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The Polar Express – CGI Landmark

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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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About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.awddaily.com Bill Lamb

    I agree this is a film many are eagerly awaiting, and the trailers are gorgeous.

    Having once been a Children’s Librarian, my only concerns are that the film be true to the incredible book by Van Allsburg – it looks like it will be. It truly is a magical story.

    If “Polar Express” is a huge hit…there are several more wonderful stories in Van Allsburg’s backlist.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    brilliant, informative article, Eric. I dunno, though, whilst it’s certainly visually stunning, i was pretty underwhelmed by the trailer. it looked to be lacking in much of the old “heart” and what have you. here’s hoping The Duke is proved wrong though.
    The Incredibles, on the other hand, can only rule.

  • http://www.anachrome.com Allan Silliphant

    If you think about it, it is ironic,even
    bone-headed that Hollywood has gone to all the trouble ,up to now to create a movie in 3D cgi animation like “Nemo” or “Monsters Inc.” … and then releases this movie in plain old flat
    2D. Finally, someone in Hollywood has
    put two and two together and elected to
    show at least key opening dates for”The
    Polar Express” in actual stereoscoic
    3D. They created a huge fad fifty years ago, with Warner’s “House of Wax” in 3D.
    They also gave the world talkies in 1927 with “The Jazz Singer” Thanks
    Warner’s for a tradition of inovation!
    Maybe 3D will come back with a few
    features every year now!

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks guys, the key is doubtless to combine technical wizardry with story-telling and heart – that’s certainly the Grail. We’ll see if this one does it

  • http://www.anachrome.com Fran Khorsandi

    I saw the entire IMAX 3D version the other night. It was very visually impressive. I have to agree that the “performance capture” needs a to be
    combined with something that will capture the light of consciousness the the human eye. I’d suggest shooting a real kid to get the eyes right, maybe even mix photography with animation in some new way to insert better eye detail as well as mouth and teeth.The story was not expanded as well as you might hope…BUT The 3D stereo effect was fantastic! It is a NO-BRAINER that
    both a 2D and a 3D version of every big CGI feature should come out together.
    For example, the film could open with
    two auditoriums screening the film
    in the two formats for the first few weeks. I can see 10% of all
    features finding a good audience in 3D.
    If Polar is soft in 2D and does much better in the few dozen IMAX dates, the
    likes of Mr. Fellman at Warners will get the message. Perhaps Steve Jobs
    will come to the same conclusion from this.