Robert Zemeckis Again
Pushes The Technical Envelope
With His ‘Performance Capture’ Christmas Fable
by M.E. Russell
Robert Zemeckis wants to make
one thing absolutely clear: His new film, ‘The Polar
Express,’ is not animated.
It was made using performance
If you just said “Performance capture?” with
a quizzical lilt, you’re not alone. This writer – unarmed
with crucial pieces of PR and mainstream-magazine data that
came out in the weeks following his interview with Zemeckis – managed
to get things off to an awkward start by forcing one of the
most successful directors in Hollywood history to repeatedly
explain what he meant by “performance capture,” and
how, precisely, it wasn’t animation. Thankfully, the
helmer behind “Used Cars,” “Romancing the
Stone,” “Back to the Future,” “Who
Framed Roger Rabbit?” “Forrest Gump,” “Contact” and “Cast
Away” used increasingly smaller words, and the interview
could move forward.
Unfortunately, Zemeckis is probably
going to have to explain the technique – which he used to adapt Chris Van Allsburg’s
children’s book to the big screen – a heck of
a lot more than he’d like in the coming weeks. Part
of this is because, at first glance, “The Polar Express” – the
story of an 8-year-old boy (played by Tom Hanks; we’ll
explain in a sec) whisked to the North Pole on a magical
train – looks computer-animated, albeit with unusual
subtlety and sophistication. But part of the confusion is
also because Zemeckis is once again doing what he does best:
Pioneering new filmmaking technology.
How does performance capture
work? We paraphrase from a Vanity Fair article by Peter Biskind
on the process:
(1) An actor – in this case, Tom Hanks – is
covered in 200 tiny sensors (150 of them on his face), steps
into a black box, called “the volume,” and gives
(2) The movements of the sensors on Hanks
are recorded by infrared cameras mounted on four sides of
(3) This creates a 3-D “capture” of Hanks’ performance – which
can then be used to create corresponding movements in a computer
model of Hanks’ body and face.
(4) The actor’s CGI body is then uploaded onto a computer
containing a virtual “set” – a magical
train compartment, for example – and Zemeckis can move
the virtual Hanks and the virtual “camera” around
until he harpoons cinema’s Great White Whale: the perfect
“You’re not under the lash of technique and
weather and logistics and all those sort of acts of God that
always get in the way of your vision,” Zemeckis explains.
He says he’s enjoying the process so much that he’s
not sure he wants to return to what he now calls “2-D” filmmaking.
Up to a point, performance capture – developed
by Sony Imageworks under Zemeckis’ direction – is
very similar to the “motion capture” technique
used to animate Gollum’s body in the “Lord of
the Rings” movies.
owever, in “Lord of the Rings,” only
the general body movements of an actor (torso, arms, legs,
skull) were captured, with a team of animators crafting the
fine muscle movements of Gollum’s face and fingers.
In performance capture, the cluster of sensors allows the
actor’s facial movements to be recorded, as well – meaning
the actor also has full control of his CGI stand-in’s
The process also allows the actor’s
recorded performance to be mapped onto multiple digital bodies.
Tom Hanks plays four wildly different characters in “Polar
Express” – including an 8-year-old boy, a middle-aged
train conductor and Santa Claus. (In his article, Biskind
suggests that the technique could allow older actors to give
performances that would then be mapped onto younger, digital
versions of their own bodies – extending the photogenic
shelf life of, say, Robert Redford; but even Zemeckis admits
that application is a few years away, and speculative at
In Focus talked with the infinitely patient
director about performance capture, his career as a technical
the art of remembering to tell a good story. An edited transcript
follows. “The Polar Express” opens Nov. 10.
IN FOCUS: Is
there any live-action footage in “Polar
Express” – a frame story that involves no animation
ROBERT ZEMECKIS: Live-action footage? No,
the question backwards. There’s no animation in “Polar
Express.” Everything’s a live performance. We
used performance capture. The performances are all live,
captured virtually. The actors sit in the volume and give
the performance like it’s black-box theatre – and
the emotional subtlety and warmth of their performance is
captured perfectly – and then it’s rendered exactly
how they did it. So the hand of the animator is not in there.
What sort of freedom did motion-capture afford you?
You mean performance capture – motion capture is what
they do in video games. You just don’t have to deal
with all the technical and logistical restraints of doing
2-D movies. It’s very liberating.
Sorry I keep
using the wrong terminology. It’s tricky,
because you are shifting the paradigm a little bit. Have
you had trouble explaining this concept to people?
Oh, yeah. Because no one’s ever done it before, so
no one understands how it can be done. It takes a while.
enjoying an almost granular level of control.
The good news is, you have absolute control. The bad news
is, you have absolute control. You have to think of everything.
That’s why I say it’s an extension of writing – because
accidents never happen when you’re writing, so you
really have to be aware.
The wonderful thing about working with actors,
of course, is that they give you those wonderful moments
you never could
imagine – and that’s what’s great about
[performance capture]. But you’re not going to luck
into a beautiful sunset – you’re going to paint
one in. You’ve got to remember to do it. You’ve
got to remember to put the moon in – things like that,
that you take for granted when you’re out shooting
in the real world. You have to be aware of them and make
room for them.
So performance capture allows you to have a lot of those
improvisational elements along with that level of control.
Yeah – because you have nothing else to do. You just
get to work with the actors.
Sam Raimi has
said that losing limitations can actually be a dangerous
thing – in the sense
that you have to stay creative without constraints.
You have to have your own self-imposed discipline – that’s
for sure. But it’s an extension of writing: You literally
can write with images, and the only restriction is your imagination.
How did you decide this was the right technique to play
with right now?
We were trying to answer two questions: One, how would we
ever be able to do this story to begin with?
ecause it would
be impossible to do live-action. Literally impossible. And
it shouldn’t be a cartoon, because the one thing that
animation doesn’t do really well is human characters,
unless they’re very exaggerated. And two, we wanted
the movie to look just like the Chris Van Allsburg paintings.
So this was the right technique to use.
Has Van Allsburg been involved much in the production?
Not too much. A little bit in the beginning. This isn’t
his medium. But he’s been very supportive. I think
he went down and did some seminars with the artists over
at Sony Imageworks – they wanted to get a feel for
his technique so they could render the movie in his hand,
so to speak.
You keep talking
about how this technique allows you to render the impossible.
What’s a single shot that you’re
particularly proud of in that regard?
Eight-year-old boy on top of a train in the middle of a snowstorm
at night. ... [And the boy] is played by Tom Hanks. All the
kids are played by adult actors in the tradition of children’s
Are we already
at a point where there’s no significant
difference between digital animation and digital special
effects? Shrek looked substantially the same as the CGI Hulk – a
character that interacted seamlessly with real environments.
Yeah. There are some virtual shots in “Spider-Man” that
are completely photo-real. We’re right on the cusp
of digital characters being able to be rendered perfectly
You like to push
the digital envelope, and you’ve
also got the Zemeckis Center [at the USC School of Cinema-Television],
which teaches digital filmmaking. How long until you shoot
a live-action feature on a digital camera – like Michael
Mann just did with “Collateral”?
Probably my next film – if I ever do a 2-dimensional
film again, it definitely would be done in 24p.
You almost sound
like you’re considering
not doing a 2-dimensional film again.
You know, it’s just so liberating to not have to deal
with the elements. But who knows? I never know what I’m
gonna do next, anyway. I definitely don’t want to work
with film any more, because it’s just too – it’s
a hundred years old, you know?
Are you ever
going to try something as purely comedic as “Used
Oh, sure. I have no idea. I never think ahead like that.
I always wait until I’m finished until I select something
else, because I’m always afraid that I’m going
to react to what I’m doing. I always try to take time
off in-between, and don’t try to make decisions while
I’m still working. It’s always good to take a
An online writer
[Drew “Moriarty” McWeeny at
AintItCool.com] said two years ago that “Polar Express” proves
that Robert Zemeckis isn’t happy unless he’s
trying something impossible. Would you consider that a fair
A fair assessment? No. I don’t think that’s fair.
I don’t ever approach movies like that, at all – I
just do whatever’s needed to serve the story.
Though you have had an unusual run of pushing the technical
envelope in your films.
Well, I just feel like filmmakers need to use the tools that
are available. Why use an old tool when there’s a new
how to preserve the basic humanity of a big-budget, effects-driven
film – even though you’re
working with a lot of technical tools. Does the Zemeckis
its students to keep the human elements in their stories?
Yeah. It’s actually the main precept of the whole USC
film school – the story and the characters are paramount
to anything – and that’s what everyone tries
to teach constantly in the whole department. Whether they
succeed or not is different. But I think that one of the
problems with filmmaking as an art form is that it’s
so intoxicating that it’s easy to put the cart before
the horse and think technique is going to be more important
than content. And of course that’s always a recipe
When you’re on the set of something like “Roger
Rabbit,” which is hugely technically challenging, how
do you keep reminding yourself to nurture the actors?
It just comes with experience. You do have to keep the actors
from feeling like they’re props in some of these situations.
It comes pretty naturally after you’ve done a couple
talked about how tough it was to make that leap into film
school from your Chicago
roots. Is anyone
who wants to be a film director going to have to leave their
community to pursue their art?
I still think you need to be at the center of where your
Has digital technology, which allows you to edit from your
PC, made that leap any easier?
I don’t know if it’s going to be this world where
everybody’s making a movie on their PC – which
might or might not happen in the next couple of years – but
right now, if you want to make feature films, you have to
get out here to California.
enjoyed a long collaboration with film composer Alan Silvestri.
It’s the greatest thing – you have a shorthand,
and it’s a completely relaxed and comfortable relationship.
Any time that I can keep the main creative elements of my
crew intact, I always want to do it – it just makes
everything easier. Al and I have gone the longest. This is
our 11th movie.
amazing. And rare.
Well, it’s like Spielberg and Johnny Williams. It is
rare, but you need to have these creative soulmates when
you’re making these movies.
How is music
being used in “Polar Express”?
Well, Al and I always use music the same way – and
that’s always to play a character’s emotion and
not play the landscape.
are infinitely less dumb than other people’s
blockbusters. How do you preserve the integrity of a project
with that much money behind it?
Well, I don’t think they’re exclusive. You can
make a bad movie for very little money. I don’t think
money has anything to do with whether a movie is good or
not – movies either work or they don’t, you know?
You spend whatever it takes to do the movie in the way that
it’s supposed to be done, and hopefully you don’t
spend more than you have to.
How important was it to become a producer of your projects
as early as possible?
I generally produce them all, in the last couple of years – but
I’m more of an above-the-line producer. I’m not
a line producer.
I love “Back to the Future 2” – it
comments in a postmodern, almost footnote-like style on
film. Did you realize at the time what a risk you were taking
in a doing a sequel that was so self-referential?
I don’t expect I’ll ever do any more sequels.
But the only reason to do a sequel is because you can do
anything you want – because everyone will throw money
at it, because they know it’s gonna open. So what you’ve
got to do is take advantage of the situation that you’re
in – and take risks. Because audiences have a love-hate
relationship with sequels anyway, so you never really please
anyone. You’ve got to do whatever’s in your heart.
One of the side
effects of pushing the technical envelope is that you’re constantly beta-testing new effects
technology – and you can be surpassed by people who
follow your lead. I would imagine there’s a temptation
to revisit old work in the “Special Edition” sense.
No, I’ll never do that. I’ll never, ever do that.
No. When the movie’s done, it’s done. Why would
I want to go back and do something I did already? You won’t
see me doing that.
What filmmakers are exciting you right now?
I’m excited by this new enthusiasm that people have
for documentaries. I like all these new young documentary
guys out there.
John Landis just made a documentary about used-car salesmen.
Would you ever consider making a documentary?
If there’s a fascinating subject that falls my way?