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"Mars Needs Moms" Puts Motion-Capture Technology in the Spotlight

By Steven Bryan

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Following the success of “The Polar Express,” performance-capture technology continued to add more realism to several animated projects.   For the lead actors in “Mars Needs Moms,” however, seeing their animated selves on screen was a bit disconcerting.


“It’s a John Goodman-sized version of myself up there,” said Dan Fogler, who plays a thirty-something human named Gribble in the film.   “It’s really strange, especially for my wife.   We watched it (‘Mars Needs Moms’) last night.   It’s a very realistic computer meat puppet of you.   It looks likes me—if I was over six feet tall and weighed 300 pounds and had several chins.   That guy (Gribble) is like a cousin of mine.”


Inspired by an incident at the house of “Bloom County” creator Berkley Breathed, “Mars Needs Moms” shows how Martians ‘recruit’ moms from Earth to help raise their young.   Martian supervisors select a mother with the best parental qualities and take her to the Red Planet.


Motion capture, also called ‘emotion capture’ by “Rango” star Johnny Depp, requires an actor to wear, as Fogler puts it, a skin-tight scuba suit filled with body sensors.   “It captures your little quirks and essence.   They are pumping life into this computerized creature.   It’s kind of like a Frankenstein monster,” he said, laughing.


Audiences who hang around for the closing credits of “Mars Needs Moms” will see how the actors looked while filming several key sequences.   It’s interesting, for instance, to see Joan Cusack and Seth Green acting out their mother/son scenes while wearing bodysuits and oversized camera helmets.


For Kevin Cahoon, a Broadway veteran and a former cast member of ABC’s “Six Degrees,” that helmet was the only thing that took a tad bit of adjustment.   “You can’t really hug someone because your space is limited and your helmets will collide.   There was a lot of clanking and running into each other.   As an actor it forces you to embrace every single bit of your imagination,” Cahoon said.


Elisabeth Harnois, who plays a liberal-minded Martian named Ki, said the motion-capture process is very theatrical.   “Each character has a color associated with it, so when they (the directors) are watching on screen, they can pick out each by color.   It is basically an identifier in the control room when they are watching all these people and their dots and trying to differentiate who’s who,” Harnois said.  


“It was like the fancy socks you get to wear in Catholic School that define who you are,” she added, laughing.  


Harnois also is happy that the producers included the live-action footage of the actors at the end of the film.   “It provides a visual juxtaposition for the audience about how much the actors are involved in what ends up on the animated screen.   If you watch the credits at the end when you see the film, it’s very informative.   I don’t think a lot of the motion-capture films have gone there to really explain it.”


Fogler, who also has a featured role in the comedy “Take Me Home Tonight,” said this also is the only movie where the actors were finished a week-and-a-half ahead of schedule.   “There was no downtime, makeup, costume changes.   We’d do a scene a couple of times.   There was really no exhaustion in the sense that you are doing something over and over and over,” he said.


“Mars Need Moms,” rated PG for sci-fi action and peril, opens in theaters on Friday, March 11.

Published on Dec 31, 1969

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