CG Talk: A Discussion with Director Simon Wells
March 10, 2011

CG Talk: A Discussion with Director Simon Wells

In the March 2011 issue of Computer Graphics World, CGW West Coast editor Barbara Robertson provided a detailed look at the last project by Robert Zemeckis’s ImageMovers Digital— Mars Needs Moms—before the innovative studio shut its doors. Here, she talks about the plans (past and present) of the movie’s director, Simon Wells, who also discusses his views about filmmaking and using performance capture.
In addition to Mars Needs Moms, Simon Wells directed An American Tail: Fieval Goes West, Balto, The Prince of Egypt, and other animated features. He also directed the live-action film The Time Machine. And, he was a storyboard artist for S pirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Shrek 2, Madagascar, Flushed Away, and others. He and his wife, Wendy, wrote the screenplay for Mars Needs Moms. He’s the great-grandson of H.G. Wells.

Director/writer Simon Wells and actor Joan Cusack. Photo by Joseph Lederer.
©ImageMovers Digital LLC.

Do you have your next project lined up?
We’re looking at everything. One of the difficulties in Hollywood is that you get pigeonholed by the things you’ve done. After Prince of Egypt, people kept offering me religious movies.

You directed one live-action film after directing several animated films, and then stopped directing and became a story artist. Why did you do that?
Time Machine was a tough shoot. It was a ludicrously big movie and far too much to take on as a first live-action film. The question I asked myself was if I wanted to direct people or if it was more fun doing stuff for other people. One thing I felt about Time Machine was that there were flaws in the story that I didn’t understand how to solve. I didn’t fundamentally understand the process of seeing how to make a story and a movie work properly. So Wendy and I spent the intervening time between Time Machine and Mars writing screenplays. Every writer told us you have to write eight or 10 bad ones before you write a good one; you have to learn the process by doing it. It’s like in traditional animation. You have to do hundreds of bad drawings first, so you get them done as quickly as you can.

Now that you’ve completed a film using performance capture, what do you think of it as a filmmaking tool?
It’s a fantastic medium to work in. We get such enthusiasm and energy and chemistry from the actors. Here’s an inside thing about actors: They’ll hold back their best performance until their close-up. So in wide shots, or if their back is to the camera, they might not give a full emotional performance. We told them, ‘You’re in a close-up all the time, so give it your all.’ And they all did at the same time, and they fed on each other’s energy. It was great. But, whether I’d have the option to do more in the future, I don’t know. At the moment, it’s still fairly pricey compared to animation or high-end visual effects.

Could you have made this film in live-action rather than capturing the performances of actors and applying the data to animated characters?
Have you seen our aliens? They cannot be people in suits. We have four human characters plus two in rather little of it. Everyone else is an alien. Yes, we have human actors driving the aliens, so we have a natural and consistent performance from them. Without that, it would have been a helluva lot of animation. Also, we’re taking you to a place that would be all-CG if you did it in a live-action movie. And, stylistically, we have a fun look.

Actor Seth Green and director Simon Wells and Wendy Wells, who co-wrote the screenplay.
Photo by Joseph Lederer. ©ImageMovers Digital LLC.

Do you prefer live-action or animation?
The whole language of filmmaking tends to be similar now between live action and animation. There is less and less distinction. How much of Transformers is an animated movie? From the filmmaking and writing point of view, one approaches both in a similar manner. So, I’m not sure I have an answer. I’ve borrowed from all of filmmaking my entire career. I see something cool in one film and borrow it for another.

Do you think the distinctions between live action and animation will become even more blurred?
I would like to move fluidly between all media, and my real hope is that as technology progresses, there will be less distinction between live action and animation. Now, it’s arbitrary based on technique. People tend to confuse technique with genre. I want to find somewhere that blurs the line between live action and animation so much that people are not quite sure which it is. That’s my dream.

Watch behind the scenes video:  Mars Needs Moms