HTF Interview With Director Simon Wells About Filming Using Motion Capture

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Adam Gregorich, Aug 15, 2011.

  1. Adam Gregorich


    Nov 20, 1999
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    The Other Washington
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    Home Theater Forum recently had the opportunity to talk with director Simon Wells about his recent film Mars Needs Moms and working with motion capture.

    HTF: Hi, Simon, how are you this morning?

    Simon Wells: I’m good, how are you?

    HTF: Very good! I appreciate you spending some time with me this morning. I know we’ve only got a few minutes, so I hope you don’t mind if I jump right in?

    Simon Wells: Please do.

    HTF: Why did you use motion capture rather than traditional CG animation for this film?

    Simon Wells: Bob Zemeckis asked me to, to make a motion capture film, he was in the world of making motion capture films, he had this deal with Disney and had set up a motion capture studio and so they had this property “Mars needs Mums” and they were casting around to see who would direct it. My name had come up, and Bob had said “yes” --- Bob and I had worked together many times in the past. They called up and said “Would you be interested in making a motion capture film?” rather than “how would you like to make this film?” It was always going to be a motion capture project.

    HTF: And I understand that you actually wrote it with your wife and then directed it?

    Simon Wells: Yes, which was a great experience. Basically Bob Zemeckis called up and said “Would you like to make this film” and I said “Oh, sure, as long as Wendy and I can write it!”. And he said, “Okay!” which seems , but true, so we pitched a number of variations to the story and by take 3 we actually had one that Bob was interested in making. So we spent a year writing it with Bob, we worked very closely with him, it was like being at the Bob Zemeckis Screenwriting school. We’d turn in a draft every month and he’d critique it, and then we’d go away and re-write our third act or whatever it was. It was a terrific experience. And really good from my point of view of directing, because by the time I came to the stage to work with the actors, I knew the scene so thoroughly that it was very comfortable situation, especially with this group of actors, who were very capable, ad-lib actors, so I could loosen the reigns and say, okay, I know this point in the scene is what Bob Zemeckis calls The Red Dog, it’s the most important thing in the scene, it’s the reason that the scene is in the movie. The stuff around it, not so important, there may be some funny lines, but if you’ve got something funnier, that’s fine, as long as we arrive at this point.

    HTF: Very interesting! Would you say that using motion capture made directing more difficult than working with a standard animated feature, or…?

    Simon Wells: No, I have to say, it multiplies the issue in that you are working with a bunch of actors FIRST, and then you are working with the animators again AFTER that. So, you are still working with the animators in much the same way as you would with a traditional film, but the difference is that you actually have the actors’ performances as a guide to say “okay, this character performs in this way”, whereas in a regular animated film you have the supervising animator who is telling you “these are the characteristics of this character’s movements”. So the difference really comes down in terms of who is defining the character performance. But in terms of directing the movie, it’s all the fun of a live-action movie in that you get to work with actors on a set together, there is the physicality of performing the scenes, except that in live-action you have to keep cutting and re-setting the camera. The JOY of motion capture is that you get to do whole scenes as one run instead of breaking into a couple pieces. Of course, it’s tough on the actors, by the way, because they actually have to learn their lines! But it’s actually a very pleasant process and one where I found myself MORE comfortable in than I was with shooting live-action, and the animation side was something I felt very familiar with, even though I’d actually never directed a CG film before. All the animated movies I’d done were before that came in.

    HTF: So it sounds like it was pleasant enough experience that you would consider doing another motion capture film if the opportunity came up in the future?

    Simon Wells: Oh, I’d love to---I don’t know whether motion capture will carry on, it will certainly carry on as an element in movies, but it’s a question whether you will have movies entirely done in that fashion, I don’t know. The initial promise of it being a quicker way to make animated movies was completely untrue because the amount of work you have to do afterwards is the equivalent of doing an animated movie anyway. I think it as Andy Serkis said when talking about the new Planet of the Apes, it allows an actor the possibility of appearing completely physically differently from their actual physical aspect. You know, Seth really enjoyed the fact that he got to be a 9 year old kid, and it took on the whole persona of it, and it didn’t fight with the way he actually looks.

    HTF: Yes, you could definitely see HIS expressions and HIM playing that part.

    Simon Wells: Yes, and if you watch the DVD, the actual video reference that we shot when we were doing the capture, and you can see that the animators were very, very faithful to following every mannerism that Seth had in places of caricature in order to breath more animation life into it, but it’s definitely what Seth did.

    HTF: Speaking of Seth, what made you decide to use him for that role instead of an actual child?

    Simon Wells: That’s interesting --- when Gil Kenan did Monster House, he actually wanted to use kids to play kids (although he used kids who were actually older than the kids in the movie). Conversely, Bob had worked with Tom Hanks on Polar Express where Tom was playing a kid, so I thought form the practicality that working with an adult actor it would be easier to shoot. In motion capture, actors are literally working non-stop, you don’t have long down times where you go back to your trailer and sit down while you do the next camera set up. The problem with using an actual 10 year old kid is that they have to spend half the day in school, they can’t be shooting for more than 4-5 hours. So, on a purely practical level, I thought that using an adult actor would be a good idea. And I honestly had some worries about whether a kid would be able to deliver some of the emotional aspects of the movie. There is some pretty heavy emotional stuff towards the end of the film and I wasn’t confident that a kid would be able to deliver that on cue. Actually, the way it came about, we were hanging about on the set of A Christmas Carol while we were writing, we’d go and watch just so that I could get to know how a motion capture gets shot. Seth came around to pitch a project to some executives, so we got to meet him, and we were hanging out chatting when a light bulb went off in my head, this guy actually has the characteristics that we want our kid to have, the slightly irreverent, edgy kid – this is really the way Seth is. So we asked him if he’d be interested in playing a kid and his jaw dropped, he said “yes yes yes” and he actually hung out with us for the rest of the day and couldn’t stop talking about it. He came back to us and said “seriously, I want to do this”. It was one of those great things, we came back to him a year later and said “Okay, you’ve got the part”. And he just looked at us blankly and said “No, that doesn’t happen in Hollywood --- they don’t promise the part and then come back a year later and GIVE you the part. They promise the part and then come back a year later and say sorry, we had to cast someone else. J So he was overjoyed.

    HTF: Was there a learning curve for him and the others to learn motion capture or do you just kind of put them in the funky outfit and turn them loose?

    Simon Wells: The learning curve is very, very short, but there is one. They have to come in for a number of technical days and have head molds done and face graphs done, try on the suits and they feel weird. The first day they have to walk out onto that set in front of the whole crew in those frankly ridiculous outfits that kind of restrict you a bit, like wearing a wet suit, and this weird gear on your head with these prongs with cameras on, and you feel like a complete fool. You can just see the discomfort in their eyes, they are itching for their cell phones to call their agents to get them the hell off this film! And about an hour or two in, they are completely relaxed and they’ve forgotten all about it, because actors work with other actors and they make pretend. They look into each other’s eyes and say “okay, we’re going to pretend this is a house, this is a spaceship” and they lose themselves in it. And the weird empty gray stage actually kinds of aids you with that!

    HTF: Interesting! To me, that really separates the real actors who don’t just pretend they are a part, but pretend they are a part on a completely blank canvas. It was great that you included some of that footage with the picture-in-picture window, being able to see the real-time and compare to the end result and see how well they can act in a sterile environment.

    Simon Wells: By and large, we didn’t actually use any real-time display, we didn’t even look at the video playback. I actually liked to be on the set with the actors watching what they are doing. For me, motion capture was wonderful because I could actually stand there or lie on the floor right next to the actors and I wasn’t over at Video Village shouting through a bullhorn, which made it a much more intimate experience with the actors. I really liked that. Actually, Colin Firth, one of the actors who worked on Christmas Carol, we were chatting and he said, “You forget, but when you are doing these full costume period dramas and you have all these beautiful backdrops behind you and you’re in the outfit and all that, as an actor, you are not looking at that, you are looking at the sweaty camera man and a whole bunch of lights”, so it’s always an actor’s WILL to get beyond all the technology that is in front of you. So in many ways, the big, grey empty stage is easier to forget about than all of the normal action technology.

    HTF: Very interesting! I know you said that being the writer had its advantages, but once you got on set, were there any challenges with having two hats (writer & director)?

    Simon Wells: No…..occasionally Wendy would come over and say “are you really going to do it like that?”, but we found that the actors so inhabited the characters that we had written and took them so much further than we had written them. It was literally a joy to watch Dan Fogler invent Gribbler in front of us! We’d written him to a certain degree, but man! The depth and emotion that Dan brought to the character was far more than we’d hoped for.

    HTF: I know in the special features you showed the improv, how did that work on the set? You’d obviously written the story a certain way, did you just turn people loose or have them do it the way you’d written and then turn them loose or ?

    Simon Wells: You do a pretty straight pass with it first, stick to the script. But Dan in particular would often come up with some off-the-cuff adlibs. And the great thing about motion capture is that you can do 5-6 takes and that’s it, you don’t have to keep re-shooting from all the angles. So, if you have one line that you think is a particularly good ad-lib, you’ve got it from any angle you want. You can construct and piece it together and put it into one shot if you want to. So it actually is a medium that allows for a lot of flexibility. But having been one of the writers on it, I knew what the scene was for, what the important part of the scene was, so the dialogue leading up to it could vary. There was a whole thing about getting Milo’s name, and Dan went off on this whole Top Gun tear, which wasn’t what we had at all, but it was hilarious!

    HTF: Yes, that was a funny scene. The Box Office didn’t quite do what you’d hoped, but despite that, the home video release is pretty phenomenal: You’ve got the 3D version, a lot of the motion capture footage, the deleted scenes, the commentary-----it seems like a really full-features release.

    Simon Wells: Yes, there are a lot of great extras.

    HTF: Did you have to do any nudging or influence to get all of that included?

    Simon Wells: No, because all of that gets planned before the movie comes out, it gets done on the end of production while you’ve still got the editing crew and things like that. So it was all planned but I’m very grateful to Disney that they are still going ahead with this. To be honest, the film did not present in the market place for what it really is, somehow people didn’t know that there was real emotional content in addition to the exciting action stuff. The people who saw the movie rated it highly, but people didn’t buy the ticket in the first place, there wasn’t enough incentive to see it, I don’t think they really understand what it was.

    HTF: One last question --- as a filmmaker, what do you think that Blu-ray does, in general, for home video?

    Simon Wells: It gives more fidelity to what you actually put on the screen in the first place, the high resolution is great, the more extras, the better, because if you like a movie, it’s fun to see how it was made, hear the interviews with the cast, see the design work, and things like that. If you like seeing a movie, it’s fun seeing how the movie came to be!

    HTF: Thank you very much for speaking with us today, Simon.

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