “bend the rules” with traditional design – “actors playing against different scale” sets, which themselves could be pushed and exaggerated – even after their initial design. “I might try to design something that isn’t in the script,” he says of his collaboration with director Simon Wells (who co-wrote the script with his wife, Wendy), and the director would “send me off in a new direction” even after the actors had begun shooting, and being “captured.”

The latitude to keep exploring one’s side of the craft throughout the different stages of what used to be distinctly pre/during/and postproduction will also be missed by cinematographer Robert Presley – like Chiang, another ImageMovers Digital veteran.

“It’s been an interesting fork in the road,” he says of his time with Zemeckis, working, ultimately, with “virtual” light that gets calibrated and finalized in postproduction. He thinks that a director like Kubrick “would have loved” mo-cap, in part because the director was notorious for considering actors as puzzle pieces in a larger vision, (as was Hitchcock), but also because he was always trying to push the bounds of lighting and cinematography, as with Barry Lyndon’s famous lit-by-candles scene.

Presley himself will miss having one of the grails often denied to DPs in the digital era – being able to stay with a production all the way through post, to oversee timing, color correction, and of course, light in all its manifestations over the virtual sets.

Mars Needs Moms (Photo ©ImageMovers Digital LLC. All Rights Reserved).

But he’s philosophical about going back to work in more conventional milieus, even noting that with all the control afforded by motion capture, “you lose the happy accidents,” citing legendary DP Conrad Hall, of light – actual light – striking just so, or filtering a certain way, in a specific place, or at a certain time of day, or an ineffable combination of the two.

Visual effects supervisor Kevin Baillie, (himself a refugee from previously shuttered post-house The Orphanage), also spent time thinking about light on this production, especially the way it reflected – thinking he wasn’t going to give the director the shiny metallic surfaces of Martian architecture that he’d promised, because there would be too much reflecting light.

He was able to create lots of reflected light by creating “point clouds” of – and on –  the design and then put those clouds into RenderMan, where he was able to “bake down” the lighting into a “dumb set of data” which he could later manipulate, up to and including those reflections.

It was a technique he describes as a “total hack,” but one he’ll take with him to other jobs. It comes from a time at ImageMovers he describes as “freaking awesome for me,” working on a filmmaking process that “touches on every single aspect of production.”

Whether anybody will do animated features as full motion-capture anymore remains to be seen. But given that digits are here to stay, all the “hacks” and learning experiences that came with what may be a particular technological moment in time, will stay. To be used in whatever that moment yields to next.

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