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THE POLAR EXPRESS

Cue The Actors
One vital element of moviemaking remains constant. Regardless of technical innovation, what drives everything is, of course, the actors' performances. 

For a process like Performance Capture, which relies so much on the subtlety of expression or the significance of a glance, a shrug or an upturned face to convey volumes of meaning, this requires actors of extraordinary depth and skill. 

In the initial brainstorming sessions, Tom Hanks expected that he would take on one or two of the adult male roles. After the filmmakers got a better grasp of what Performance Capture could achieve, Zemeckis suggested that Hanks also consider the role of the main character, the young boy. "Since we had this fantastic tool at our fingertips, I thought why have an 8-year-old play an 8-year-old when we can have an actor of Tom's caliber, with all his years of experience, interpret the part?,” the director explains. "He said, ‘That sounds great. Can we do that?' And of course, then we did it in the test.” 

It was partly a matter of operating scale. For adults to portray children, sets and props were designed at 160% of normal size so that when the adult performances were captured and integrated into the virtual sets they were a natural fit. During the live performances, minimal props on the same oversized scale were often built as reference points for the actors.  Beyond physical dimensions that could be manipulated by props and computer calculation, it was Hanks himself who provided the credible emotional scale for the character, a nuance no CGI artist could accomplish. 

Analyzing the preliminary test footage, Hanks felt that his gestures and movements weren't as age-appropriate as they could be and needed to make essential adjustments. "He got more into it, made wider and more childlike gestures,” explains Starkey, "not exaggerated but natural, as if he were an 8-year-old. Tom's professionalism is such that he fine-tuned his performance based on the earliest test shots. His position and timing were right on.” Ultimately, Hanks performed five key roles in the film: the hero boy, the boy's father, the conductor, the mysterious hobo and Santa Claus, or, as he explains, "the main adult male characters the boy interacts with. All these characters carry with them the meaningful weight of the story. They spring from the boy's own consciousness.” 

As Zemeckis earlier noted, it can be disorienting playing a scene in a mo-cap suit with no costume and without the atmosphere provided by a fully dressed set. An actor has to remember where the windows should be, if his character might be barefoot or fixing the buttons of a jacket that doesn't physically exist at this moment – or, in the case of Hanks playing the hero boy, how tall he happens to be. Multiply that by five to approximate the amount of detail he kept catalogued in his head. 

"The one thing I thought was going to drive me nuts was not having a costume every day,” the actor admits. "We had one full costume fitting for the computer scans and never wore them again. I thought that would be a problem because of the lack of actual pockets when you need to use them. But for some reason I managed to remember that the boy was wearing a bathrobe that came undone and that the conductor had pockets, a cap and glasses that he is always adjusting. 

"I found that I had to change something from one character to the next, and since I couldn't get out of my Lycra mo-cap suit the only option was my shoes. I wore running shoes when I performed as the boy and different pairs of boots when I played the conductor, the hobo and Santa. It affected my posture and my movements and, in the final result, my character.” The effect of the suit itself, form-fitting and festooned with reflectors, had the added benefit, according to Hanks, that "self-consciousness goes right out the window, and self-consci

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