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Toon Tuesday: "Mars Needs Moms" Simon Wells has his priorities well in order

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Toon Tuesday: "Mars Needs Moms" Simon Wells has his priorities well in order

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I was on the phone with Simon Wells last Friday morning as those first post-quake / tsunami images were coming in from Japan. And as the director of Disney's "Mars Needs Moms" put it:

"Here in Hollywood, everyone seems obsessed with how much your movie cost to make or how much your movie made over its opening weekend. But it's at moments like this - when you see this sort of devastation -- that make you realize that things like production costs and grosses ultimately don't matter much. Right now, I just feel blessed that my wife and I and our children are together, that we're someplace safe and that everyone's whole and happy."

One hopes that Wells was able to keep this healthy sense of perspective alive as the weekend wore on and news of "Mars Needs Moms" disappointing box office performance began rolling in.

Copyright 1985 Universal Pictures. All rights reserved

But when Simon and I spoke on Friday, he was full of fun stories about what it was like to work with Robert Zemeckis. How excited Wells was to making a movie with the man who had made Simon's absolute favorite film, 1985's  "Back to the Future."

"Wendy and I pitched two very different versions of 'Mars Needs Mars' to Zemeckis. And Robert's initial reaction was 'Eh,' and 'Not so much,' " Wells explained. "Finally he told us 'Look, stop pitching me the movie that you think I want make and start telling me about your movie. The one that you want to make.' It was that version of this story, the one which stressed all of the adventures that a 9 year-old boy might have if he went to Mars, that Zemeckis eventually signed off on."

And Simon ... He had nothing by praise for the folks that he worked with ImageMovers Digital's production facility up in Marin County, CA. on "Mars Needs Moms."

(L to R) Simon Wells, Wendy Wells, Jack Rapke. Middle row (left to right): Seth Green,
Joan Cusack, Elisabeth Harnois, Dan Fogler (second from right). Photo by Joseph
Lederer. Copyright ImageMovers Digital, LLC. All rights reserved

"We really benefitted from the fact that - prior to the start of our project - this group had just finished working on 'Disney's A Christmas Carol.,' " Wells continued. "So that - by the time we started working on 'Mars Needs Moms' - this was a really cohesive team that could handle every technical & storytelling challenge that we threw their way."

As for Disney's decision to pull the plug on this state-of-the-art production facility this time last year, Simon was somewhat philosophical.

"Decisions like that are made above my pay grade," Simon said. "Besides, I've worked in animation all of my life. So I'm used to studios suddenly opening and closing. I remember back in the 1980s when I working for Richard Williams. We were the animation studio that did most of the work on 'Roger Rabbit.' And the Disney executives told us that 'We love what you've done. You did such high quality work on Roger Rabbit that we're going to keep this studio up and running. We're going to find new films for you guys to work on.' And within a year, the place was closed. Mind you, it was nothing personal. That's just the way things are in the animation business."

Copyright 1988 Touchstone Pictures / Ambin Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved

That said, Wells still sounds like someone who values the friendships that he forged while working on "Mars Needs Moms."

"I especially enjoyed the day that Berkley Breathed and his wife came on the set. We were shooting the scene that's really the emotional heart of his book," Simon remembered. "And it meant a lot to me that Berkley really seemed to approve of the way we were handling this moment in his story."

Speaking of which ... Without spoiling the story of this movie ... Well, let's just say that - whenever this scene was shown in theaters while "Mars Needs Moms" was being previewed - Wells was thrilled with the reaction that this moment got from movie-goers. How this tense hush would then fall over the audience, as they wondered what would happen next.

Seth Green (second from left) in his performance capture suit shooting action scene
for Disney's "Mars Needs Moms." Photo by Joseph Lederer. Copyright ImageMovers
Digital, LLC. All rights reserved

"It's at moments like that, when the actors have given you a great performance to work with, and then the technicians and the animators can take that scene and really enhance the emotions of that moment --  which then creates this truly memorable moment in your motion picture -- that you realize what a great film-making technique performance capture is," Simon states. "With live action, you always have to worry if you got all the necessary coverage. And animation just takes so long. But with performance capture, you never have to worry about camera angles. More importantly, you can get a sense of whether or not what you just shot  works almost immediately. Which then allows you to fine-tune your performances. Tell your actors if they need to go bigger or dial things back a bit."

Speaking of actors, Wells had high praise for Seth Green, Joan Cusack and the rest of his "Mars Needs Moms" cast. Especially given how daunting those first few days of shooting on a performance capture motion picture can be.

"You see your actors come on set with dots all over their faces, dressed in these skin-tight costumes that are more like diving suits than anything else, with all these miniature cameras pointed up their noses. And you can just see them reaching for their cell phones, so that these actors can then beg their agents to get them off of this picture," Simon laughed. "But after a few days of shooting, the actors come to love performance capture. They love how freeing this film-making format is."

Copyright ImageMovers Digital. LLC. All rights reserved

And Wells would clearly love to make another performance capture movie. But on the heels of "Mars Needs Moms" opening weekend ... Well, one wonders if that sort of opportunity will be coming Simon's way again anytime soon.

But that said ... Based on our phone conversation this past Friday, I'd say that Wells has his priorities well in order. Given that Simon talked about how the work he does (i.e. directing motion pictures) compared in importance to what Wells' brother (who works in gene therapy as part of the team that's trying to find a cure for duchenne muscular dystrophy) does.

"What my brother's working on will actually save people's lives. Me? I just entertain people," Simon concluded. "Of course, if you multiply what I do by thousands of screens and millions of people, I guess that -- when you entertain that many people on that sort of scale - then a piece of entertainment really does start to mean something. But this whole Hollywood mindset - where movies are the end all and be all of everything - especially in the face of what people like my brother are doing and what's going on in Japan today ... Well, it all seems kind of silly."

(L to R) Dan Fogler and Simon Wells on set. Photo by Joseph Lederer. Copyright
ImageMovers Digital, LLC. All rights reserved

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  • I like turtles!

  • I'm actually glad the movie flopped.  This style of animation is creepy and not at all entertaining.

  • Maybe if Disney wasn't so anti-Zemeckis they would have actually promoted this film.  Then I wonder how much it would have made, because I heard it's actually not that bad.

  • I would love to thank Simon Wells for Mars Needs Moms!  I am sorry that it didn't make more money at the theater because EARTH needs more movies like this.  Feminists... won't like it.  Men/husband bashers... won't like it.  Psychobabblists with modern child rearing ideas won't much like it either.  For me... this is one that I'm going to purchase and treasure!  Thank you Simon Wells!

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