Creating Award-Winning Stop-Motion

Mermaid on Mars wins Best Animation at Carmel

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

There must be water on Mars, because there are definitely mermaids there.

Independent production and animation company Athena Studios recently produced the short Mermaids on Mars, a stop-motion film based on Nancy Guettier's book. In the story, a young boy named Julian is magically transported to Mars, where he tries to stop an evil Martian from destroying the last of the planet's mermaids. The 24 minute film was comprised of 300 shots. These shots involved complex compositing and putting heavy demands on Athena’s small team of visual effects artists, who worked within a post schedule of just over three months to tell the story piece by piece in meticulous, hand-crafted, stop-motion animation. From beginning-to-end, the short film was shot, produced and finished on-site at Athena Studios.

Mermaids on Mars took home the Best Animation Award 2015 at the Carmel International Film Festival. Now, director Jon Peters is here to talk about the production and process behind the award-winning stop-motion film.

ProductionHUB: Why did you decide to create Mermaids on Mars as an animated short?

Jon Peters: Budget primarily. We were originally approached by the producer, Nancy Guettier, who was the author of the source material, a children’s book titled Mermaids on Mars. She had originally presented us with a feature length script. Given her budgetary restrictions, however, we worked with her and her screen writer, Jarrett Galante, to cut the film down to a 24 minute short.

Mermaids on Mars - Behind the Scenes with Animator Justin Kohn from Athena Studios on Vimeo.

PH: What are some of the challenges you faced turning a book into an animated short?

JP: The original book was a very simple story that centered more about mermaids conserving water. The first feature-length script had added many other elements which brought in Martians and a much more complicated storyline. It also included 12 songs. The biggest problem we had was budget driven and trying to simplify the story as much as possible. We were limited in the number of puppets and the design of our sets.

Mermaids on Mars - Behind the Scenes with Puppet Fabricator Victoria Rose Most from Athena Studios on Vimeo.

PH: Are there wrong ways to go about this?

JP: 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 that we had for the film. 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 had a good handle on what the cost for each element would be.

PH: Describe your thought process for setting the stage for Mermaids on Mars. 

JP: 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 budget for full sets however. As we looked at combining 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 budget we would need almost as much effort on post-production as the production itself. We would to have to shoot many of the elements individually and then combine them in post. That part of the production was headed up by veteran visual effects artist Vince De Quattro.

Mermaids on Mars - Behind the Scenes with Character Designer Steph Laberis from Athena Studios on Vimeo.

Mermaids on Mars - Behind the Scenes with Character Designer Steph Laberis from Athena Studios on Vimeo.

PH: How much time did you devote to the set up? Which pieces took the longest to perfect?

JP: 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 also knew we could not shoot it in our main building, so first we needed to find another space. We spent a lot of our time looking for the right building 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, Lemony Snicket, Coraline , etc.), focused set and prop building on 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 boys bedroom, the Mermaid palace, the Martian fortress and a machine called the ‘siphonator.’

Initial builds and animation took approximately 6 months, and post production took an equal amount of time.

Mermaids on Mars - Behind the Scenes with Choreographer Karen Kovac from Athena Studios on Vimeo.

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Mermaids on Mars - Behind the Scenes with Choreographer Karen Kovac from Athena Studios on Vimeo.

PH: What was your favorite set to work with and why?

JP: 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.

PH: What sort of stop-animation and film team did you have working with you to make this as successful as it was?

JP: We were extremely fortunate to work with industry veterans like Producer Kat Alioshin (“Coraline,” “Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Monkeybone,” “Corpse Bride”), Director of Photography Pete Kozachik, ASC (“Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Corpse Bride,” “Ghostbusters 2,” “Willow”), Cinematographers Timothy Taylor ("Back to the Future 2," "Frankenweenie," "Coraline,"), Peter Williams (“Coraline,” “Monkeybone,” “The Apostle”) and Carl Miller (“Jurassic World,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Terminator Genisys,” “Peter Pan”).

Other noted talent which contributed to "Mermaids on Mars" included lead animators Justin Kohn ("Nightmare Before Christmas," "Coraline," "James and the Giant Peach," "Antz," The Simpsons,") and Amy Adamy ("Coraline," "James and the Giant Peach," "Robot Chicken."). Other animators included Timothy Hittle (“Monsters University,” “Toy Story 3,” “The Incredibles,” “Nightmare Before Christmas”) and Eileen Kohlhepp (“Anomalisa,” “Robot Chicken,” “Family Guy”).

Vince De Quattro (“Hellboy,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Star Wars,” “Mighty Joe Young,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Terminator 3”) ran Athena’s post-production team which consisted of Jeanette Vera (“The Avengers,” Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”), visual effects artist Jorge Martinez, and several other compositors and VFX artists.  

Post Production:

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.

Mermaids on Mars - Behind the Scenes with Co-Producer Kat Alioshin from Athena Studios on Vimeo.

Mermaids on Mars - Behind the Scenes with Co-Producer Kat Alioshin from Athena Studios on Vimeo.

PH: Congrats on your win at Carmel for Best Animation! What's that feel like?

JP: The win felt great as it was our very first festival. Unfortunately, we were not able to attend the award ceremony as we had to head to LA to deliver a panel discussion on stop-motion at the Animation World Celebration held at Sony Pictures Animation. Things have been very busy since the film has gotten out. We have also gone back into development of our stop-motion feature film Auntie Claus, based on the award –winning children’s book by Elise Primavera which is being co-produced by Nate Hopper (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “Surf’s Up,” Open Season 1 and 2”, “Blazing Samurai”).

About Athena Studios

Athena Studios is an independent production and animation company in Emeryville, California. As well as producing ‘Mermaids on Mars’ and other film projects, Athena Studios is a full-service animation, production and post-production studio for commercial clients. 

For more information, visit http://www.athenastudios.com/

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