The Polar Express Comes to the Big Screen
By Philip Murphy 

Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis Discuss the Creation of a New Medium for Movies

pt">“On Christmas Eve, many years ago, I lay quietly in my bed. I did not rustle the sheets. I breathed slowly and silently. I was listening for a sound – a sound a friend told me I’d never hear – the ringing bells of Santa’s sleigh.”

pt">So begins The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg’s classic yuletide tale of a skeptical boy’s incredible train trip to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus and discover the true meaning of Christmas.

pt">Reading the Caldecott Medal-winning book, published in 1985, is now a holiday tradition in many American homes, including that of movie star Tom Hanks, who’d read it to his four children so often that he started to think it might make a good movie.

pt">“There was a visceral element to the story I hoped would find its voice for the screen,” Hanks says.

pt">So he bought the rights to the book and took the project to his friend, writer/director Robert Zemeckis, who he’d worked with on Forrest Gump and Cast Away. Zemeckis was familiar with the book – having read it to his own son as he was growing up – but was, at first, at a loss as to how to turn it into a movie.

pt">“To begin with,” Zemeckis says, “the book is only 30 pages long and most of those are illustrations.” But the idea intrigued him, and upon reflection he realized that the text is like “an outline for an adventure movie.”

pt">What he needed to do was to expand the story, which he did with the help of writer William Broyles Jr., who he had collaborated with on Cast Away. Then the next question was “How can we make a movie in oil paint?” says Zemeckis.

“The story was in the paintings [that Van Allsburg did for his book],” he continues. “The emotion was in the pictures and that’s what we had to put up on the screen. We wanted to offer the beauty and richness of Chris’ illustrations from the book as if it were a moving oil painting, with all the warmth, immediacy and subtleties of a human performance.”

State-of-the-Art Technology …For Art’s Sake

Realizing that live action was impractical for the dreamlike scope and locations of the story, and that traditional animation as well as the computer-generated imagery of films like Shrek could not do justice to the subtle human emotions he wanted to convey, Zemeckis turned to visual effects wizard Ken Ralston, who he has worked with since 1985 on his Back to the Future trilogy.

Ralston proposed using motion capture (mo-cap), a process by which an actor’s live performance is digitally captured by computerized cameras and becomes a human blueprint for creating virtual characters in a computer. Zemeckis was familiar with mo-cap, but didn’t see how it could serve his needs. What Zemeckis didn’t know at the time was that Ralston and his colleagues at Sony Pictures’ Imageworks were in the process of developing the next generation of mo-cap, which could simultaneously record three-dimensional facial and body movements from multiple actors, through a system of digital cameras that provided 360 degrees of coverage. Zemeckis decided to run a test using Imageworks’ new mo-cap technique with Hanks as their subject.

To start with, they cyber-scanned Hanks’ body and input that into a computer that can set it in motion. Then they had Hanks don a Lycra jumpsuit and affixed over 200 little sensors to his face and body. The actor then performed a scene on a minimalist stage with just a few props. His performance was “captured” in 3-D by numerous cameras suspended on a grid surrounding the stage, which picked up the light reflected by the sensors on his body and fed this data into computers. Once Hanks’ performance was inside the computer, it was integrated into a virtual set, and then Zemeckis essentially re-shot the movie inside the computer using a virtual camera and his virtual performers on a virtual set.

The process was dubbed “Performance Capture.” And the test was so successful that Zemeckis persuaded Hanks to play five roles in the film: the boy’s father, the conductor, a hobo, Santa Claus and the little boy as well. To create the proper scale for adults to play children, sets and props were designed at 160 percent of normal size, and Hanks and his co-stars (four other actors play all the other roles in the movie) got themselves into a child’s mind-set and made bigger and more childlike gestures.

From Hanks’ perspective the whole two-and-a-half-year process was fascinating and well worth it. “It was a lot of fun,” Hanks says of the “recess-like atmosphere on the set.”

The Polar Express is the first feature film shot entirely in Performance Capture, and its success is likely to lead to more productions in this medium.

“Performance Capture offers a vivid rendering of the Van Allsburg world, while infusing a sense of heightened realism into the performances,” Ralston observes. “It’s like putting the soul of a live person into a virtual character.”

The visuals do bear a remarkable likeness to Van Allsburg’s illustrations and capture that sense of mystery and wonder that is so essential to the tone of the book. There are also a few surprises in the film, including some hair-raising action, and a couple of wild song and dance numbers that are bound to put a smile on everyone’s faces. The film is rated G. 

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