I talked to writer/director Geoff Marslett about the film's animation, problems that come with being an unknown independent filmmaker, and how MARS uses science fiction to tell a story about romantic exploration.
Geoff Marslett: I wrote this in June of 2007, essentially, and then we went with it. I did kind of know...I wanted to do this idea of a romance, and it kind of built from, like, there was kind of an idea of what kind of a film I wanted to make. From there, I sort of figured out what visuals I wanted to make, and that opened up everything else. I was like, "Well, since we are going to animate this way, we're not locked in to two people in a room. We can do anything." It's like, let's go to Mars, let's try these different things. So, then I wrote the script. So, it kind of evolved from the type of film I wanted to make, into how I was going to make this film, and then I kind of wrote a script that would fit into those. And I did base it on a...I'd written a seven-page short script back sometime in the '90s that [was] the very heart of it. A little kernel that this thing grew out of, and wrote it. And then the title is funny, the Mars/Marslett was convenient, and it's probably part of the reason we didn't name it Mars-nauts or something else.
SciFi Squad: What's your background in animation/filmmaking?
Marslett: I guess I've been animating since '98, so about twelve years since I really started doing it. I did take one elective class in animation one time in grad school [at the University of Texas] and during that class I actually made Monkey VS. Robot, which kinda took off and showed on PBS and HBO in Europe and theatrically with Spike and Mike's. It went to a lot of places and people really liked it so it's like, "Well, I should do more of this." From there it's pretty much self-taught. I taught myself several different programs, a lot of different techniques and kept doing it. Made an animated thesis film, animated segments for quite a few different feature documentaries, and did my own shorts as well, and they seemed to get a lot of fairly good attention. Ultimately it's now led to doing an animated feature. But it's pretty much all self-taught over the last ten years.
SciFi Squad: What method of animation do you prefer? Are you more computer-based or more hand-drawn?
Marslett: Little bit of everything. I've done stop-motion, I've done hand-drawn, I've done computer-based. In the case of MARS, it's really a combination of shooting live actors on green screen which we then...I wrote a basic program for a short film called Bubblecraft. Include video after question I did, and then teamed up with with Tray Duncan and we improved the program for MARS and it actually takes the live-action footage and processes the colors of the actual footage to make a sort of vectorized processed color base that's actually drawn from the real images as well as processing sort of a speckledy shadow overlay, and then we'd go back in and do some hand-rotoscoped drawing work for some of the major details like eyes and creases and that kind of stuff. Then we would composite all that together, so the mix of processed and hand-drawn stuff made up the characters. Then the backgrounds were all done in CG and drawn with vector-based computer programs and drawn on paper and scanned in, so that made up the world that it was around. So we composited our sort of processed/digital-rotoscoping together with a CG, hand-drawn and computer-drawn environment. So in the end, we used about five different animation types for this.
SciFi Squad: Lot more in-depth than what Linklater did with Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.
Marslett: Well, a lot different. A lot more...I would say it's more varied, in a way, with all those different things. I mean, what they have to do, y'know, they had a larger crew and spent a large amount of time, but they go out and shoot things and it's all really one type of animation. They take that image and they're going in and they're tracing all that stuff in a vector-based program. So, at first I say that and it can sound like, "Oh, it's less complicated," but they have to draw a whole lot more than we do.
SciFi Squad: They've got a huge team working together on it.
Marslett: Yeah. It's a lot of detail work. They're drawing every single line you see over and over again, and it's just a different look, which is also super cool. I love that stuff. I mean, really, for making MARS from a visual standpoint, the two inspirations were really, I wanted something halfway between Waking Life and Sin City. I wanted it to look more real and not quite as dreamy and drawn as something like Waking Life, but I didn't want it to look so photo-real as Sin City, so we tried to fit some sort of missing link between those two.
SciFi Squad: That sounds like a common independent approach to filmmaking. You're using every style and technique available and utilizing whatever resources you have at your disposal to make your film cheaply.
Marslett: Yeah, exactly. You're trying to find a way to animate this in a less expensive and quicker way, 'cause we had to animate with six animators, basically. Which, even compared to other independent animation is a tiny crew.
SciFi Squad: Ha, yeah. Ralph Baskhi never had a crew that small.
Marslett: (chuckles) Yeah, exactly. Of course it sounds like a long time ago, it took us two years to finish [animating the film]. I mean, again, for an animated film with six people, two years is pretty short by comparison. I mean, it's still long and tedious, but it was also cool because I wanted the visuals to be, I wanted the movie to be a romance. So I wanted everything from the story to the visuals to all reflect sort of my view on romance, which was that it's this really cool thing that's very attractive, it pulls us in and is exciting, but it's also this thing that, as approachable and exciting as it is, it occupies its place just a little bit out of reach so you're always, you can almost get it, but not quite. I wanted the visuals to feel that way so they felt very approachable, very "almost real," but just a little different and that was kind of the genesis of this idea of how we would make it physically look. Maybe we landed there. I think some people will watch it and go, like, "What is, what exactly- How is this animated? What am I looking at?" That's what we went for.
SciFi Squad: What is the split between scenes built off of a live performance and scenes that are pure animation?
Marslett: Every single actor and costume was live and we really shot them. Everything else was not. When they pick stuff up, it was a piece of...green wood with some paint on it. The entire rest of the world we had to create, which made an interesting challenge in editing because there are scenes with no actors present that's 100% animation.
SciFi Squad: Ships, rockets, the robots, outer space scenes-
Marslett: Exactly. It made it hard to edit.Two of us...David Fabelo was editing on it for the first four or five months and then I kinda took over for the next couple years of editing it. Someone would go in, we'd finish animating a straight animated sequence and go, "Okay, now how is this changing the pacing? What are we going to do?" and make different cuts to it. With animation, especially with rotoscoping, you make the movie once, then you make it again. Then you make the movie again, then maybe one more time. We'd have these sheets where it was, "Okay, that was the first pass. Now let's go back and reanimate every single shot again," and people would react, "Okay..." Those are the saddest days because you have these lists of whatever thousand shots you gotta deal with. Each little box would represent an effects shot, and it's always daunting when you get through that whole thing and they're all blue'ed out, then you have to print a new white sheet and go, "Back to number one. Let's fix these things." You start again.
SciFi Squad: and you guys aren't a giant company team like Pixar or anything.
Marslett: (Laughs) No, we were really just six guys and a handful of interns. That's pretty much the animation crew.
SciFi Squad: Saying that "it's so close, yet we can't reach or understand it," that kind of describes how NASA and America have approached Mars space travel. We've been to the Moon and Mars is so close to us as far as other planets are concerned, but still so far away that it'd be astounding to see a manned trip to Mars in our lifetime.
Marslett: Yeah, 'cause there's all the things that are like, "Oh, Mars is a lot like Earth and we could go there," but it's also hard to get to and far away. And I think that's exactly it. I mean, if people ask, "Why would you make a romance about people going to Mars? Was it just as a gimmick?" No. I mean, I think that romance and exploration are really kind of the same thing. Some people can look at exploration and there's this idea of like, "we go, and then we conquer," and you bring guns. That's one way people look at exploration, but I really took the attitude that when you think about those of us that are even here in America, we're not Europeans any more. We're changed by where we went and there's another side of exploring where you want to go to a new place and find out about it and it's exciting and cool, but scary and different. You're going to affect it and it's going to affect you the same way a first date is. I wanted that feeling that that's why we're going to Mars. It's that you're falling in love with a new place, you're learning about it. You're learning what you do like, what you don't like. So when I took these characters, it was like, "What's sort of the coolest way you can make characters fall in love? What would be the neatest first date?" Well, a first date going to another planet trapped in a little metal box, along with Paul Gordon.
SciFi Squad: You brought up the fact that MARS is a cartoon, and in cartoons you can pretty much do anything you want. You're not locked into any kind of reality of science, but did you do any research for the space travel and technology in this film?
Marslett: We did, yeah. Again, I did want it to feel, you know, sort of that same idea that I wanted it to be very approachable, but just a little bit out of reach, and to do that I didn't want this to feel like Star Wars or something where you got this wholly different universe of space where anything can happen. I wanted people to still feel like, if you woke up tomorrow and heard we were going to Mars and we were sending, you know, a little group of astronauts, it would be kind of like this. You wouldn't be like, "Wow! And now they've got hovercars," and this and that. So in order to do that, we tried to keep the actual mechanics of how space travel and how communication, how all these things would work, fairly realistic. We took a few liberties. The biggest liberties we would take is just how much time certain things would take. Re-entries, those kinds of things, because no one wants to watch a seventeen-day film. It has to fit your hour and a half. But, the ion propulsion system, the amount of time it should take them, the way the ships are designed, the way things do reenter the atmosphere, the types of commands and jobs people would have, most of that is taken from reality or at least conjecture of where things are going. We did definitely do a fair amount of research to get those.
SciFi Squad: Since you live in Austin, did you drive to Houston to visit NASA and see their latest space developments?
Marslett: We didn't. Went to a lot of NASA websites and researched that. We didn't actually go out there to see them, but we did spend a lot of time reading up on NASA stuff. In particular, some things like that ion propulsion engine system that we use for getting them to space, it was like, "Well this is really cool." The spacesuits actually, people will look at those spacesuits and be like, "Why don't they look all bulky like those guys walking on the moon?" The truth is because the moon suits were pressurized suits. They're very clunky, it's hard to move around in [them]. The answer is, the future of spacesuits is very likely. There's a woman, I forget where she's from, but [she's] doing a lot of research in making them where they now use actual compression instead of pressurized, so the suits are tighter like that. And if you notice, the way we made ours, we put that in our suits to try and be, what in essence, is like second generation spacesuits.
SciFi Squad: They're form-fitting. They're fashionable.
Marslett: (Laughs) Yeah, they're very fashionable. Thanks Vanessa [Nirode]!
SciFi Squad: You've got a great cast in this film. Solid actors whose names might not be known, but we've definitely seen them before: Mark Duplass, Liza Weil, Cynthia Watros, even Kinky Friedman in a small role as the President of the United States. How did you lure them to this project?
Marslett: When we cast Mark, he and Jay [Duplass] have an Austin connection so we had some mutual friends, but I don't think I'd ever met him before. If I had, we met in passing. We certainly didn't know each other or hang out or anything before this, so I pretty much cold called him. Looked up his email and said, "Are you interested in doing this?" Which we had done for, with the exception of one or two characters, all of our characters were just, you know, "I'm gonna cold call Hollywood agents and say, 'I'm Mr. Nobody in Austin, but I'm making a film. I can't pay you very well. Come be in it!'"
SciFi Squad: Really?
Marslett: Yeah, which we did. I feel very lucky with the results we got with that type of strategy. But Mark was interesting because I got a hold of him and, at the time the only film he had out was The Puffy Chair, so he was known but not that known. He certainly hadn't blown up like he has now. And we were talking to other potential leads for that role, the role of Charlie, that were certainly higher profile at the time. But I do remember, I spoke to a lot of different people on the phone, and I talked to Mark on the phone, and he just really got the film. And so then, we had to sign the final cast and it was like, "Even though I know he's not that well known, he really gets the film. I think he's gonna be a great choice. I think he's on his way up." Obviously he's a really talented guy, so I'm not the only one that noticed. We actually moved our shoot dates from August 2007 to September 2007 to accommodate him. We shot most of it in 17 days in September 2007, then we picked up three more days the following June, I think? I could be wrong about the exact date, but it was quite a few months later when we finally figured out who we wanted to be the president. Liza, who plays Jules, she's from Gilmore Girls. Another cold call. Cynthia Watros, who's from LOST, she's another. Never met them, they took a chance. And I think, they had a manager who was willing to consider our project, and one of the things we did have, before they could hang up on me I'd be like, "I have this website and a sample of what our animation looks like. If you could just go and watch this, like, 90 seconds of this. I think it's a little bit different. Maybe you'll consider the film."
SciFi Squad: So you showed them Bubblecraft, basically?
Marslett: Bubblecraft and a little footage we shot. We shot some footage of me just talking and saying like, "This is what we're gonna try and do." Because Bubblecraft didn't have dialogue, so I wanted them to see it work for that as well. I do think, obviously, it didn't work for everyone. Everyone didn't always call me back and want to work on the film. But having that little bit of something that just looked different than what else they'd been working on, I think gave us an edge for getting people to call back, and then we could get them to read the script. I think in most cases they liked the script. It's a little bit different. It worked out.
SciFi Squad: and Kinky?
Marslett: Kinky's interesting. We wanted to do something different and interesting with the casting of the president. And we went through ideas of casting a woman, of making the president a minority, all these things that are just a little unexpected. But right around that same time that primary started going and it became a race between Obama and Clinton, and what I didn't want was our president to feel like they were a reference to a real president. I wasn't making a commentary to any existing politician. So the beauty of casting Kinky Friedman is, Kinky's a musician, an actor, but also a politician. He is kinda also Kinky Friedman. By putting him in there, if anything, you compare him to Kinky Friedman, because he already is that. Some people will be like, "Well, do you think people will think he's George Bush?" and I'm like, "I don't think people really think of him as George Bush."
SciFi Squad: Mark Duplass and Paul Gordon are American astronauts, Zoe Simpson's from New Zealand, Russians and Europeans send robots to Mars and there's a true Texan in the White House. You're embracing a common science fiction trope with all of these different people wanting to make their claim in outer space.
Marslett: Yeah, the ESA is chasing against the US system, and then, I'm sure I probably confused some people with it, but I did enjoy how space travel is-
You know, people ask, "What influences you?" And, you know, Star Trek and Star Wars and 2001 can't help but get in your head when you're doing any kind of Sci-Fi, and I'm not the biggest Star Trek fan, but there was this coolness of showing how Earth is made up of all these different people that do these things, so we had the ESA has an American scientist building something they're sending into space to race against NASA's people, but NASA, one of their astronauts is from New Zealand. And the ground crew, we had people with different accents who are from different places. And that was pretty fun to try to globalize it a little bit like that. The way the reporters reflect their attitude towards Mars, the way the astronauts do, the way the Russians do, the way the President does, should all reflect different ways people think about space exploration.
SciFi Squad: In comparison to other films that go to Mars, Red Planet, Mission to Mars, Ghosts of Mars, Capricorn One, etc. and recent space films, like Wall•E which was also animated, what makes MARS stand out?
Marslett: For starters, I think with a lot of those films, we probably have more in common with Doctor Who or Dark Star. It's more like one of those. I think everything else I've watched about going to Mars is pretty much a straight Sci-Fi adventure, all the way down to practically horror with something like Ghosts of Mars. We're definitely, I don't want anyone to come to the theater expecting just a straight Sci-Fi adventure. This isn't an action-adventure movie. There's a little bit of action, the science is there, it is Sci-Fi, but if you boil it down, I'd describe it as an animated Sci-Fi RomCom. And if you keep chopping things out, what you're really left with is: yes, it's animated, but that's just the style. Yes, it's Sci-Fi, but that's just a setting for the RomCom to take place, and yes it's funny at times, but really it's a romance. So I think at the very heart, even if people aren't laughing, the romance was always the goal to preserve in the film. So I think that's the first thing that stands out. I can't think of any other stories where romance was the core of the film. There are Mars films where romance occurs, but-
SciFi Squad: and it's not just between Zoe and Mark's characters.
Marslett: The whole movie's a romance. It's about Earth and Mars having a romance, it's about the President and his wife, it's about scientists, it's about robots, it's about astronauts, or Mars-nauts, in this case. It's about their romances and that's probably the biggest thing that makes it stand out. And then we tried to remind people that going to Mars is still like another job. It is an adventure, but it's-any job, no matter how exciting, people are like, "You make films? That must be really exciting!" Well, yeah, it's really exciting except for like when you just stay up all night in front of a computer by yourself and skip the holidays. There are exciting aspects to it, like these [interviews] and you get to show it to people and that's exciting, but it's still a real job. When you step on Mars it's exciting, but there's also those 17 months when you're in a tin can eating salad.
MARS recently played SXSW and doesn't have a distributor currently, but Geoff assured me that the film will continue playing the festival circuit and anyone interested in seeing the film should check Swerve Pictures for any and all developments.