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The Art of The Polar Express is a much-needed piece of film-stoppage. Yes, an art-of book affords a look into the conceptual art that inspired a feature film, behind-the-scenes bonuses like costume fittings and special effects tests, and elucidating commentary from the filmmakers but, more importantly, in the case of Polar Express, this is a chance to halt the movie and feast your eyes. This isnt just an animated CGI feature, after all; this is a Robert Zemeckis picture, and must represent something of a dream come true for the director.
If sweating details was a sport, Zemeckis would be a four-time gold medal-winner. He prepares and previsualizes through all points of the compass to make his camerawork smooth, his mise-en-scene sharp. Some get their kicks skydiving; Zemeckis works out how to combine his establishing shots, closeups and reaction shots into one take. The results can be breathtaking (on the grand scale, the I See Me dance number in Death Becomes Her; more intimately, Helen Hunts fainting phone-call in Cast Away). But those movies, inconveniently, were filmed, and celluloid is to hard drive as fresco is to oil painting.
Now, for the first time, hes gone completely digital and everythings fixable. Now the director who tamed Jodie Fosters darting eyebrow in a scene from Contact can get it perfect. Every performance in Polar Express began life as a data set, which means the acting, in fact the whole schmeer, is guaranteed to be Just So. Its also Just So Much, which makes this art-of book so delicious.
Unable as we are (at least until the DVD comes next year) to freeze-frame this colossus of visual minutiae, The Art of Polar Express offers a chance to linger over some choice middle-American dream landscapes lit by a full moon. If youve not read Chris Van Allsburgs book of the same name, Polar Express is the story of a boys midnight train ride to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. In the movie version, we find, this cozy universe has been embellished with dancing, tuxedoed hot-chocolate dispensers; a rollercoaster-crazy jaunt through Arctic glaciers; and an elf rock band. (You try adapting a 32-page kids book without garnishing.) Authors Mark Cotta Vaz and Steve Starkey have filled 144 full-color glossy pages with images from this new, expanded adaptation. The result almost works as a lateral-thinking childrens book of its own, albeit much longer and with the story strangely removed. As in Van Allsburgs original, the surreal paintings of a boys journey across moonlit, snow-covered plains and mountains are sure to trigger the readers memories of similar magic moments from late-night drives with mom and dad.
Art is the focus, meaning there are lots of digital paintings in generous two-page spreads ornamented with short explanatory paragraphs that dont delve. So while the reader only gets two sentences from Starkey (who happens to be Zemeckis producing partner) on the design for the Elf Bathroom, its enough to frame the contents of the image, which overflows with eye candy. There for the pleasure of your right hemisphere is what looks like a Santaland kitchenette with translucent green curtains, miles of chrome and tiny little shampoo bottles, all mounted onto a double sink with a staircase leading to the lip the elves, you see, have had to adapt technology built to human scale, and this is their shower.
The color reproduction is excellent, with saturated hues and rich blacks. Big landscapes like a view of Corkscrew Mountain invite you to stand back and gawk; detailed interiors prompt you to get squinty and relish the details. (In the Grand Central Station-like Surveillance Room, where naughty/nice attributes are determined and assigned for all the worlds children thanks to a vast network of hidden cameras, it turns out theres a clock noting the time in Hill Valley, a reference to Zemeckis 1985 blockbuster.)
The book includes material from all stages of production, including pen-and-ink drawings, digital paintings, photos of the performance-capture stage where the actors worked, architectural drawings, even souvenir postcards. For vintage toy fans theres a great spread on the boys bedroom showing some astonishingly photoreal Tinkertoys, books and other set dressing. The text is brief at best, but of course there will be oodles of featurettes dissecting the film from top to bottom when the DVD chugs onto your shelf in 2005. Meanwhile, heres a scenic overlook for the coffeetable.
Also from Mark Cotta Vaz is an art-of book for the new blockbuster from Disney/Pixar, or is it Pixar/Disney, or maybe Costello/Abbott, or perhaps Allen/Burns? I keep thinking Pixar makes Pixarís films, but then that word order thing keeps tripping me up.
Brad Bird got screwed in 1999. He got screwed because he directed one of the best films that came out that year, The Iron Giant, and nobody went to see it, because Warner Bros. didnt pay to promote it, because the animation division was in the toilet, because Quest for Camelot failed the previous year, because and so on, following a line of great showbiz bummers going back to David and Goliath, which didnt turn out the way the promoters expected at all.
Now, with Disneys monster marketing machine beneath him and the talent and clout of the worlds hottest animation studio behind him, I am delighted to report that Brad Bird is guaranteed to kick ass all over the place thanks to his movie, The Incredibles, the latest passion project from Pixar. Meanwhile The Art of The Incredibles illuminates Birds computer-generated behemoth in the way it shows the two-dimensional origins of what was intended, in 1998, to be a traditionally-animated feature.
The Incredibles came to be in a three-dimensional idiom, not intending to simulate documentary reality but straddling a line between photorealism and cartoons. While you can sense from the film itself that these 3D figures are borne of cartoon archetypes, the actual evidence is here in the book: early drawings of Edna Mode, Bob Parr and Syndrome carry the textures and flourishes of the finished characters in the form of only of a few lines or snips of paper cut from magazines.
The book is dominated by collages from character designer Teddy Newton; gouache drawings by Lou Romano, production designer; and pencil and marker drawings by animation supervisor Tony Fucile. Highlights for fans will surely include a 1998 drawing by Lou Romano depicting the whole Parr family. Whats amazing about this unique image, drawn two years before the film went into production, is that four of five family members look virtually the same here as they do in the final film. Six years and a million story changes and yet these character designs havent budged. There is also a complete color script from the film in a giant double foldout at the center of the book.
With nearly all story references carefully eliminated, this becomes a picture book that, at least for those who havent seen the film, can veer in many different directions. Sketches of abandoned characters and scenes share spreads with finely rendered cartoons that you might mistakenly think have been licensed back from the pages of The New Yorker. All told, in a season overflowing with movie tie-in literature, for any serious student of the art form, The Art of The Incredibles is a must-have. (Full disclosure: I do occasional transcription for Buena Vista Pictures Marketing.)
The Art of The Polar Express by Mark Cotta Vaz and Steve Starkey with an introduction by Robert Zemeckis. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004. 144 pages. ISBN: 0-8118-4659-8. $40.00
The Art of The Incredibles by Mark Cotta Vaz with forewords by John Lasseter and Brad Bird. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004. 160 pages. ISBN: 0-8118-4433-1. $40.00.
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. His column, Fresh from the Festivals appears monthly in Animation World Magazine. He is also an inventor, although his idea for a bleaching pen for highlighting on yellow legal pads didnt work out and he has subsequently moved on to temporary iron-on nose tattoos.