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The Process
Some elements of production on The Polar Express resembled the traditional approach to a live-action film: Zemeckis and Broyles worked on the script, storyboards were created and sets, props and costumes designed. Fabrics and wallpaper were selected. As Starkey explains, "even though we were breaking new ground in the way that images are captured and presented, there were still some fundamental physical details that had to be created upfront in the usual way. We still needed to see the fabric for the costumes and the hairstyles for each character.” 

Production began months ahead of the first performance capture session, as the filmmakers assembled their creative team, many of them veterans of past Zemeckis projects like costume designer Joanna Johnston, who unveiled screen siren Jessica Rabbit's trademark evening gown in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and production designer Rick Carter, an Oscar nominee for his work on Forrest Gump. 

The difference was that the practical elements, once digitally scanned into the computer, were retired. The filmmakers then had virtual sets, virtual costumes and an exhaustively detailed catalogue of virtual and mobile props. Everything was scrupulously recorded from every conceivable angle and depth, resulting in fully prepared, 3-dimensional stages ready for the actors' entrance. 

Other sets and locations, like the fantastic mountains and forests the Polar Express races through on its midnight journey and the bustling downtown streets of Santa's village at the top of the globe, never existed in the real world at all. They went straight from imagination into the computer.

In creating the big-screen visuals of The Polar Express, the filmmakers began at the same spot Van Allsburg had begun: in the boy's moonlit bedroom on Christmas eve, when he first hears the train pull up outside. 

"But we were going deeper into the environments than the book did,” notes Starkey. "Taking a look at the book's first image, there's a bed, a window and part of a wall. But what does the rest of the room look like? Is there a stairwell? What does the rest of the house look like, or the neighborhood? What do things look like when the train leaves town?” 

Using the book as a touchstone, the filmmakers then expanded its borders. 

Production designer Rick Carter studied Van Allsburg's illustrations before, as Zemeckis says, "going in search of Chris Van Allsburg himself.” He and production designer Doug Chiang, the conceptual designer on Star Wars, Episode One and Two, journeyed to the very house in which the author grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan and used it to inspire the design of the interior and exterior of the boy's home and the street where the train squeals to a stop. Traveling next to Zemeckis' former neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago, they tapped into similar environs and memories.

"After the train leaves the first boy's house, which is modeled after the house Chris grew up in, it stops at another house to pick up another boy,” Carter explains. "It's a house that very much resembles one I found two doors down from Bob's childhood home.” In a way, Carter muses, this might be "the point at which Bob gets on the train.” 

Chiang, who lead a team of digital matte painters and conceptual CG artists from offices in Northern California, worked in tandem with Carter to create the virtual environments. As Zemeckis explains, "Rick has never worked in this fashion before. Traditionally, he would design something, draw it on paper or make models, and then have it constructed on site. With Polar, we still started with the drawings and models, but then instead of physical construction we could often built it right in the computer based on those designs.”

One advantage of this process over standard set design was its efficiency. "Typically, in preproduction,” says Chiang, "you create flat 2

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