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THE POLAR EXPRESS

Limitless Creativity
Considering the creative freedom Performance Capture gave him on The Polar Express, Robert Zemeckis attempts to put the process into perspective. "The good news is that anything is possible. The bad news is that anything is possible,” he jokes. 

But, kidding aside, the assessment does ring true. 

"It raises the level of your work as a director,” Zemeckis explains, "in that it allows you to do anything. The only limit now is the filmmaker's imagination, because you can literally create any image. I can do a spectacular shot with a little kid on top of a roaring train in the snow at night and I don't have to worry about how I'm going to do it. I don't have to worry about the kid falling off the train, or the camera frosting over or whether the train will hit its mark. I now have complete control over those elements. It's the closest thing we have to typing a story into a computer and having a film come out the other side.” 

With that many options, the task is in the selection, which can easily become daunting. Using Polar as an example, Zemeckis puts it this way: "Let's say I have a three-minute scene. The actors have done it and it's perfect; timing is great, the lines are down. That gets integrated into the set. Now the decision is, okay, how do I shoot this? I can shoot it in a thousand set-ups or all in one shot and nothing will change except for my cinematic interpretation of the material. You have to have a lot of discipline for that.

"More to the point,” he offers candidly, "there's no longer an excuse for not making each shot perfect.”

From an actor's perspective, Zemeckis believes, working with motion capture at this level of sophistication would be equally freeing, albeit with a similar caveat. "Imagine,” he says, "they can deliver a performance without having to worry, every single minute, about hitting their marks or leaning into the light or walking at a certain speed because the camera can't keep up, or any of those horrendous mechanical things an actor has to manage. They can focus their energy on doing a scene in continuity without breaking up the rhythm of their performance.”

The tradeoff seems minimal. "I believe the only thing Tom missed was having the physical trappings of a costume,” the director recalls. "He had to remember that the conductor wore glasses when he was the conductor and he had to remember to touch the bill of his cap or adjust his collar, which he would have done more instinctively if he had been actually wearing that wardrobe.” 

From the perspective of a career spanning 30 years, Zemeckis welcomes the next wave of filmmaking, which he sees as inevitable. "I think we're going to see a new generation of filmmakers embrace this system,” he predicts. "We can do it now without lenses, without film. There's no need to move and bend light to create the images because it's all done with 1's and 0's in the digital realm of the computer. The traditional hundred-year-old optic, chemical, mechanical way in which we record movie images is changing. When people see The Polar Express in a digital theater there's no film – there was no film involved at any stage.”

"It has to change the way in which movies are imagined and made,” he concludes. "It will be a language influenced by the artistry of video games and the internet – a whole new way of how we use images to communicate.”

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