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Polar Express Unveiled at Press Event

A group of journalists from around the world were treated Thursday afternoon to the first sneak peek of THE POLAR EXPRESS (opening Nov. 10) in the Steven Ross Theater on the Warner Bros. lot. They screened several work-in-progress clips, including the opening scene, which looked far smoother and more polished than the trailer. They also screened a demo performance capture session with star Tom Hanks, who portrays five characters from the Christmas fantasy about a train bound for the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis were on hand to introduce the clips and answer questions.

Based on the illustrated childrens book by Chris Van Allsburg, Zemeckis explained that he utilized performance capture for the first time in a feature to recreate the oil painting effect of the book. Suggesting that the breakthrough advancement in MoCap technology developed by Sony Pictures Imageworks (christened Imagemotion) lies somewhere between live-action and CG animation yet defies categorization, Zemeckis said, The emotion of the book was in the paintings, [so we decided to] make a movie in oil paintings.

The breakthrough of performance capture is the ability to MoCap from the neck up for the first time in movies, resulting in realtime capture and digital scanning of the entire range of human facial expressions. As a result, all of THE POLAR EXPRESS was shot in continuity in a 3D volume of space for CG rendering along with virtual sets, lighting and camera movement. Performance capture was invented by the medical profession to study the range of human emotion, and then perfected by the golf industry Zemeckis added.

As for Hanks, he said it was totally unlike his experiences at Pixar making the two TOY STORY movies, where they record every line in a studio and create a computerized cartoon to your voice Everything is performed in a studio [where] we acted every scene, every emotional moment and every nuance of the human face is recorded on camera and sent into a computer.

The star not only donned a MoCap body suit, but also wore 152 sensors around his face. He likened the experience to theater in the round. In a digital tour-de-force, Hanks plays the eight-year-old protagonist, the train conductor, his own father, a hobo and Santa Claus. The challenge to act as a child is that curiosity and fear are more important than innocenceto take part in a recess atmosphere.

Even though Zemeckis shied away from the photoreal in THE POLAR EXPRESS (he actually shut detail off to maintain the stylization), he believes that complete photoreal performance capture is about two years away. This poses intriguing possibilities raised by Peter Biskind in his article on motion capture in the latest issue of VANITY FAIR. What if you could get an elderly actor to play his virtual younger self in a CGI feature, say Sean Connery returning to his role as James Bond?

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Rick DeMott
Animation World Network
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