A Christmas Carol: The Performance Capture Experience
At a recent press conference, director Robert Zemeckis, producer Steve Starkey and their A Christmas Carol stars Jim Carrey, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins and Colin Firth talked about the process and challenges of making a performance capture film. As Zemeckis mentioned, the technology has moved from medical uses to helping to evaluate one's golf swing to moviemaking.
Zemeckis said that since his love affair with performance capture began on The Polar Express he's been searching for tales that could be told in new ways with this new art form.
Following Beowulf, Zemeckis said, "I just got hit with the idea that it could be A Christmas Carol, so I went back and read the book to refresh my memory on how I might have seen it and I realized this really hadn't been realized in the way that was actually imagined by Dickens as he wrote it. This could be the perfect way we could take a classic story that everyone is familiar with and re-envision it in a new and exciting way."
"Form always follows story. So when the idea of A Christmas Carol popped in my head, there was a chance to get an actor like Jim to morph himself into all these ghosts and characters and not do it in a traditional way with a 2D camera where all these other wonderful actors would play these ghosts and things like that."
When preparing his actors for the performance-capture films, he begins with an intense table read, where initially he acts out all the roles. "When we go into the volume, as well call it, which is this block of invisible inferred light that we do the movie in, [the actors] turn it on," said Zemeckis. "And so when we're working through the scene, we're recording everything, because there's no film; it’s just harddrives running. So you're doing a performance and you're doing a scene and we do the scenes from beginning to end like you'd do a scene in theater. We work the scene out, the actors work the scene out, and what's great is we record it and when we're really going to do it, if someone says, 'Gee Bob, I'd like to walk in from the other side of the room, because I think it would feel better,' we'd say just try it. So it's like we're doing these elaborate theatrical tech rehearsals. The whole thing is like a tech rehearsal, and he hone the scene down and then all of a sudden we look at each other and say, 'Is everybody happy? Does everybody feel good about that?' And when everyone does we say okay and we move on. We break for lunch."
When performance capture first broke onto the scene, there were murmurs that actors feared for their jobs. But Starkey contradicted that notion when he said, "When you talk to actors they have just as much interest in this new art form as we do. It's freeform and it's more like acting in theater. You're not encumbered by the mechanics of filmmaking but you still get to act and play these characters that otherwise you might not be appropriate for... because of your likeness you might not be cast in that role, but in this art form you can do the performance and they can create that likeness in the computer. So you get to play someone young or someone who is taller than you are or whatever it is."