Movie Sets--Who needs 'em?

Gregory Alan Bolcer
Mon, 03 Mar 2003 18:09:30 -0800

Based on the same author as the children's book
Jumanji, Zemeckis promises a real movie
with fake movie sets.  A little bit of a turnaround
from last year where they were promising real
sets with fake actors.


Rewriting the Script
Motion-capture technology will allow Hollywood to change the definition
of live action -- and a whole lot more.

Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles  If there were ever a director who enjoyed pushing the
boundaries of technology in filmmaking, it's Robert Zemeckis.

For his 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he blurred the line between
animation and live action. In the 1994 blockbuster Forrest Gump, he
blurred the line even more as images of star Tom Hanks' character were
inserted seamlessly into old newsreel footage. That allowed Forrest Gump
to be seen conversing with John Lennon and shaking John F. Kennedy's hand.

Now, Zemeckis is threatening to go further still, changing the very core
of the moviemaking process in a little-known project called The Polar

The plan this time is to create a live-action movie without filming any
true "live" action.

All of the scenes in The Polar Express will be shot with digital cameras
in front of a blank screen, with sets to be filled in later by
computers. The actors will be covered in motion-capture sensors so that
each move of an arm, each flicker of an eyelid and each wrinkle of a lip
will be stored on a computer and used as guide for the digital animators
who will create the actual movie footage.

Expected to hit theaters in 2004 or 2005 with Hanks again in a starring
role, The Polar Express is creating a buzz among technophiles, who are
fascinated by Zemeckis' grand vision. It's also raising eyebrows among
the entertainment industry's labor unions, which are concerned that an
all-digital production may cut their members out of the process.

Based on the acclaimed children's book by Jumanji author Chris Van
Allsburg, The Polar Express is about a boy who refuses to give up his
belief in Santa Claus despite incessant teasing from his friends. On
Christmas Eve, a steam train shows up and whisks the boy and his
disbelieving pals off to the North Pole. Hanks plays the train conductor.

Unlike digitally animated movies such as Final Fantasy and Shrek, which
relied heavily on motion-capture technology to create fictitious
characters, the team behind Polar Express is striving to create images
that actually look like the well-known actors who will "star" in the film.

The work is complicated. Take, for example, the creation of the
children's characters.

Some of those roles will be filled by actual child actors. But others
will be completely virtual, including one who represents Hanks'
conductor character as a boy. The crew has spent nearly a year
experimenting on ways to map Hanks' current facial and muscle structure.
They plan to mix that data with photographs of the actor in his youth
and backward engineer a virtual child that will resemble the adult Hanks.

"This is an ambitious, exciting project for us," said Martin Shafer,
chairman and chief executive of Castle Rock Entertainment, the studio
behind the movie. "We've seen the early tests, and it's like nothing
I've ever seen."

In many ways, The Polar Express represents the future of Hollywood,
where emerging digital technology is redefining everything from the
equipment used on a set to the contracts workers sign to the definition
of the jobs they take.

The team behind the movie understands these shifting boundaries all too
well. Though the project still is in pre-production, it already has
attracted the attention of labor union officials, who worry that their
members will be tapped to handle duties outside their contract's strict
job definitions  or be excluded from the movie altogether.

The Directors Guild of America, for example, fears that the all-digital
shoot won't hire the number of crew members that are typically
contractually required for a big-budget, live-action feature film.

"If I'm Bob Zemeckis, I don't really need assistant directors on this
because there's not much for them to do," said Bryan Unger, Western
executive director of the DGA, who added that he has approached the
producers of The Polar Express to air his concerns. "If this movie is
all really being done in a computer, how much of a crew do I need to hire?"

Executives of Imagemovers, Zemeckis' production company, declined to
discuss the movie.

Another issue being watched closely in Hollywood is the movie's price
tag. Studio executives say the budget is set around $150 million.

But some project insiders and technology experts insist that this is a
low-ball figure, and that the sums involved could easily grow to rival
the likes of Titantic, Pearl Harbor and Waterworld, turning The Polar
Express into one of the most expensive movies ever made. One of the
reasons for that is, with shooting scheduled to begin in less than three
months, some of the high-tech tools needed to make the film are still
being developed.

Sony Pictures Imageworks, the visual effects giant in Culver City that
has been tapped to handle the movie, also has a lot riding on the
success of The Polar Express. More than a quarter of the revenue the
company will report next year is expected to come from the movie.
Company executives also declined to comment on the project.

If his previous efforts are any indication, Zemeckis loves a gamble 
and The Polar Express certainly is a big one.

Studio insiders say he is plunging into the production unsure of whether
crucial effects  upon which the success of the movie hinges  actually
can be executed. "The whole film rests on whether this illusion works or
not," Zemeckis told The Times in 1994, referring to Forrest Gump. "All
you can hope for is for technology to save us."