Capturing a lush fantasy

Times Staff Writer

The “Polar Express” screenplay describes an enchanted scene: A wide-eyed boy runs through the observation car of a 1950s locomotive steaming across the Arctic Circle to visit Santa Claus as two other children sing about Christmas cheer. What you see on a local soundstage, though, is as removed from that image of holiday merriment as Culver City is from the North Pole.

Instead of a child dressed in pajamas, there’s Tom Hanks wearing a blue and black bodysuit so tight it should only be worn by Olympic athletes. In place of the gleaming train are a few pieces of set construction painted a drab gray, marking no more than a door here and a railing there. And where the script calls for brilliant starry skies, the background at this point is an enormous metal grid holding 64 infrared receivers.

For all of his commercial hits, director Robert Zemeckis doesn’t earn that much attention for integrating new storytelling techniques into filmmaking. But from his historical composites in “Forrest Gump” to his marriage of animation and live action in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” Zemeckis repeatedly packs innovative tools into his movies. With “The Polar Express,” the 52-year-old director may be taking his biggest leap yet, an artistic and financial wager that very well could create a new film genre somewhere between animation and live action.


Adapted from Chris Van Allsburg’s slim but richly illustrated children’s book of the same name, “The Polar Express” was made almost exclusively with a method called performance capture, which drops digitized human actors into a computer-animated world. The technique has been used in some video games and to a limited extent in earlier movies; Warner Bros. says “Polar Express” is the first feature made solely with the process.

While the mathematics of the process are beyond understanding, the mechanics are not.

Banks of the fixed infrared receivers precisely record the body and facial movements of actors reading dialogue and performing scenes on an essentially blank stage. All of those recorded movements are dumped into computers, which are then used to create a digital character who can be outfitted with any costume, equipped with any prop and placed into any environment.

The “acting,” in other words, is fully human, but the final product consists of nothing but zeroes and ones. To fashion a “Polar Express” character’s skiing atop a speeding train in a blizzard, Hanks mimes the action on a warm stage with 60 reflective balls on his bodysuit, and 151 markers on his face. The infrared receivers record his moves, while the train, the skis and the digital snow are added after the fact. There’s no need for Hanks and the production team to climb atop a real train barreling through the freezing cold.

It’s basically the same procedure director Peter Jackson employed in his “Lord of the Rings” movies to generate Gollum, which originated with the physical performance of actor Andy Serkis. Zemeckis’ technique is far more refined, and where Jackson used performance capture (also known as motion capture) for one main character, every human character in “The Polar Express” story is rendered that way. (On the other hand, animals in the film, from caribou to reindeer, were created by digital animators.)

It is neither cheap nor easy; the sky-high “Polar Express” price tag and the creative gamble was so steep that Universal Pictures declined to make the film, even with Hanks attached. While live-action studio movies can be filmed and edited in less than a year and cost on average $63.8 million, Zemeckis spent some 20 months making the $170-million “Polar Express.” The G-rated movie faces tough competition from other family-friendly films, opening just five days after “The Incredibles” and nine days before “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.”

After a year and a half of post-production, Zemeckis has a lot to show for all the time and money. The Lycra-encased Hanks has been scaled down and transformed into a photo-realistic 8-year-old boy (Hanks plays five roles in the film), clothed in convincing pajamas. Where he and costar Nona Gaye once ran through a mostly empty Culver City soundstage, they now have been placed inside an elaborately designed train rattling down the tracks. Twinkling galaxies and Northern lights illuminate the sky, as a snowy arctic wilderness fills the horizon.


It’s simultaneously realistic and fantastic, reminding you of Van Allsburg’s oil pastel illustrations and computer-animated movies such as “Finding Nemo” and “Shrek.” Which raises the question: Why didn’t Zemeckis just make “Polar Express” an animated movie?

Making realism possible

“This is a shot I’ve always wanted to do,” Zemeckis says in an editing room near his Montecito home. “But I’ve never, ever been able to do it.”

The scene comes early in “Polar Express,” when the unnamed boy played by Hanks awakens on Christmas Eve. The “camera” moves toward a gleaming hubcap on his bedroom floor, in which we see a reflection of the boy tiptoeing toward his door.

“If you did this shot in a two-dimensional live-action movie, not only would you see the camera but also all of the crew standing behind it,” the director says.

As with a computer-animated film, there’s technically no camera in a performance-capture movie. Thus, Zemeckis can navigate a three-dimensional world without minding the laws of nature. Indeed, his “Polar Express” lens flies out windows, over waterfalls, underneath hot chocolate carts, into keyholes, even up through the pages of a World Book encyclopedia.

Yet it wasn’t just such cinematic sleights that initially drew Zemeckis into the unproven world of performance capture. Instead, it was a search for verisimilitude.


When he took up Van Allsburg’s book three years ago after a false live-action start by director Rob Reiner, Zemeckis wrestled with how to adapt the story. The Caldecott Medal-winning book tells of a young boy’s train trek to the North Pole and the gift Santa gives him that restores the boy’s Christmas faith. It’s barely 1,000 words long.

“The first thing Bob and I discussed was, ‘Could we do the movie without any dialogue?’ ” says screenwriter Bill Broyles, who collaborated with Zemeckis on his last movie, 2000’s “Cast Away.” “Bob wanted something that would make it a unique experience.”

As spare as the book may be narratively, it is richly illustrated with 15 paintings inspired by the 19th century German artist Caspar David Friedrich. The challenge, then, was how to expand the book’s story while preserving its distinctive look.

Even though Van Allsburg’s characters aren’t fully lifelike, Zemeckis wanted his movie to feature characters that were more realistic but still fit into the author’s stylized world.

When the early idea to make the film with just narration and no dialogue was ditched, Zemeckis and Broyles set out to write a screenplay that would stick to the book’s beginning and end but cook up an entirely new middle about the train trip.

The new scenes featured three new young characters (performed by adults Gaye, Eddie Deezen, and Hanks’ “Bosom Buddies” costar Peter Scolari), and an engineer and fireman (both played by Michael Jeter, who died during production). In addition to a dance sequence involving hot chocolate, there are several spectacular stunts, such as the train’s sliding across a frozen lake to its plunging down roller-coaster-like tracks.


As the scenes grew progressively more fantastic, Zemeckis worried that filming “Polar Express” would either be impossible or cost $1 billion. So he decided to organize what Hanks calls “the day of the big test.”

The director set up three “Polar Express” stages. One followed traditional filmmaking rules, with a set filled with a costumed actor, props, sets and lighting. The next featured a costumed actor in front of a blank green screen, onto which digital artists would add everything else, from trains to snowflakes. The final stage was largely empty, except for the performance-capture equipment, with Hanks wearing no costume but the suit covered with small reflective balls, which fed data to the banks of infrared receivers.

Each technique had its singular merits, but performance capture gave Zemeckis the exclusive ability to depict both realistic characters and Van Allsburg’s imagery. Hand-drawn or computer animation was not an alternative because, as 2001’s “Final Fantasy” and even the “Toy Story” movies proved, it’s an imperfect genre to portray human characters.

“The hardest thing to do [in animation] is proportionally accurate humanoid characters,” Zemeckis says on a recent afternoon. “But here we have a story about proportionally accurate humanoid characters.”

Adds producer Steve Starkey: “Bob has worked with animators. But those performances, like Jessica Rabbit in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ were cartoon performances. Bob wanted real human performance. An animated performance is the animator’s. A performance-capture performance is the actor’s.”

Had he made the movie in live action, Zemeckis says, he would have had to “throw out all the glorious paintings.” Close readers of the book might recognize that each and every book illustration is represented in the film.


The actor’s advantage

Hanks isn’t worried that performance capture will put actors out of work. If anything, he says, it could improve their lives.

“Any actor can now play any role. Height doesn’t matter. Race doesn’t matter. Hair color doesn’t matter. Even gender doesn’t matter,” Hanks says. “If Meryl Streep can perform a great Abraham Lincoln, now she can do that in a movie.”

Although Zemeckis briefly contemplated having Hanks play every “Polar Express” character, in the end he performed the roles of the lead boy, his father, the train’s conductor, a hobo and Santa Claus. Each of those is voiced by Hanks except for the boy, whose lines were read by child actor Daryl Sabara. (Jeter’s performance was nearly complete when he died in March 2003; his few remaining scenes were performed by another actor.)

Hanks was able to do all five of his “Polar Express” characters in just 38 days of principal photography, a fraction of what it would take in live action. Like the other “Polar Express” actors, Hanks didn’t have to worry about hours of makeup, hitting his marks, or waiting for lights to be hung. He squeezed into his reflective suit, stepped onto a stage and acted, while the infrared receivers recorded every single thing he and his costars did.

“It’s the same concentrated work of rehearsing a play,” Hanks says. “Not only does every angle work, but also every angle counts. You totally are reacting, as opposed to acting. And that’s where the great advantage is to actors.”

One disadvantage: Actors can’t wear the wardrobe that helps many performers figure out how their characters behave. The problem with performance capture is “not about sets or props. It is definitely about the costumes,” says Hanks, who wore different shoes to help give each character unique moves.


It’s also hardly a good development for child performers.

By casting adults to play kids, Zemeckis said he wasn’t limited to children’s short work schedules, he didn’t have to scour the globe searching for that one perfect second-grader, and he had a multiple-Oscar winner taking his direction: “You’re not having to feed lines to 8-year-olds who have no idea what the subtleties are of what you’re going for.”

The technology is improving too. Sony Pictures Imageworks, which provided the digital tools to make the film, says it soon will be able to capture the movements of the human eye, a feature that had to be animated in “Polar Express.” What’s more, performance-capture stages can now accommodate five actors at once, up from three during the making of “Polar Express.”

Like a movie-directing kid in a cinematic candy store, Zemeckis says it will be difficult to leave performance capture for live action.

Although he has not announced his next directing job, he is producing the thriller “Monster House,” which is being directed by Gil Kenan on a performance-capture stage.

“It’s going to be hard to go back,” the director says. “It’s so liberating not to deal with any physical restrictions.”