Follow Us on Twitter

Disney's A Christmas Carol - Robert Zemeckis interview

Disney's A Christmas Carol

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ROBERT Zemeckis talks about some of the challenges of turning Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol into a movie using performance capture, and why he loves that particular art form so much…

Q. It is because of the technology now available to you that we’re finally able to see such a vivid version of Dickens’ story?
Robert Zemeckis: I think it is. That was certainly the idea that struck me. I think that one of the things I found very interesting about reading the story, which I read when I was very young and I’ve seen most of the versions that have been made, was that the descriptive imagery that Mr Dickens puts in his writing had never been truly realised in the way I think that he might have imagined it. We’ve really never had the tools to do such a large rendition or landscape of it. Even the characters, I think, are very stylised in an interesting way – they’re a bit surreal in the way they’re described. So now we finally have a tool to bring and illustrated version of it to life.

Q. How did you first approach adapting Dickens’ classic story for the big screen?
Robert Zemeckis: I had only one mindset, which was I wanted to be as faithful to the original book as I possibly could and to the original tone. At first the most daunting thing was adapting the dialogue, but that turned out to be the most fun. Once I got into it, it was really wonderful to be immersed in the way those characters spoke in that period of time. It was also keeping the essence of the dialogue and shortening it. Characters don’t speak in four, five or six sentences anymore, so that was the key. But I just wanted to be as true and faithful to the original as possible.

Q. There are scenes that have been added, including Marley being in the coffin and Scrooge being chased by the horses and hearse?
Robert Zemeckis: In the original story, the whole set-up is narrated. That explains the death of Marley. So, that was a dramatic necessity. There’s also a scene in the book where Scrooge is chased into his bed-chamber by this phantom hearse. We actually shot that scene but when we were assembling the movie… when you put that on the screen visually it was such a big moment. So, when the small things leading up to Marley’s appearance in the chamber happen, cinematically it felt like Scrooge would already have been so completely terrified by that hearse that he never would have been scared at all by the bells ringing. It felt unbalanced when I saw it on film.

But then I used the hearse later just to move Scrooge in a more dynamic way from place to place and basically get him into Old Joe’s Bottle Shop. What I did with the ghost of Christmas future was to keep him as a shadow. He’s actually a shadow cast by Scrooge. That’s the one spirit that doesn’t take Scrooge by the hand and fly him to different areas of his past or his present. So, Scrooge had to get himself to these different places, so I used the device of the phantom hearse to chase him through London.

Q. Do you think children might find this version a little too scary in places? Have you had any reactions so far from children?
Robert Zemeckis: We haven’t had any problems with children who have seen the movie yet. But there’s nothing you can do… I think it would be criminal to pander to that notion… just because you might be afraid that there may be a child somewhere who might be scared. There was a boy in my son’s first grade who was literally afraid of the cinema screen with nothing on it. So, you have to know your child and guide your child. It is a ghost story. But also my feeling is that if a child can understand the story intellectually, they’ll be fine to experience it emotionally.

Also, the images of the ghost aren’t, in my opinion, terribly scary. I think the thing you’re reacting to are these magnificent dramatic tools that we have to tell stories. So, what you’re really responding to is tension and suspense. That’s the way Mr Dickens wrote it. When I read the way he describes Scrooge in his bedchamber and that feeling of dread and of doom in his text, I felt that I had to put it on the screen. But that’s really what it is – dramatic tension rather than images that are really horrific. I think it’s actually good for children to be exposed to those literary devices.

Q. The illustrations in the novel are fairly close to what appears on screen. So, did you go back in order to make them as close to the source illustrations as possible?
Robert Zemeckis: You mean John Leech’s [original] illustrations? Yeah, we started there. I think the one that’s closest is Fezziwig, where we drew his round body and huge backside. We figured that was the place to start. We wanted to be as true to those as we could without copying them exactly.

Q. How was working with Jim Carrey in his many different guises?
Robert Zemeckis: This is the true genius talent of Jim Carrey… there was never a situation where he was immersed in just the one character. He was bouncing between these accents… three or four a day, and every 10 or 20 minutes and he never faltered, ever. It was a really amazing thing to see.

Q. Why were you so excited to get Andrea Bocelli involved in this [he contributes the final song]?
Robert Zemeckis: We were so thrilled when he decided to sing the song for us because we just felt he gave the movie the final piece of gravitas. It was a perfect, perfect blend of emotions that we needed for the end of the film.

Q. How has performance capture evolved in the days since you did Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Robert Zemeckis: I think the thing that I love the most about working in the digital cinema is that you’re only limited in your cinematic technique by your imagination – you’re not restricted by the physical laws of nature. You don’t have to worry about physically moving a 50lb camera through space, or worry about shadows and rigging. Digital cinema, for me, is a giant liberation and that’s why I’m so passionate about it. I also get control of the cinema. I don’t have to beat my cast up trying to bend them into weird shapes so I can get a specific shot.

Q. Did Ray Harryhausen influence your work?
Robert Zemeckis: I was a big fan of his monster movies as a kid. He’s a stop-motion animation genius and a very early special effects pioneer, so he had a lot of influence on me from a kind of “how did they do that?” kind of an aspect. But what we do in our art form is… obviously we don’t move characters one frame at a time and we don’t draw characters one frame at a time. We use actors and we harness their performances, and then use our digital tools to wrap digital skin and digital hair and wardrobe around their emotional performances. The press continually use that voice performance description to describe what we do, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a complete performance from the actors we use.

Read our interview with Colin Firth and Bob Hoskins