When Robert Zemeckis is involved, the cutting edge positively bleeds.
I’m not surprised about the polarized reactions to the motion-capture films that Zemeckis is making these days. He’s made a fairly radical break from the filmmaking he built his name on, although I’d argue he’s always been a guy who pushed technical challenges further than almost anyone else in the business. I am surprised, though, when I hear people talk about these films like what we’re seeing now is the final step in the evolution of this new type of filmmaking instead of acknowledging that we’re looking at the very beginning of something. These are the silent movie days, comparatively speaking, and Zemeckis is making movies that he knows will be outdated within a decade or so. But if he doesn’t make them, no one will, and the tech won’t be ready for the storytellers who really nail it, who turn these tools to the right purpose. And trust me… that day is coming. I don’t know who’s going to make the first “OHMYGOD!” performance capture movie, but there will be one, and when it happens, there will be a gold rush of artists trying to get attached to a similar project.
And it’ll all be thanks to the truly experimental spirit of Zemeckis.
I do agree with Devin Faraci, who was also at the event held at Union Station in Los Angeles early Thursday morning. He said, “You know, maybe this time, I’ll finally understand ‘A Christmas Carol,’ since the first 9000 film versions didn’t really fully explain it to me.” This is one of the most frequently-retold stories in the English language, and not just in terms of direct retellings, either. Every sitcom ever seems to have had its “Christmas Carol” episode, and there have been cartoon versions and knock-offs and semi-remakes and updates. How many stories have starred Mr. Magoo, Bill Murray, and Patrick Stewart at different times?
[more after the jump]
Until today, we hadn’t really seen any footage or imagery from this latest film version, except for a few still images of Jim Carrey’s Scrooge. I’ve been hearing from people who worked on the film, though, like a long conversation I had with Gary Oldman one night where he talked about the process of shooting performance capture and how much he enjoyed it. Last week, when I was in New Orleans, I talked with John Malkovich about his time working on “Beowulf,” and he lit up when discussing it. Actors seem really energized by the opportunities afforded by performance capture… it seems like a very pure process for them.
When I arrived at Union Station (at a positively indecent 9:00 AM, meaning I had to leave Northridge just before 7:30 in the morning), it was already warming up. When it’s that hot that early, it just seems strange to step onboard a giant Amtrak train and immediately be confronted with the iconography of Christmas. I’m the sort of person who enjoys Christmas when it comes, but I believe the season should last from the day after Thanksgiving till the day before New Year’s. Anything else just feels like greedy-ass overkill, and so I try to tune it out the rest of the year.
Inside the first car, there was a video reel showing on a flatscreen, and it’s the first great look I’ve had at art from the film. A lot of it, actually. I’ve heard descriptions of the three ghosts before, but now I’ve actually seen them. The Ghost of Christmas Past looks like a candle, with a flaming head. The Ghost of Christmas Present is a robust giant who honestly reminds me of Jeff Bridges as The Dude in his bathrobe. And finally, there’s the classically rendered Ghost of Christmas Future, a familiar Death figure. All three are played by Jim Carrey in the film, and when you see them in motion, you can see him in the characters. This time, more than in “Polar Express” or “Beowulf,” Zemeckis is blending the real faces of the actors into the character designs, and it’s very strange. Nothing’s weirder than Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, both played by Gary Oldman. You can see his features on both of the characters, and there’s something almost indescribably strange about an eight-year-old who looks like Gary Oldman.
The second car showed a film segment that dealt mostly with the building of a digital London for the movie, and I love the look of this work. There’s something really appealing about the idea of a digital backlot, where you can create a full-sized recreation of London, then exaggerate it the way Dickens did in his writing, so you get something that has a real sense of geography, but that’s larger than life in many ways. The third car continued the concept art, but as a gallery of frames, each one featuring a moving, changing set of images with a name attached. “Scrooge’s Magic Sitting Room.” “Graveyard.” “Rag and Bottle Shop.” “Rag and Bottle Train Chase.” “Back of Bakery.” And, in an odd bit of synchronicity for Zemeckis fans, “Clocktower.” Wink. Wink.
The fourth car featured maquettes of some of the characters, as well as models that were built as reference for the digital set builders. At one end of the car, we saw maquettes of Scrooge and Cratchit, full-head busts. Cratchit is a googly little egg of a man, almost like a Hobbit version of Oldman, all shy smiles and beaten-dog eyes. The other end of the car had a display case filled with full-body maquettes of some of the characters, including Marley with chains and the Ghost of Christmas Present. There was a film playing onscreen in that car, featuring footage of the actors working on the film, and it looks like a great process for performers, nothing but play.
The next car was a mock-up of “The Volume,” which is what they call the workspace in this sort of performance capture. And the film they showed in this car does a great job of explaining what the process is like, even more in-depth than I’ve seen before. Four HD cameras shooting the actors faces at all times, performance capture rigs pulling raw data from every move they make… and absolute freedom within that space for the actors. It’s liberating, but it’s also a re-education for anyone used to conventional live-action work.
The next car was my favorite, 56 different screens set into the walls showing every step of production on one sequence, from start to finish. During the visit by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge tries to extinguish the candle-headed apparition, jumping on top of it. The Ghost explodes, taking Scrooge on a rocket-ride into the sky above London. This is the sort of scene that will no doubt give purists fits, but of course you’re going to have big-movie touches like this, modern flourishes to crank up the action in a way that feels designed to keep younger viewers tuned in amidst the big emotional material.
Car number seven allows people a chance to take a touch-screen tour of the digital model of London that was built for the film. It’s fun, although they don’t really allow you to explore anything you want. It’s more a case of looking at a few particular items, with pre-animated transitions taking you from one place to another. Still, it’s a fun way of unlocking a few more glimpses into the design of the film.
Car number eight is the one that most kids are going to love, a chance to morph your face into one of the characters from the movie. You stand in a small kiosk and line up your eyes in front of a camera. It takes a still image of you, and then you can choose one of the four characters they have… Scrooge, Marley’s Ghost, Tiny Tim, or whoever it is that Robin Wright Penn is playing… and then your image is blended with it for a preview. You have to actually wait for the final rendering, which is delivered to you via e-mail by WalMart’s online photo center. I suspect that step is also designed to help Disney send you promotional materials on “A Christmas Carol” in the future.
Finally, the last car sums up everything else you see onboard the train with a few finally renders from the film, finished frames that show you how all the work comes together in the end. As a result, you walk out of the train and into the waiting 3D theater with a full appreciation of what’s gone into creating the footage that is ready to be screened.
And, yes, the 3D theater is part of the tour. It’s a stand-alone structure that they set up next to the train, and once you’re inside, you’re asked to put on your 3D glasses. They start by showing behind-the-scenes footage, which is very strange to see in 3D. Once more, you’re shown material about the process, the actors, and the style of the film. And then two full scenes follow.
The first scene involves Fred (Colin Firth), Scrooge’s nephew, coming to see his uncle in his office. They debate over the meaning of Christmas, while Bob Cratchit listens in from the adjoining office. He can’t help but get caught up in what’s going on, and even laughs when Fred makes a good point. But one threat from Scrooge sends him scurrying for cover.
The second scene is the full visit by Marley’s ghost, and this is where my one question about the family-friendly nature of the film was raised, because this scene plays as a straight-up horror film. There’s even a gag involving the dislocation of Marley’s jaw that feels like it’s straight out of “The Frighteners.”
Overall, my impression of the footage is that they’re making progress from film to film, the humans becoming more realistic and the performance work becoming more subtle each time. The biggest criticism on the other films Zemeckis has made so far has been the weird dead doll eyes, and he’s definitely made major steps forward with that particular detail this time out.
The press conference afterwards was basically a chance for Zemeckis and Carrey to smile and pose for photos, with a few questions and answers for the press. I asked Zemeckis about working with actors in The Volume, and he told me that he loves being able to focus on nothing but performance during that step, leaving all the camera angles and film language for later. Dick Cook, president of Disney, was also there to present a $100,000 check to the Boys/Girls Clubs of America, and to kick off the train tour with a bottle that Carrey smashed against the train.
By the time things wrapped up, I could feel the sunburn setting in on the back of my neck, a strange feeling after all the talk of Christmas. I’m curious to see more from the film, and what we saw is really not enough to judge as a film. But in terms of technique, it’s obvious that Zemeckis continues to drag the entire industry forward, step by step, following his own personal passions. If he just happens to change the way people tell stories in the process, I get the feeling that’s fine with him.
You can check out images from the tour train cars here. And for more information on the tour, including when it might be coming to your city, check the official site.
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