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The Polar Express - I think Christmas is a reward we give ourselves at the end of the year of one damn thing after another

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 their death).

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 Tom.

"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 to wait.

"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 Express."

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 the story.

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 capture."

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.

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