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Rewriting the Script

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

December 02, 2002|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

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 Express."

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."

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