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THE POLAR EXPRESS

Creating A Visual Landscape
Zemeckis was equally captivated by the book's rich and sensitively rendered illustrations. Genuine warmth emanates from the faces of the children in the cozy Polar Express train compartment while, outside, the ever-changing landscape appears simultaneously mysterious and inviting with its deep, dark forests and snowy mountains. 

"Chris's illustrations are honest and familiar and at the same time wonderfully transcendent,” notes Zemeckis, who sought to recreate that quality on the screen, offering audiences a chance to experience what a midnight trip to The North Pole might look like through the eyes of a young boy. "It's easy to see yourself, your children, or the kids you grew up with in the faces and personalities of these characters, and the landscape that the train passes through is like the dreams we all had about distant places where magical and exciting things could happen.”

"There's something absolutely haunting about his artwork,” Hanks describes. "It has a tactile feeling that's really the emotion he communicates through the artwork itself. When he's talking about the little boy lying quietly in bed, the picture really gives you the sense of it. When the train pulls up on his front lawn you can hear the chugging and the steam.” As he recalls, he and Zemeckis agreed it would be a good idea "to recreate each painting in the book at some point throughout the movie. We might create an elegant film that would present the Christmas spirit in a brand new way.” 

Adds Zemeckis, "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.”

But how?

Not only would a live action film of such far-reaching landscapes be staggeringly impractical if not impossible, it would lack the luminous texture the filmmakers were committed to recreating. Another possible option – animation – had its own limitations. "The problem with traditional animation for a project like this,” says Zemeckis, who isn't averse to employing the technique in its rightful place, "is that it falls short in depicting authentic human characters. With exaggerated images, fantasies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, or cartoons, it's great. But I was looking for something more realistically alive.”

Zemeckis presented his unique challenge to visual effects wizard Ken Ralston, a multiple Academy Award-winner for his work and currently a senior visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, an industry leader in digital production. Ralston dates his creative collaboration with Zemeckis back to the 1985 sci fi comedy adventure Back to the Future, a film remembered as much for its heart and deft storytelling as for its dazzling special effects.  Raltson proposed motion capture, a process by which an actor's live performance is digitally captured by computerized cameras and becomes a human blueprint for creating virtual characters. Zemeckis was familiar with the technique but would not have expected it to serve his purposes for The Polar Express, based on applications he had seen. But this was no ordinary mo-cap his friend had in mind. It would have to be a giant step beyond current standards in order to achieve the depth and visual complexity Zemeckis required. 

Coincidentally, Ralston and his Imageworks colleague, visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen, had been doing preliminary work on just such an advanced process, to be the next generation of mo-cap, far more sophisticated than anything ever seen before. 

Beyond mere motion, this highly developed system was designed to capture every discernable movement and the subtlety of human expression from an actor's performance, down to the slightest nuance or flutter of an eyelid. Additionally, unlike existing mo-cap systems that are limited in range, it could simultaneously record 3-d

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