Home' Technology Review : April 2005 Contents 82
The Polar Express was a remarkable
advance in digital animation.
Why didn t audiences respond?
BY WADE ROUSH
O advantages of being a technology journalist
is that it gives you an excuse to buy the coolest new gad-
gets and go to the latest computer-animated movies
without appearing to be an arrested adolescent. It was thus in a
purely professional capacity that I settled into my seat one De-
cember evening in front of the 30-meter-wide Imax screen at San
Francisco s Sony Metreon, a high-tech entertainment complex.
I was there to see The Polar Express, a rendition by director
Robert Zemeckis of the lovely illustrated children s book of the
same name. The movie tells the story of a young boy with doubts
about the existence of Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, a magical
steam-locomotive passenger train arrives on the boy s street and
transports him through snow-covered forests and mountains to
the North Pole, where, of course, there really is a Santa.
The magic of the book is in the ravishing, other wordly pastels
by author-illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. I had heard about the
computer wizardry poured into the lm version---a digitized Tom
Hanks plays six parts, including the boy and the train conductor---
and I wanted to see how faithfully Zemeckis and his army of dig-
ital artists had recreated the look of Van Allsburg s illustrations.
Also, I wanted to experience the lm in 3-D, which is only possi-
ble in Imax theaters with special projection equipment.
I was expecting to get a little bit of diverting holiday enter-
tainment. Instead, I received a pair of revelations. First, today s
3-D projection systems really work. Because the entire virtual
world of The Polar Express was created in 3-D from the begin-
ning, then attened for presentation on regular screens, the
depth of the scenes was far more palpable than what we ve seen
in previous 3-D experiments such as Disney s Captain Eo. Fall-
ing snow seemed to permeate the theater; oncoming locomo-
tives made me want to jump out of my seat, like the people in
Edison s rst audiences.
The realism of the lm s human characters provided my sec-
ond revelation. If I squinted a little, the train conductor was To m
Hanks, down to his playful eyes and wrinkled brow. Rendering
human characters via computer is a treacherous business; anima-
tion houses like Pixar have historically shied away from it, stick-
ing to toys, sh, and the like. But for The Polar Express, Zemeckis
decided to take a technique called motion capture to new ex-
tremes, suiting up Hanks and other actors with re ective mark-
ers and recording their every move and facial tic as they mimed
their way through the action. (Data about the markers positions
provides a moving skeleton on which the character s digital skin,
hair, and clothing can be hung.) I had never seen such realistic
digital animation in an all-animated lm, and I left the theater
inspired by the realization that Hollywood s virtual tool kit was
nally equal to any artist s imagination.
That s why I was puzzled by the chatter I found on the Inter net
about the supposedly "zombielike" mien of the human charac-
ters. The characters eyes, for example, were alleged to lack some
ine able spark of life. And alas, the lm did not turn out to be the
holiday blockbuster Warner Brothers had been hoping for; its
2004 box o ce sales of $161 million were respectable but far be-
hind those of other computer-animated lms, such as Shrek 2
($441 million) and The Incredibles ($258 million).
What went wrong? My guess is that moviegoers, perhaps mis-
led by the lm s prerelease hype or jaded by the breathtakingly
lifelike Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, were expecting
the movie s human characters to look as real as lm actors. But
that s not yet possible. In any case, that kind of verisimilitude
would have marred the lm. To tell an emotionally engaging
story, Zemeckis needed characters just realistic enough to pro-
voke empathy but not so realistic that the audience would lose the
sense of being immersed in another world.
Given the resources now at animators disposal, it would be a
shame if the mixed success of The Polar Express led Hollywood
to blacklist computer-generated humans. How else would we
ever get to see waiters dispensing hot chocolate as they dance on
the ceiling of a dining car, or Tom Hanks standing atop a derailed
train that s raising a giant rooster tail of ice crystals as it careens
across a starlit, frozen lake? ■
The Polar Express
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Warner Brothers Entertainment, 2004
© WARNER BROTHERS ENTERTAINMENT
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