I’ve seen previews now for Robert Zemeckis’s $165M The Polar Express (coming November 10) at the movie theater, on DVDs, and on TV – it’s everywhere (and check out the merchandising tie-ins below). It looks like an amazing CGI ride, based upon the classic Chris Van Allsburg children’s book about a young boy’s Yuletide journey to the North Pole, starring the voice and remarkable likeness of Tom Hanks in five different roles. As far as I can tell from the latest trailer, the film is an astounding leap forward in CGI depth, realism and believability, while retaining the patina of children’s book artful elegance.
Newsweek explores the visual effects here:
- Zemeckis’s team pioneered a technique called performance capture. Hanks’s face and body were covered with 194 plastic “jewels,” which guided 72 cameras capturing his movements from all angles. Then, depending on whom Hanks was playing, animators wrapped digital faces and skin around the collected data.
….Audiences will decide the fate of “The Polar Express,” but inside the visual-effects industry, there is keen interest in the film. And it’s not because of any single magic trick. It’s the whole package. Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” was created with an early version of performance capture, and the “Matrix” sequels achieved a high degree of digital realism. But no one’s ever mounted an entirely CG film based on the acting of an entirely human cast. “What they’ve done,” says John Gaeta, the Oscar-winning visual-effects supervisor of the “Matrix” trilogy, “is absolutely landmark.”
….Visually, it’s a one-of-a-kind experience. (Equally unique: a 3-D IMAX version will open simultaneously on Nov. 10.) And in today’s Hollywood, that’s crucial. Eight of the top 10 box-office hits of 2004—and 19 of the top 20 grossing movies to date—have boasted massive visual-effects work. It is axiomatic in Hollywood that the story drives everything, that good effects can’t save a bad movie. But if you’re swinging for the fences, you won’t get there without melting some eyeballs. “Just 15 years ago, a big tent-pole film might’ve cost $50 million, and 10 percent would be visual effects,” says Jim Morris, president of Industrial Light Magic. “Now it’s very common to have a $150 million budget and a third of that going to visual effects.”
….”The Polar Express” presented a unique challenge. In the book, a young boy (played by Hanks in the film) whose belief in Santa Claus is on the wane gets roused on Christmas Eve by a massive train stopped outside his house. The conductor (Hanks again) invites him aboard for a trip to the North Pole and a meeting with Santa (guess who). “A live-action version of this film would be impossible. It would cost a billion dollars,” Zemeckis says. “You’d have to find a kid who’s as good an actor as Tom, and you’d have to keep him from growing for two years, because that’s how long it would take to film.” Standard animation, though, was also out of the question: Van Allsburg was opposed to it. So Zemeckis suggested blurring the lines and creating a stylized reality, or, as he labels it, “moving paintings.”
….Every second of “The Polar Express” was filmed in a 10-foot-by-10-foot space on a soundstage at Sony Studios. Zemeckis and his team dubbed it “the volume.” Arrayed around the volume were 72 Vicon motion-analysis cameras, each with a glowing orange ring around the lens—the visual evidence of infrared light shooting from the camera and filling the volume. When the infrared light collides with a jewel on an actor’s body, the light gets reflected back into the camera and computers record the jewel’s position. The camera’s “shutter” clicks 120 times per second. With 194 jewels on each actor—152 on each face—the computers could connect the dots and generate a thorough “shell” of the actor’s performance. Then the animators took over.
….The real spoils, though, went to Zemeckis. By capturing the performances of his actors in three dimensions, he could go into the computer and place a “virtual camera” wherever he wanted. Virtual cameras were first used on the “Matrix” sequels, but only for action sequences; Zemeckis used them to make his entire film. The implications are huge. The tool allows a director to separate two complicated, creative tasks that, until now, always had to occur in precise concert: the performance of the actor and the movement of the camera. Zemeckis could concentrate on getting the exact performance he wanted from Hanks, and then, months later, after Hanks had long since left for vacation, plan out his shot. “When I think about the pain of going back to making 2-D movies—it’s almost not worth it,” Zemeckis says. “Why bother? What if it rains?”
Between this and The Incredibles, this could prove to be a CGI November to remember.
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