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It’s based on the much-loved children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. Now, the winning team of director Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks are bringing The Polar Express to the big screen. And, says Max Levant, they’ve done everything but reinvent the wheel to do so.

In addition to being one of Hollywood’s hardest-working stars, Tom Hanks has found time to take a very active part in bringing up his four children - which is how he comes to be so familiar with Chris Van Allsburg’s book, The Polar Express.

“For years,” recalls Hanks, “between November and December, depending on the children’s ages, I think I read it four times a week, twice a night, over and over again. So I’ve been aware of the story since my 14-year-old was three.” 

This is how it starts. It’s a snowy Christmas Eve and a young boy lies awake in his room, too excited to sleep. He’s just at the age when he’s beginning to wonder whether all the things that grown-ups have told him are really true, and he’s listening for a sound he’s afraid he may never hear – the bells of Santa’s sleigh. 

At five minutes to midnight, he hears something different: a strange roar outside. Wiping the condensation from his window, he sees a gleaming black train drawing up right in front of his house, the steam from its locomotive drifting through the softly falling snowflakes. 

Clad only in his pyjamas and slippers, the boy rushes outside and is met by the train’s conductor who seems to be waiting for him. “Well, are you coming?” he asks.
“Where?” says the boy.
“Why, to the North Pole, of course,” replies the conductor. “This is the Polar Express!”

Hanks played a central role in bringing the film - which is Warner Bros. Pictures’ big family release for the 2004 holiday season - to fruition, first getting Van Allsburg to agree to a big-screen version of the book, then bringing it to director Robert Zemeckis, a long-time friend with whom he has worked on two of his most successful movies, Forrest Gump and Cast Away.

"a universal story about belief in things you don’t completely see or understand"

“It’s a story everyone can relate to,” says Zemeckis, who wrote the screenplay for the film along with William Broyles, Jr (Cast Away). “So many of us, as children or adults, have questioned our belief in something or gone through the process of having our faith tested and restored. Kids can take the story literally as a journey to find Santa Claus, while older readers understand it as a metaphor for much bigger ideas. It deals with the symbols of Christmas but, at its core, is a universal story about belief in things you don’t completely see or understand. 

“Hopefully,” he continues, “as you grow older, you don’t become so cynical that you stop believing. The idea of Christmas is warmth and unselfishness. Santa Claus is a symbol of that, but you don’t have to believe in him to have that feeling.”

Van Allsburg himself agrees. Children are lucky to be able to believe in Santa Claus, he maintains, but adults who can somehow preserve their sense of wonder are, perhaps, luckier still. “We should envy them,” says the author, whose book Jumanji has also been adapted into a successful movie. “The inclination to believe in the fantastic may strike some as a failure in logic, even gullibility, but it’s really a gift. A world that might have Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster is clearly superior to one that definitely does not!”

But, in bringing The Polar Express to the screen, Hanks, Zemeckis and Van Allsburg - along with the rest of the production team (the actor’s producing partner, Gary Goetzman; William Teitler, who works with Van Allsburg at Golden Mean Productions; and Zemeckis’ partners, Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke) - faced a problem. The story, with its epic journey through mountains and forests to Santa’s village at the North Pole, would have been impossibly expensive to film live. But traditional animation would take the concept too far into the world of fantasy, removing the humanity which all of them recognised as the key to the book’s success.

“The problem with traditional animation for a project like this,” says Zemeckis, “is that it falls short in depicting authentic human characters. With exaggerated images, fantasies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, or cartoons, it’s great. But I was looking for something more realistically alive.”

Nor, really, did The Polar Express suit the combination of real live actors with cartoon characters, which Zemeckis had used in an earlier hit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. After all, the film’s central characters - the Conductor, Santa, the other boys and girls the train picks up on its journey to the North Pole - are every bit as ‘real’ to the boy as he is to himself.

"motion capture technology"

The answer to the problem turned out to be something which epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings has made familiar to moviegoers, in which it was used to create the character of Gollum: motion capture, or ‘mo-cap’. The Polar Express, however, is the first film to use a highly advanced version of motion capture technology called ‘performance capture’. This was developed by Sony Pictures Imageworks, with senior visual-effects supervisors Ken Ralston, a five-time Oscar winner, and Jerome Chen, a nominee in 2000. Ralston dates his creative collaboration with Zemeckis back to the 1985 sci-fi comedy adventure Back to the Future, a film remembered as much for its heart and deft storytelling as for its dazzling special effects.

The actors worked in close-fitting outfits rather like wet suits, with up to 60 ‘jewels’, or pieces of light-reflecting material, sewn onto them. A further 150 jewels were fixed to the actors’ faces and scalps, so that every movement and expression could be tracked, captured, scanned into the computer and used as a model for the characters’ actions. This added a dimension that would have been totally lacking if the movie had been animated, even using the sophisticated 3-D computer-generated techniques of today. Hanks, who provided the voice of Woody in Toy Story, particularly appreciated the extra possibilities the method provided.

“As actors,” he says, “we were able to imprint our performances onto the story as opposed to going into the recording studio and providing voices. It was fun, but it was also incredibly challenging, albeit in a good way. Because of the sensors, everything you do registers, so you cannot afford to make a mistake. On the other hand, having the momentum of shooting for 10 or 15 minutes at a time and getting it all like one continuous moment, one fell swoop, is as free as I’ve felt as an actor. It was like being in theatre again. If we could imagine it, we had it.”

Another huge advantage of the set-up was that it enabled one actor to play several roles, and also made it possible for adult actors to play the parts of the children who are on board the train, as well as the adult characters they meet along the way. Thus Hanks plays the central character, known only as ‘Hero Boy’, as well as the boy’s father, the Conductor, the mysterious Hobo and, finally, Santa himself. And his co-star, Michael Jeter - who died shortly after production was completed - plays the twins who make up the train crew, engineer Steamer, and fireman Smokey.

"this fantastic tool at our fingertips"

“Since we had this fantastic tool at our fingertips,” recalls Zemeckis, “I thought, ‘Why have an eight-year-old play an eight-year-old when we can have an actor of Tom’s calibre, with all his years of experience, interpret the part?’ Tom said, ‘That sounds great. Can we do that?’ And then, of course. we did it.”

It all took a little getting used to. “The one thing I thought was going to drive me nuts was not having a costume every day,” chuckles Hanks. “We had one full costume fitting for the computer scans and never wore them again. I thought that would be a problem because of the lack of actual pockets when you need to use them. But, for some reason, I managed to remember that the boy was wearing a bathrobe that came undone and that the conductor had pockets, a cap and glasses that he is always adjusting. 

“I found I had to change something from one character to the next,” he adds, “and since I couldn’t get out of my Lycra mo-cap suit, the only option was my shoes. I wore running shoes when I performed as the boy and different pairs of boots when I played the conductor, the hobo and Santa. It affected my posture and my movements and, in the final result, my character.”

Needless to say, it was a time-consuming process, first for the actors, then for the director and finally for the special-effects team, headed up by Ralston and Jerome Chen, with Rick Carter doing the production design - which, because of the method used, was done directly into a computer.

“Rick has never worked in this fashion before,” says Zemeckis. “Traditionally, he would design something, draw it on paper or make models, and then have it constructed on site. With Polar, we still started with the drawings and models, but then instead of physical construction we could often build it right in the computer based on those designs.”

The ‘hero’ boy’s house was based on the one in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Van Allsburg lived as a child, while another boy’s house is based on the south-side Chicago neighbourhood where the director himself grew up (which is why The Polar Express received a special closing-night pre-premiere at last month’s Chicago International Film Festival).

"The computer just takes the performance and wraps a cinematic skin around it"

Then, when the two elements were put together, Zemeckis’ real work began. “Let’s say I have a three-minute scene,” he explains, “the actors have done it and it’s perfect; timing is great, the lines are down. That gets integrated into the set. Now the decision is, ‘OK, how do I shoot this? I can shoot it in a thousand set-ups or all in one shot and nothing will change except for my cinematic interpretation of the material’. You have to have a lot of discipline for that. More to the point, there’s no longer an excuse for not making each shot perfect!”

The final, computer-driven stage was no less complex, although Zemeckis is at pains to stress that it is the directors and actors who call the shots, not the computer operator. “The expressions are all done by the human actors,” he insists. “No one animates that. The computer does not create the performance: the actors do. The computer just takes the performance and wraps a cinematic skin around it.”

But the possibilities were almost endless. “The production process was always in flux, as though pre-production continued throughout the whole thing,” explains Ralston. “You could keep changing and manipulating things in a way you could never do with a live-action film. It was a different way for Bob to work and he was involved every step of the way. It was an ongoing invention.”

But it was also an invention that had only one aim: to serve Van Allsburg’s original story. “Throughout the script stage,” says Hanks, “we kept asking each other, ‘Are we expanding this for the sake of air or are we adding something that is going to further develop the themes and concepts?’ A key went into a lock somewhere around the moment that the three of us realised that the first line of the movie should be the first line of the book and the last line of the movie the last line of the book, and where we would extrapolate would be within those boundaries.”

“The book was the inspiration for everything,” confirms Zemeckis. “I used it as an outline. The intention was simply to expand it rather than try to reinvent it.” 

"the experience of Christmas"

“What’s interesting about these characters,” concludes Hanks, “is that there is not a unified sensibility to what they are doing on the train. They’re not just kids saying ‘yay’ at the same time. It’s a journey of individuals. The only thing they mutually want at the same time is hot chocolate! If you’re going to have a bunch of kids all experience Christmas the same way, it’s not going to be realistic.”

And, in The Polar Express movie as in the original book, the experience of Christmas is what it is all about.

Published November 18, 2004

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