Feature by: Jack Foley
CUTTING-edge technology merges with traditional Christmas spirit
in The Polar Express, an animated extravaganza that could well
mark a watershed in film technology.
The film is based on the classic children's tale by Chris Van
Allsburg and is directed by one of the kings of the feel-good
movie genre, Robert Zemeckis.
It also features Tom Hanks in not one, but five roles, including
that of the eight-year-old boy at the centre of the story - a
possibility made real by new technology known as performance capture.
Simply put, performance capture means that an actor such as Hanks
could appear as anyone or anything simply by dressing in a special
skin-tight bodysuit, covered in hundreds of infra-red sensors,
which relay the smallest nuance of movement back to a computer,
which, in turn, translates it into human motion.
On-screen, it marks the next step in animation, yet it could
also mean, in theory, that past stars, such as Steve McQueen or
Marilyn Monroe, could be revived to take on new roles - or present
stars, such as Hanks, could remain youthful forever (even after
But Hanks was keen to play down the negative implications of
the process when speaking at the London press conference for The
Polar Express at The Dorchester Hotel recently.
"Peter Jackson is remaking King Kong right now with the
same actor who played Gollum, whose name is Andy Serkis and I
believe Andy Serkis is playing King Kong," he explained.
"There’s an example of what you can do with this and
again the possibilities are endless, but it’s always going
to be defined by the story you need to tell.
"No optical way of making a movie or digitally rendering
it is going to supersede the importance of what the story is.
It’s just going to be what is that story and is it gonna
be best rendered in this fashion as opposed to as a standard movie?"
He continued: "The fact that I played an eight-year-old
kid in this film is the best example of the freedom and the possibility
that the technology will allow.
"You will no longer be limited by your size, shape, skin
colour, gender, none of that is going to matter. If you have the
interpretation that the director wants for the role, then you
can play any role; I could play Florence Nightingale, I could
play Abraham Lincoln, Meryl Streep could do the same thing!
"And that can be very, very exciting for a number of actors
who would never get the opportunity to play certain roles; this
technology will allow that."
Adds Zemeckis: "Everyone thinks about this from a two dimensional
point of view - we’re thinking about what Tom looks like.
"Tom looks like he looks, but as an actor, that’s
where the acting part comes from, it comes from every part working
so you could have someone mimicking Tom, but it won’t be
"The way you’ve got to look at this is the other way
around; it’s the actor being liberated to do characters
that don’t necessarily exist, but not copying what another
person looks like; so you’ll have an image of Tom, but if
some actor is there remanipulating his cyber skin, if you will,
it’ll never be Tom.
"It’ll be like a tribute artist trying to be like
The Beatles; you know, they’re never really The Beatles
and if those guys put on the motion capture and still went out
and tried to perform as The Beatles and the computer wrapped the
actual scan around them, it would still never be The Beatles and
you would see right through it - even though they would look exactly
the same, they wouldn’t act or sound the same."
With this in mind, the technology also has another benefit, in
terms of the actor giving a performance, explains Hanks.
"It was very liberating, in some regards,
such as the pace with which we were able to work, the speed with
which we could imagine these things, and the freedom of not having
"I think that’s why actors
go nuts after a while because you have to go in and pretend to
cry over something and then sit in their trailers for two and
half hours before they’re called in to go and cry over the
same thing all over again.
"Yet, the speed with which we could do this was really like
a magnificent return to a type of acting that you do onstage more
so than in films."
Hanks did, however, confess to missing costumes, as they can
be an invaluable tool in helping him to arrive in the mind-set
and feel of a character.
"That was the hardest thing to get used to. I mean, without
those pockets as the Conductor, and without the heavy overcoat
of the Hobo, and without the bathrobe and the slippers of the
Little Boy, you had to remember an awful lot of stuff that was
not there - but that’s our job.
"I can tell you, on regular movies I’ve been supposedly
standing some place looking off in the distance and what I was
really looking at was the crew parking lot just where all the
cameras and trucks are.
"That’s what we do for a living, we just had to do
it for a bit longer and to a bit of a farther degree on The Polar
The film is clearly a labour of love for Hanks and co, and everyone
was determined not to let the effects overtake the essence of
But having acquired the rights to Chris Van Allsburg's popular
children's book, one of the conditions involved was that the story
wasn't filmed using traditional animated techniques.
Explains Zemeckis: "And I didn’t think it should
be done as a live action movie because all the charm and magic
of the beautiful illustrations that were in the book, which I
think are so much the emotion of the story, would be gone.
"So we had to decide how to ‘do’ the movie and
I basically presented the dilemma to Ken Rawlstein, at Sony Imageworks,
and said how do we get these Van Allsburg paintings to move, and
how do we make them moving paintings? That’s where he came
up with this process of doing it ‘virtual’ using motion
The book in question tells the story of an eight-year-old boy
whose failing belief in Santa Claus is put to the test when he
is invited to ride the magical Polar Express to the North Pole
on Christmas Eve.
During the course of the journey, the boy rediscovers his faith
in both Father Christmas and the spirit of Christmas as a whole.
And it is this part of the message that first drew Hanks to the
book, which he would read repeatedly to his own children.
"Christmas is what you, yourself, put into it. The Polar
Express is a very elegant book, and I think grown-ups get more
out of reading this to their kids than kids, because it’s
told from the perspective of a grown-up; the last line of the
book is 'and the bell still rings for me'.
"This is powerful stuff and it’s an important aspect
of our lives that even though there might be no empirical evidence
for such a thing as the Christmas Spirit, if you want it to be
so, then it is there, and that’s why I think we made the
movie in the first place, in order to communicate that rather
important but rather personal idea."
So is Hanks a firm believer in the Christmas spirit?
"I think Christmas is a reward we give ourselves at the
end of the year of one damn thing after another - it’s a
time of true solace and emotional replenishment," he replied.
"I think that we get something from the season and the connection
that we have to our family and to the consciousness say, for example,
that really is a sincere wish for peace on earth and I think everybody
does truly feel that.
"Maybe it comes out on Christmas morning, or Boxing Day,
or at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, but I think it is a moment
where, as human beings, we are all momentarily bound together
in something that is larger than ourselves.
"You don’t necessarily have to be spiritual to feel
it and I think without it, we would all have long since exhausted
ourselves off the planet long long ago."
The Polar Express opens in cinemas on December 3.