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Geoff Marslett, “Mars”

by on October 17, 2010
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For his first feature film, Austin, Texas-based director Geoff Marslett decided to use a live-action animation to tell a story about a romance blossoming from a fictional mission to Mars, titled, aptly, “Mars.”

In this interview Marslett talks about casting his film, using a hybrid animation style, and creating a president that avoids referencing politics.

How did you get started on this project?

I have actually been making short films and parts of other filmmakers’ larger works for the past  thirteen years or so, but this was my first feature film. I had written a feature script based on a short I did back in 2001. I had been shopping it around a little and finally gotten some interest in funding it in 2007, but as funding can be in this business, it got a bit delayed, so the two of us initially producing the film took it upon ourselves to make the movie one way or the other. we were tired of waiting.

Pretty quickly I realized the scope of that film was going to be larger than the two of us could afford, so I tried to rein myself in a little and wrote a new script I thought I could make on our resources. It turned out to be an animated sci-fi romantic comedy. I am not sure I really made things any easier for ourselves, but we did stick to it.

The script was based on a short film I wrote in the early 2000s and never made. the technique was one I had just finished developing on a short film, “Bubblecraft”, that I finished in 2006. this technique allowed us to take the simple romance and set it anywhere in the world,or in this case anywhere in the galaxy. and thus mars was started.

Why did you choose animation, and particularly this style of animation?

It is a very different type of animation… hybrid animation. A lot of folks ask, `Is this rotoscoped?´ and I say yes, sort of. Basically it is a hybrid of image processing and digital rotoscoping for the characters and a combination of hand drawn and 3D animation for the backgrounds and props.

I wanted a look that preserved performance and expression from the actors. I wanted them recognizably them and for their emotions to be clear, but I also wanted it to feel a little otherworldly or fantasy-like. So from the beginning I was trying to find a look that walked the line between live action and animation.

I wanted to give my take on romance. and my take is that romance is a wonderfully attractive thing, but also a thing that is always a little bit out of reach. What you think you are pursuing is changed by your very pursuit of it, and it changes you right back. So that thing you went after is never there as you imagined it. I wanted the visuals to reflect this sense of being relatable but slightly unreal. I wanted it to look like a hand colored photograph or a really detailed graphic novel.

So before I even began this particular script I spent a couple years working on my own process (and one additional piece of software I co-wrote with Tray Duncan) in ordert to get exactly this look. That freed me to take my idea of a perfect first date anywhere, even to Mars.

How was the casting? Names like Mark Duplass, Cynthia Watros and Kinky Friedman are perhaps not a-list, but are all solid, recognizable names. How did you get connected with them?

Casting was lot of work. I knew the film would only be as good as the cast, since when we started shooting there would be no sets, no props, just actors in front of a green wall in an old airplane hanger. I began by thinking about actors whose work I had seen who might be interested in something like this and cold called them. Some completely ignored us, but a few intrepid individuals and a few open-minded agents did talk with us. We had some really interesting animation tests to show them, and what I think was a pretty fun script. I got lucky and was able to get some actors I really admire on board:  Mark Duplass, Liza Weil, Cynthia Watros, and Mike Dolan all have had impressive acting careers and they brought fantastic experience and talent to the project. Zoe Simpson was at the time a local actress in Austin, and I had planned on using her in a smaller role. Her performance blew me a way so much that I ultimately promoted her up to the lead. and she did wonderfully.

And that brings us to Kinky Friedman. I wanted a president who was not a reference or commentary to any president we have had. During the primaries around the time we were shooting casting a woman would be seen as a comment on Hillary Clinton, casting an African American would be seen as a commentary on Barack Obama, and so on. I wanted someone whose own persona would overwhelm their comparisons and they would just be their own character. Kinky fit the bill perfectly.

On kinky…of course, with the cowboy persona, there was the obvious connection go W.

Texas is a state with so much (sometimes too much) bravado, we have been known to produce some of the best and worst politicians. I hope kinky came across with more of the fun and exciting type of Texan. the straight forward, no nonsense kind. The cowboy thing is there, but I hoped that Kinky made it feel more like the deep-rooted, been-in-Texas-a-long-time kind of cowboy rather than the more politically motivated, bought-a-ranch-a month-before-the-primaries kind of cowboy. Both the script and his performance both did really well to distance his character from those comparisons.

Can you go into some of the challenges of directing a film shot directly in front of a green screen, and how the actors were able to adapt to it?

It is hard. Really hard. Harder than I thought it would be. There are logistical challenges, like not having props on our sets for the actors to rely on. If they were in a room looking out at Mars, they had to just trust me I was going to add it in, they had to listen to my description and just imagine it all in around me, then they had to react to that make believe and make that believable. To make it even harder we worked with one large wall, so if the camera was moving we had to actually move the floor, and they had to maintain eye lines and performance. Then we had to shoot actors at different times if any part of them overlapped with another character in order for my coloring program to work. Everything had to be elaborately storyboarded, the actors had to give very specific performances, and they had to rely on their own performance — no crutches in the set or props — to make us believe it. I would still say the amazing performances that Zoe, Mark and Paul gave me are what made the film work.
There wasn’t much interaction with the background at all, but it still had to be quite a challenge!

If I did another film this way, I would actually like to break down that separation more. It was logistical necessity that helped shape stylistic choices. I am happy with that, but it would be fun to push the process even further.
Can you talk about Austin as a filmmaking community and how it helped (or hindered, if it did at all) in getting the film made, with the resources available to you?

Austin is an amazingly supportive community, with some great filmmakers in it. I am surrounded by creative minds writing, making music, painting, making movies, and unlike a lot of places, it rarely feels competitive. We really try to help each other make it. We are not in the two epicenters of the biz, so it is harder to get a project financed and made, but I think that adversity does breed some cameraderie. It is a close knit and supportive community, and we do have the support of groups like the Austin Film Society, who gave me a small grant and made my use of the old airport as a studio possible. The support of the university was invaluable duing post production, and the feedback I got from friends in the community really helped shape the film.