"Polar" Heralds a New Frontier
TORONTO--The Polar Express has two big stars: Tom Hanks--who's playing five different roles, including Santa Claus and a seven-year-old boy--and the next generation of a technique known as "motion capture", now dubbed "performance capture", which could redraw the boundaries of moviemaking.
Adapted from Chris Van Allsburg's popular children's book about a magical train that takes kids to visit Santa on Christmas Eve, The Polar Express (now playing in Vancouver) was created using technology that blends acting and digital animation even more seamlessly than The Lord of the Rings did when bringing Gollum to life.
Polar Express producer Steve Starkey tells a group of journalists in a Toronto screening room that Rings director Peter Jackson checked out the technology and said it made the cutting-edge techniques he'd used to blend the performances of a computer-generated Gollum and actor Andy Serkis look like something out of the technological dark ages.
"It's like we're at the edge of this new frontier of cinema," Starkey says. "All the movements--and the entire performance of an actor--is digitally rendered." Instead of just mimicking bodily movement, the new technique can even capture an actor's facial expressions.
Starkey began working with Polar Express director-writer-producer Robert Zemeckis in 1986, when Zemeckis pioneered the blending of live action and animation with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). Two years later, they joined with Jack Rapke to form ImageMovers. Movies produced by the trio include two of Hanks's biggest hits, Forrest Gump (1994) and Cast Away (2000). Starkey says that once Hanks decided he wanted to adapt The Polar Express and brought it to their company, the challenge was to find a way to make it.
"Bob [Zemeckis] says it would've cost a billion dollars. I don't think it would've cost a billion dollars, but I think it would've been the most expensive movie ever made. Can you imagine an entire cast of children--shooting entirely at night--with production demands that are insane? Trains on ice?"
In order to digitize the performances, actors were dressed in body suits covered with about 60 markers made of light-reflecting material to be picked up by a 360-degree array of digital cameras (additionally, their faces were covered with as many as 150 individual markers).
Then they performed in a dark, stark cube with sparse props. "The space is surrounded by these infrared--we can call them receivers or cameras--and they emit light," Starkey says. "They bounce off these little reflector points all over the body of the performer, and it sends back information that immediately goes into the computer and is digitized. And that begins the process of capturing the performance of these actors."
The sets are also designed as if they're being created for a live-action movie, but they're not physically built. "What that means is I designed all the sets as if I was going to build them, and I built them in a computer instead of constructing them on a sound stage. And once you've built them on the computer, you can spit out actual blueprints that allow you to transfer those designs onto a stage floor.
"The beauty of this process is that it's very quick," Starkey explains. "Because you can film, if you will, in real time. Because it's unlimited how long they can go, it's really up to the actors how far they can take a scene. It's just very much like theatre, where they can perform a scene from beginning to end because there's no lighting issues, there's no camera-movement issues; all it is is about performing the scene. So in fact, I think we shot this--the entire movie--in 38 days."
After a performance is digitized, it's integrated into the set that's built in the computer and they bring in the cameraman. A real cameraman, notes Starkey. "We designed a system that you can actually put [a virtual] camera in the computer and very much simulate live-action cinematography."
The technology was developed specifically for the project by a team led by visual-effects supervisors Ken Ralston--a five-time Oscar winner--and Jerome Chen.
"Nothing in the performances was animated," Starkey says. "This was all done through performance capture." He's proud to point out that this doesn't just apply to the acting: the film's elaborate dance sequences were also created using live performers.
"You'd be tempted to think that the dancing was not done live-action. In fact, I brought in tap dancers and they dance the scene. I brought in a choreographer from New York. This whole thing was done from a live-action sensibility, but then we just brought it into the computer."