Tip of the iceberg

On Oct. 10, "The Polar Express," a film directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on the 1985 children’s classic by Chris Van Allsburg, pulled into a station near you.

The film launched a technological revolution in moviemaking. The action, a satiny m퀌�lange suggesting live action, oil painting and Pixar animation- is created by a new technique called "performance capture."

In performance capture, reflective dots are placed on an actor’s face and body. As the actor completes each scene, a computer records the position of the dots and creates a digitized image of the actor’s movements. The digitized character is then placed into a computer-generated environment, and voila: something brand new is born. The film doesn’t use traditional ("Snow White" for example) or digital ("Shrek") animation. It doesn’t use bluescreen. It does something completely different.

By its very existence, "The Polar Express" has breached several barriers. It’s the first major film to be 100 percent digitally rendered. Film historians see it as a transition point between analog and digital cinema, a change that may be more important than the shifts from silent films to talkies, or from black and white film to color. Within the digital environment, the director has complete freedom of shot selection and angle. Sets, lighting and costumes are unnecessary. Actual film becomes mostly an anachronism. "The Polar Express" was created on computer, then transferred from computer hard drive to laser printer and finally to celluloid film.

Actor Tom Hanks played five separate characters in the film, including the conductor, the boy and Santa. For filming, Hanks wore a black bodysuit studded with dozens of small reflectors, his face covered with another 150 tiny reflectors. Digital cameras recorded his movements as he walked, turned, frowned and grinned.

Movies have used similar technology for years, capturing movement with mo-cap, or movement capture. In mo-cap, a computer scans sensors attached to an actor and converts the information into broad data. "Polar Express" improved on this technology in two important ways. First, the movement acquisition was highly refined, with the output made much more realistic and detailed. Second, the new technology allowed the capturing of facial movements and expressions, giving the characters a clearly human look.

Because individuality and emotion could be conveyed by the digitized facial expressions, the new technique was named "performance capture." Its only stopgap occurs with the character’s eyes. Since sensors cannot be attached to pupils of the actors’ eyes, eye movements must be animated independently, often creating a glassy-eyed, unnatural look. Yet even that seems to work within the techno-surreal backgrounds of "The Polar Express."

Chris Van Allsburg, author and illustrator of 19 books, is anything but a techie. Van Allsburg doesn’t type, avoids cell phones and doesn’t do email. When he writes a story, he begins with images and ideas, writes them down and then illustrates them with oil pastels. It’s ironic that Van Allsburg’s gorgeously hand-rendered books have led to a film exemplifying the words "technical innovation."

Thankfully, Van Allsburg is pleased with the transformation of his book into film.

"There’s a paradoxical quality to the film being the beneficiary of cutting-edge technology while telling a story that’s quite different from most contemporary movies for kids," Van Allsburg said in a recent USA Today piece.

"The movie is an earnest, old-fashioned story told with tomorrow’s technology."

In the book, a boy comes to doubt the reality of Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, a phantom steam train appears in his front yard. When the boy asks where the train is going, the conductor says, "Why to the North Pole, of course."

"The Polar Express" is the first major studio feature film to open simultaneously in conventional theaters and as a 3-D IMAX film in some cities. Whether it will become a hit remains to be seen, but it’s guaranteed to dish up a big ol’ helping of holiday magic. At the end of the film, the narrator, now grown old, says that the bell Santa gave him at the North Pole has fallen silent for his friends but adds, "it still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe."