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Giving life to motion-capture technique

In 'A Christmas Carol,' director Robert Zemeckis further builds on the technology featured in 'Polar Express' and 'Beowulf.'

December 09, 2009

Although making a film version of Charles Dickens' 19th century classic tale of a miserly man is nothing new, using motion-capture technology to animate "A Christmas Carol" is a first.

Director Robert Zemeckis has been honing "mo-cap" since 2004's coolly received "Polar Express," with an eye toward imbuing the characters with a somewhat intangible but relatable quality.

"What we focused on was getting greater nuance and fidelity in the performance of the actors," says producer Steve Starkey, who worked with Zemeckis on "Polar Express" and "Beowulf." "You can see much greater expression in the actors' faces and in their eyes. The goal is to make us feel like they're alive inside."

The mo-cap technique involves attaching strategically placed sensors to the actor and capturing the voice and facial and body movements all at the same time. And considering the physicality of the actor who plays Scrooge, the details are probably the most important part.

"You want to capture everything when you have Jim Carrey," Starkey says.

In addition to using the actors' actual movements to inform the movements of the characters, mo-cap records the information in three dimensions, which offers a distinct advantage for releasing a film in a 3-D format.

"It doesn't place any real extra burden on the process," he says. "You really feel immersed in the space because it is a 3-D space. It's just a beautiful form of 3-D."

In addition, mo-cap allows the filmmaker to decide on the camera angle for any particular scene long after the performance has taken place.

"That's distinctive from animation, where they do their cameras in the layout phase," he says, adding, "You get to paint in everything that you imagine in your mind behind and around the performer."

Although Zemeckis hasn't had any luck persuading the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to add a motion-capture category to the Oscars, he remains enthusiastic about the technology, having three more mo-cap films in the pipeline: "Yellow Submarine," "Airman" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit 2."

"You can create any character that you want; you can place them in any setting that you want. It's a very exciting new way to make movies," Starkey says.

-- Christy Grosz

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