In May of 2014 Athena was approached by children's book author Nancy Guettier who was looking to take one of her books, Mermaids on Mars and turn it into an animated film. She had seen the work Athena had been doing on Auntie Claus and really liked the stop-motion look. Nancy had come prepared with a full 90-page script and music that she had written for the film.
Budget restraints prevented the creation of a feature-length film so Athena worked with Ms. Guettier to rewrite the film, focusing on the core story elements she had developed to reduce the runtime to a 23 minute short that included 18 minutes of stop-motion animation with 5 minutes of live-action bookends. The action revolves around the story of a young boy who is transported to Mars in a quest to rescue three mermaids from a diabolical Martian bent on destroying the planet's last remaining body of water.
Rather than rely on the character designs done for the children's book Athena worked to create mermaids, aliens, a little boy and his father that would work in the stop-motion medium. Sticker mouths were used to keep costs down on facial animation.
Working on Julian in an underwater scene
Behind the scenes of Mermaids on Mars
To keep production within budget Athena looked at combining the 3D puppets with 2D sets. As we looked for successful examples of this approach we took inspiration from director and the father of special effects, George Méliès. This fantastic filmmaker created amazing, otherworldly films in the early 1900's with flat sets using forced perspective to give them dimensionality. Méliès had even created a film that featured a mermaid – perfect! We retained the handmade set look throughout the short going as far as creating hand-operated cutout waves on a large raked base for the water, compositing in our animated mermaids in post-production.
Athena was able to incorporate a full five of Nancy Guettier's songs for the 23 minute film. They were retimed and scored for the short and then singers were brought in. The singers also did the voice-over for the characters, so Athena took into consideration their acting ability.
Working on Julian puppet
Behind the scenes of Mermaids on Mars
Animating Glaucus singing
In order to accommodate the numerous sets that had to be created and run simultaneously Athena rented an additional building and built out a full shop and paint area. Puppet fabrication took place at Athena's main location nearby. Athena could only lease the building for a limited time, however, so the clock was running!
The live-action shoots included four actors; a young girl, her mother and father and a real-life mermaid. Athena found a professional mermaid living in Arizona who fit the look of our main sea-creature in the film. Athena created a marketing promotion to publicize the film in existing communities of other merpeople who could send in photos for inclusion in the film's closing credits.
Much of the film was shot on green screen using elements that were composited into the final animation. Post-production considerations had to take into account that some of the films animation need to reflect an underwater environment. To further incorporate some of the elements from Méliès breakthrough films Athena filmed live fish against green screen and placed them into the animated scenes.
Once finished Athena worked with artist Mark Raats in Australia to create the film's iconic poster. Athena also helped to promote the film in festivals and by giving speeches on animation to schools and children's groups. The film won numerous awards during the festival season including best animation at the Carmel International Film Festival. Athena also created a website to showcase the film and producer Nancy Guettier (Mermaids on Mars Website)
Mermaids on Mars Movie Poster