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A sci-fi film with a $2 million budget: Martin Villeneuve at TED2013

Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Filmmaker Martin Villeneuve shares the secrets behind his film, “Mars et Avril.” Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Martin Villeneuve’s Mars et Avril is a luscious sci-fi film, set in Montreal 50 years in future, where the subway line takes you straight to Mars. It’s a dreamy love story in which the acting is top-notch, the shots are stunning and the visual effects unreal. And Villeneuve made it all for $2.3 million. To put that in perspective, Star Wars Episode III was shot for an estimated $133 million.

“I made a film that was impossible to make, only I didn’t know it was impossible,” says Villeneuve in Session 6 of TED2013. “This is the kind of movie I wanted to make ever since I was a kid, reading comic books.”

So how did he make the movie? Well, it took seven years.

“When you don’t have money, you must take time,” Villeneuve says. “The more problems we had, the better the film got.”

Villeneuve, like Phil Hansen, says that constraints boost creativity. The first constraint he faced: He wanted Canadian superstar Robert Lepage to be in the movie, but Lepage only had a few days available for filming.

“How do you get someone who is too busy to star in a movie?” asks Villeneuve on the TED stage.

The answer: he turned Lepage’s character into a hologram (At 0:13 in this clip, see how Martin solved the problem). He gave another actor a mask of greenscreen material, and had him stand in for Lepage in scenes. The greenscreen was then replaced with Lepage’s face and voice, meaning he could play the part.

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Actor Robert Lepage appeared as a hologram in the film. Photo: Courtesy of Martin Villeneuve

Constraint #2: “How do you pay for something that you can’t afford?”

Villeneuve needed seven not-yet-made musical instruments, inspired by women’s bodies, for the movie. Only he had no budget for them. So he got someone else to pay for it — he sold the hypothetical instruments to Cirque du Soleil and got to use them in the movie for free. And he presented an artist friend with a dream project, in creating these wildly imaginative props.

Constraint #3: How do you get top-notch visual effects?

Villeneuve’s answer — you ask the best people in the field if they’ll do it. Even though his budget was tiny, Villeneuve approached his effects heroes, offering them the opportunity to dream rather than money.

“If people tell you it’s impossible, it’s an even better reason to want to do it,” says Villeneuve. “People have a tendency to see the problem rather than the final result. If you treat the problems as possibilities, life will start to dance with you in the most amazing ways.”

See the trailer for Mars et Avril below.

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Martin Villeneuve’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com»