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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 05/ 8/2010

The 'Riffs' Interview: MARS animator Geoff Marslett

By Michael Cavna

MARS - The Movie [HD Trailer] from Geoff Marslett on Vimeo.

Animated romance, yes. Comedic sci-fi, definitely. But "animated-sci-fi-rom-com"?

The indie film "MARS" might be the world's first in this mouthful of a genre. The movie tells the story of mankind's first voyage to the Red Planet -- and our search for life and love in an alien environment. (Not to mention the insanely voluminous extraterrestrial sneezes. And robots in love.)

"Mars" looks rotoscoped, with its actors filmed on greenscreen and then inserted into drawn-in backgrounds. (Apparently the space shuttle Discovery wasn't available for on-location shoots.) Its look calls to mind Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," yet "Mars" eschews the mildly trippy look in favor of bold outlines, solid colors and a comic-book sensibility.

Created on a tiny budget over 2 1/2 years, the film -- starring Mark Duplass ("True Adolescents," "Baghead"), Zoe Simpson and Paul Gordon -- premiered to a packed house this year at South by Southwest to a sold-out theater (event organizers had to turn away hundreds), and is screening this weekend at the Maryland Film Festival.

Comic Riffs contributor Rachel Kaufman recently caught up with GEOFF MARSLETT -- the film's writer, director and lead animator -- to talk filmmaking in general, animation specifically -- and the ways in which "Mars" is more like a comic book than you'd ever guess:

COMIC RIFFS: Tell us about making this film.

GEOFF MARSLETT: The romance was the base of it. I knew I wanted to make something that felt like a romance, but didn't feel like it was taken from the everyday world. I wanted to create something that was realistic but not real. So we spent awhile trying to figure out how I would do that. I made a film called "Bubblecraft" in 2006 -- sort of the lab for the look that I ended up using for this. I wrote a kind of a buggy, not very good working computer program. There was no visual interface.

The program worked for "Bubblecraft," but when it came time to do "Mars," my friend and colleague Tray Duncan helped me write this into a more usable program. It's still buggy, it's by no means a marketable piece of software, but it did work.

When people ask what kind of animation it is, well, it's kind of animation, it's kind of effects, and it's kind of several different types of animation. But the end result did give me that unreal feeling. And once we got that -- once I figured I was going to animate the film and not just shoot it live-action -- it freed me up as far as writing the script. We could go to Mars, we could do anything we wanted.

CR: Are you a programmer, then, in addition to being an animator?

GM: I would not call myself a programmer. My dad's a programmer and he gave me a lot of advice. I was kind of inspired by what Bob Sabiston [who developed Rotoshop, the software used to make "Waking Life's" dreamy look] did. He wrote, like, a real program. His program is good. My program is much less complex and much less useful.

CR: How did you cast this film?

GM: I was literally cold calling Hollywood agents and saying: "Hey, I really like what your actor does. Look, I'm some guy in Austin, I'm not going to be able to pay the rate they're worth and I can't show you my previous feature film because I haven't made one, and I'm not sure this is marketable, but wait! Don't hang up on me, go to this Web link I'm going to send you and just watch this clip from 'Bubblecraft.' " We also shot this clip of me describing the project and animated it. And I think because it was so visually different from other things they had seen, it kept that conversation open.

CR: What about the script?

GM: I wanted the dialogue to feel like a comic book. I didn't want characters hiding things from other characters. When you're reading a comic book, you turn the page and -- bam! -- this panel jumps out at you with whatever ideas are in it and the characters say exactly what they're thinking to one another. Even to a fault. They say, [deep voice] "I'm going to punch you from the left!" Like, why would you say that to the guy you're fighting? But I also love that way of telling a story. "Bam, here's this frame."

CR: Will you use this visual look again?

GM: I think it might be awhile before I try [to] animate another film. This was a lot of work. I really thought this was going to take maybe a year and a half. It took about 2 1/2 years. And that was a year where we had no money to pay for anything, we couldn't really hire many people to help out, and [had] really long days.

You don't see a lot of independent animation being made, and when you do, they're still talking about multimillion-dollar budgets. We're well below that budget. Way, way below that. You don't see many independent animations coming out in our budget range, and it's because there's just so much post-work. You're going to have to hire people to do it, or you're going to be working all day, every day. We took the latter route.

CR: How does your science background [theoretical math and physics] fit into your animation work?

GM: Animation is a magic trick. You're not going out there and taking little drawings and moving them around -- you're really trying to figure out how you can create an illusion of motion. You're tricking people. And to do that, you really have to have a vague understanding of the way the world actually moves around you. When you want to make a character look like they're running and have real weight to them, you think about the physics. You think about the way it's going to work when a character throws a handful of sand in the air -- you think about: What are the arcs of these little granules?

CR: So does the look of this film mean you are a comics fan?

GM: I am. I love comic books. Probably the biggest influences on the storytelling style were James Kochalka's graphic novels, early Hal Hartley, like "Surviving Desire," "Simple Men." David Byrne's "True Stories," Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man." So my influences come from many places, but comic books are definitely one of them. I wouldn't say I have titles I follow, but as a kid I certainly read a ton of comic books and those definitely influenced me. And now it's more of the graphic-novel work -- people who try really innovative things. Seeing stuff like "Persepolis" get out there just makes me so happy. I use the term "comic books" -- I could say "graphic novels," but I think there's nothing wrong with being "comic books." I don't think that has to be a derogative. Comic books are cool. They give you the freedom to try stuff that you might not otherwise be able to do.

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By Michael Cavna  | May 8, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Animation  | Tags:  David Byrne, Geoff Marslett, Hal Hartley, James Kochalka, Jim Jarmusch, Mars, Maryland Film Festival  
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