Athena Studios, a Bay Area production and animation company, has completed work on a short called Mermaids on Mars, which is based on a children’s book and original music by the film’s producer Nancy Guettier. It was directed by Jon V. Peters and features the work of artists whose credits include the stop-motion offerings Coraline, James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas, as well as many other feature length films.
The film is about a young boy who is magically transported to Mars, where he tries to stop an evil Martian from destroying the last of the planet’s mermaids. The entire story was told with stop-motion animation, which was shot on Athena Studios‘ (@AthenaStudios) soundstage.
The 24-minute film was comprised of 300 shots. Many involved complex compositing, putting heavy demands on Athena’s small team of visual effects artists who were working within a post schedule of just over three months.
Kat Alioshin (Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Monkeybone, Corpse Bride) was co-producer of the film, running stages and animation production. Vince De Quattro (Hellboy, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, Mighty Joe Young) is the film’s digital post production supervisor.
Let’s find out more from Peters who in addition to directing and producing Mermaids on Mars, is also the founder of Athena Studios.
Why did you decide to create Mermaids on Mars as an animated short?
The decision was budget-driven, primarily. We were originally approached by Nancy Guettier, who is the author of the book the film is based on, and one of the film’s producers. She had originally presented us with a feature length script with 12 songs. Given budgetary restrictions, however, we worked with Nancy and her screenwriter, Jarrett Galante, to cut the film down to a 24-minute short that retained five of her original songs.
What are some of the challenges you faced turning a book into an animated short?
The original book is a charming short story that centers more on mermaids conserving water. The first feature-length script had added many other elements, which brought in Martian armies and a much more detailed and storyline. The biggest problem we had was trying to simplify the story as much as possible without losing the heart of the material. Because of our budget, we were also limited in the number of puppets and the design of our sets.
Are there wrong ways to go about this?
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ways to approach production on a film like this. The only “wrong” way would have been to ignore the budget. As many other films have shown, limitations (financial or otherwise) can breed creativity. If you walk the budget backward it can help you define your approach. The film’s co-producer, Kat Alioshin, had worked on numerous stop-motion features previously, so she had a good handle on what the cost for each element would be.
Describe your thought process for setting the stage for Mermaids on Mars.
Originally, we looked at doing the entire production as more of a 2D stop-motion down shooter design, but the producer really wanted 3D characters. We did not have the budget for full sets however. As we looked at combining a 2D set design with 3D practical stop-motion puppets it took us all the way back to Georges Méliès, the father of visual effects. He was a stage magician and his films made use of flats in combination with his actors. We drew inspiration from his work in the design of our production.
While we wanted to shoot as much in-camera as possible we knew that because of the budget we would need to rely almost as much on post production as the production itself. We shot many of the elements individually and then combined them in post. That part of the production was headed up by veteran visual effects artist Vince De Quattro.
What cameras did you use?
Animation was shot on Canon DSLR cameras, usually 60D, using DragonFrame. The puppeted live-action wave rank shots were done on a Blackmagic Studio Camera in RAW and then graded in DaVinci Resolve to fit with the Canon shots. Live action shots (for the bookends of the film) were shot on Red Epic cameras.
What was used for compositing and animation?
All compositing was done in Adobe After Effects. There was no 3D animation in the film since it was all practical, stop-motion, but the 3D models for the puppet bodies (used for 3D printing and casting) was done in Autodesk Maya.
Was the 2D all hand drawn?
Yes, all 2D was hand drawn and hand painted. We wanted to keep a handmade feel to as many aspects of the film as possible.
How much time did you devote to the set-up and which pieces took the longest to perfect?
It was a fairly quick production for a stop-motion piece. Given the number of stages, shop needs, size of the project and other shoots we had scheduled, we knew we could not shoot it in our main building, so we needed to find another space. We spent a lot of our time looking for the right building, one that met the criteria for the production. Once we found it we had stages set up and running within a week of signing the lease agreement.
Our production designer Tom Proost (Galaxy Quest, Star Wars — The Phantom Menace, Lemony Snicket’s, Coraline) focused on set and prop building of the hero elements, always taking a very “stage-like” approach to each. We had a limited crew so his team worked on those pieces that were used in the most shots first. The biggest pieces were the waves of the ocean, used on both Earth and Mars, a dock set, the young boy’s bedroom, the mermaid palace, the Martian fortress and a machine called the “siphonator.”
Initial builds and animation took approximately six months, and post production took an equal amount of time.
What was your favorite set to work with, and why?
There were many great sets, but I think the wave set that Tom Proost and his team built was my favorite. It was very much a practical set that had been designed as a raked stage with slots for each of the wave ranks. It was manually puppeted by the crew as they pulled the waves back and forth to create the proper movement. That was filmed and then the post production team composited in the mermaid characters, since they could not be animated within the many wave ranks.
You did the post at Athena?
Twenty-four minutes of film with an average of five composited iterations per shot equates to approximately 300,000 frames processed to final, all completed by Athena’s small team under tight festival deadlines.