- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2004

“The Polar Express,” arriving in theaters today, comes to life through an explosion of technological breakthroughs as magical as the movie’s journey to the North Pole.

Based on the 1985 children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, the film reunites actor Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away”) and uses the work of Sony Pictures Imageworks’ visual-effects supervisors Jerome Chen and Ken Ralston, a five-time Academy Award winner for such films as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Cocoon.”

With a stellar cast of players on board, Mr. Zemeckis’ directive to the special-effects gurus was succinct: Transform the impressionistic pastel drawings from Mr. Van Allsburg’s 30-page best seller into a stylized wonderland on screen, where computer animation and the actors’ performances seamlessly merge.

“We had this pie-in-the-sky directive that we had to have a place where four humans had to act with one another; they could look in any direction, 360 degrees; and we had to capture facial nuances and body movements together,” Mr. Chen says of the $165 million film.

“It made sense, but nobody had done it before.”

Through the motion-capture technique, actors such as Mr. Hanks, Peter Scolari and Michael Jeter (who died last year) performed on a tight stage. The light reflective balls they wore on their faces and bodies became three-dimensional areas that computer programs connected to, creating a virtual skeleton.

The flexibility enabled Mr. Hanks to ultimately perform five key roles in the film — Hero Boy, Hero Boy’s father, the conductor, a hobo and Santa Claus. The roles required the two-time Oscar-winner to assume the persona of each character while animators built him into the final movie version.

According to Mr. Chen, motion-capture and camera choreography, two of the six major effects processes needed to create the final cut of “Polar Express,” required a significant upgrade to current technology.

First, the fine art of motion capture, which involves collecting computer data from an actor wearing a jumpsuit filled with light reflective balls to define movement and turn him into a virtual character, had to be redefined. So the team turned to Demian Gordon (of “The Matrix” fame), who signed on as motion-capture supervisor. A computer software model initially determined how many cameras were needed to pull off the sophisticated effects.

“The secret to motion capture is coverage,” Mr. Chen explains. ” You have to have enough motion-capture cameras, so they can record a performance. And all of these cameras, which only see a small amount of space, together function as a compound eye.”

Sony Pictures Imageworks wound up with 152 cameras for the face and 48 on the body, and constraints to the production also required the actors to work in a 10-foot-square space. Only 90-second bites of performance capture were allowed at a time as to not overwhelm the computer servers. The end result was the development of a performance-motion-capture system capable of simultaneously recording high-fidelity facial and body motion of multiple humans on the stage at any given time.

Now, the effects crew could implement the second important requirement for the director’s vision.

“Bob (Mr. Zemeckis ) wanted the camera action to be consistent with the body of his work and did not want it to feel computer-animated,” Mr. Chen says. “He wanted the human element involved and asked, ‘Why would we teach a computer animator how to operate a camera when he has some of the best camera operators in the business?’”

After computer modelers turned muscle and skeletons into flesh-covered characters, a virtual camera system would allow a live-action camera operator to choreograph camera movement on the digital characters after motion capture was applied. So as Hero Boy stared out of his bedroom window or skied along the top of the train with the hobo, the director and the cameraman had ultimate control of how a shot could be structured for the audience.

“The beauty of the process is months down the road after all the footage has been shot and the director is making final editing choices. If he did not get a shot that he wanted, the cameraman can simply go back to the performance capture takes and make the shot happen,” Mr. Chen says.

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