Revisiting the performance-capture animated films of Robert Zemeckis

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The Polar Express, Beowulf, and Disney’s A Christmas Carol brought with them divisive performance capture work – here’s the story of them.

Since he made his name with the Back To The Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Robert Zemeckis has always been known for using cutting-edge visual effects to tell cinematic stories.

For better or worse, the most marked period of the director’s commitment to pioneering new effects was when he directed a trio of animated features in the 2000s using motion-capture footage of live-action actors.

Under the banner of his production company ImageMovers, Zemeckis directed The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol within a five-year span, coming fresh off the back-to-back production of two live-action films Cast Away and What Lies Beneath – we’ve covered this previously in our Film Stories podcast episode on the latter film, which you can hear below:

None of Zemeckis’ forays into performance-capture animation have been completely coated down by critics, but there’s a common recurring criticism of the ‘uncanny valley’ effect, arising from the style of animation not being photorealistic. All design quibbles aside, the greater problem is that for a filmmaker who’s known for using effects to tell stories, these films often run close to appearing as expensive showreels for effects instead.

Still, given the festive theme of at least two of these literary adaptations, we’ve been looking at some of the stories behind them as well as seeing how well they hold up.

Where live-action films like Avatar and the new Planet Of The Apes trilogy have shown the potential of performance capture, (nee. motion capture) the idea of using it in an animated feature started out as a way of telling a story there was no other way to tell…


The Polar Express (2004)

“On Christmas Eve many years ago, I laid quietly in my bed. I did not rustle the sheets, I breathed slowly and silently. I was listening for a sound I was afraid I’d never hear – the sound of Santa’s sleigh bells.”

The story of The Polar Express comes from a 32-page picture book by author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, who also created the source material for Jumanji. It starts with a young boy being awakened on Christmas Eve to find the titular train waiting for him outside, whisking him and an array of other children off to the North Pole to see Santa set off on his annual rounds.

Among the fans of the 1985 book was Tom Hanks, who optioned the screen rights in 1999 after the story became a favourite with his own children. At that point, Van Allsburg requested any film adaptation would not be animated. On the other hand, when Zemeckis boarded the project, he was adamant that a live-action film could not do justice to the book, and moreover, that it would be prohibitively expensive to try.

Consulting with Sony Pictures Imageworks visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston, (who had worked on the first Jumanji and been attached to direct an eventually unproduced sequel) the director went full steam ahead on a new motion-capture technique that was intended to help retain the painterly quality of Van Allsburg’s illustrations.

Now much more familiar from behind-the-scenes footage on subsequent films, the technique involved shooting live-action footage on a black-box stage, with actors wearing reflective dots and markers on their faces and bodies. The data captured by the cameras forms the basis of the CG animation, enabling actors to play animated characters physically as well as vocally.

For instance, Hanks had intended to play two characters – the train’s conductor and Santa Claus – but wound up playing five altogether, including the young protagonist. He later compared the process to acting in theatre rather than acting for film, in terms of what was required of him on set.


The result was the first feature-length film to be made using this technique, and while Zemeckis reckoned any live-action budget would be north of a billion dollars, the animated version still cost a whopping $165 million to make.

In another first, Warner Bros distributed the film on the same date in both IMAX 3D and conventional cinemas, a good five years before the Real-D 3D boom started in the late 2000s.

While the film remains popular with families and new generations of younger kids at Christmas time, it does objectively show the strain of expanding a picture book to feature-length. Films like Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs and Where The Wild Things Are later showed it was possible to expand on shorter stories on screen, but the script by Zemeckis and Cast Away writer William Broyles Jr tends to over-complicate matters with rollercoaster set-pieces and a contradictory theme about seeing and believing.

As all our younger readers know, Santa Claus is definitely real, but what’s more, you have to be a bit thick not to believe in him when you take a magic train to go and see him one night.

The bittersweet ending of the original story suggests that belief fades with age, but in saying that seeing both is and isn’t believing, the didactic dialogue takes dream logic into a convoluted back-and-forth.

Many reviews at the time of release and since have commented upon how unrealistic the characters look, but the effort to preserve the look of the source material isn’t merely a plough ride through the uncanny valley. The technical process has not been fine-tuned in this landmark film, but neither is its script, and that’s ultimately more distancing than the visuals. While we adults can’t necessarily click with its dubious magic, more and more youngsters seem to discover its adventurous festive spirit each year.

Ironically, although The Polar Express was nominated for three Oscars, none of them were for its visuals. What’s more, it didn’t get a look-in for the relatively new Best Animated Picture category, which Pixar’s The Incredibles went on to bag at the 2005 ceremony.


Beowulf (2007) 

“We men are the monsters now.”

For the time of year that we’re writing this feature and the films that bookend this one, it’s tempting to classify Beowulf as another Christmas film. After all, we’re told through the dialogue that its climax coincides with the day they celebrate the birth of Christ, and the advent of Christianity plays a key role.

An epic about an existential crisis at the end of an age of heroes and monsters may not be your idea of festive fare, but it’s not a million miles away thematically either.

On top of that, 2007’s Beowulf aims for a far more mature audience than The Polar Express. Adapted from the Old English epic poem of the same name, the film is set in Denmark in 507 A.D., where our Geatsman hero (Ray Winstone) agrees to slay the fearsome Grendel (Crispin Glover) for King Hrothgar, (Anthony Hopkins) but is seduced by the beast’s mother (Angelina Jolie) in the process.

The script for this one originated in 1997, when screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary whipped it up after collaborating on a later-cancelled adaptation of Sandman for Warner Bros. Earmarked as a project for Avary to direct, it takes liberties with the source material and was originally designed as a small-scale adaptation that could be made for less than $20 million.

After DreamWorks put the script into turnaround, Zemeckis and his fellow producers once again had to go to bat for the digitally enhanced motion-capture technique. Reportedly, once Zemeckis took over as director, he told Avary and Gaiman to “go wild” in their subsequent rewrite because “there is nothing that you could write that would cost me more than a million dollars per minute to film.”

Suffice to say, the film does not hold back.

There was much consternation at the time the film was released on both sides of the Atlantic when the film was granted a PG-13/12A rating despite the high level of fantasy violence on display. Nevertheless, the theatrical cut tones down the gore and sexual references in Zemeckis’ over-the-top director’s cut, presumably for commercial reasons.

Even so, it makes a solid animated forerunner to the Game Of Thrones aesthetic, with all of the attendant blood-spilling and bodice-ripping, and with the lower rating, only the occasional hilarious covering of nudity a la The Simpsons and Austin Powers.

There may be an appreciable advance in the visuals from The Polar Express, but despite the sterling art direction and production design, photorealism remains out of reach. There’s more of the uncanny valley in recreating the likenesses of stars like Jolie, not to mention Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, and other well-known actors.

On the other hand, Zemeckis chooses to cast an actor of Ray Winstone’s calibre as a younger and virile character, (Winstone was 50 years old when the film hit cinemas) but models the design of Beowulf’s animated persona on actor Alan Ritchson.

Meanwhile, the male gaze asserts itself with added interest – beyond the gilded spectacle of Jolie’s demon, there’s at least one early aside that seems designed to show a leap forward in cleavage physics.

Reviews of this one were roundly more positive than for Zemeckis’ previous animated outing, but more mixed on the differences in the adaptation.

There are critics who celebrated Gaiman and Avary’s take as a satire of the original poem, (which wouldn’t be outside of either writer’s wheelhouse) and academics who protested that the film misses the nuance of the poem.

It may be either or (in our view) both, but the base pleasures of this nuts-and-bolts fantasy actioner, which is an outlier in a market with few big-budget animated features aimed at older audiences, make it worthwhile. Even though Zack Snyder’s 300 was a fantasy action smash-hit earlier in 2007, it would be a few years before HBO’s George R.R. Martin adaptation got going, and an R-rated version of this film would have been ahead of its time.

With Zemeckis’ statement to the screenwriters, it’s no surprise that the budget was inflated for this one, but it led to a commercial disappointment for distributors Paramount and Warner Bros, grossing $196m back on a reported $150m negative cost. However, at the point that Beowulf hit cinemas, Zemeckis had already set up ImageMovers Digital as a joint venture with Disney, and he went back to more conventional Christmassy fare for his next project.


A Christmas Carol (2009) 

“Spirit! Hear me! I’m not the man I was!”

Adapting one of the most adapted stories ever written is a sure way to set a style of filmmaking apart, but 2009’s A Christmas Carol isn’t even Disney’s first take on Scrooge, following in the footsteps of alternate versions with Mickey Mouse and the Muppets. With the first solo screenwriting credit of his career, Zemeckis wanted to stick closely to Charles Dickens’ original text.

Backed by his experience of time-travel narratives while making the Back To The Future trilogy, Zemeckis felt he saw untapped cinematic potential in the original story that prior adaptations has missed. He contended that no one had realised the Scrooge story on film the way that Dickens intended it, and firmly believed that increasingly advanced performance-capture techniques would provide the way in.

What we get is a chillier but much more kinetic version of the perennial ghost story, with Jim Carrey pulling the Hanks special by not only playing Scrooge at all ages, but also the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come.

Elsewhere, Gary Oldman puts in triple time as Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and Jacob Marley. With the definition of performance over motion, the variety of characters feels more distinctive than it did in The Polar Express. Plus, it’s nicely tailored to Carrey’s physical and vocal talents.

Visually, Scrooge takes after the horrifying puppet version that accosts the young boy in that previous Christmas outing (Zemeckis’ next film is a Pinocchio remake for Disney+, so look for the design of another puppet in that scene to carry forward again) and the digital perspective trades in 3D-augmented low angles that exaggerate shadow and scale and amp up the horror. It’s less alienating than the warped pointy perspectives occasionally seen in Beowulf, but on the other hand, The Polar Express’ rollercoaster sequences are back with a vengeance.

However, counter to that film’s locomotive mayhem, the extended action sequences here carry very little jeopardy or interest. When Scrooge is fired high up into the sky like a rocket and then miniaturised to rattle around drainpipes, your mind wanders to how the character can’t actually be harmed in this scenario. While the previous films had to pad shorter stories out considerably, this one has all the baggage of one of the most well-known and frequently retold stories in Western fiction.

Far more than those other films, it feels like a special-effects film – it’s more Christmas Carol: The Ride than a new definitive movie take.

Five years on from The Polar Express, it doesn’t show that much of a visual improvement, and when it arrived in cinemas shortly before James Cameron’s Avatar, it feels as though it just cleared the bar for performance capture just before it was raised higher than Scrooge in that one action scene.

Critics largely went in harder on the distracting animation and effects this time around and although the film was a decent box-office hit in the UK and it outgrossed The Polar Express worldwide, this one somehow lost Disney between $50 – $100m. The elaborate and expensive marketing campaign included a five-month US train tour and an opportunistic tie-in with London’s Christmas lights that was trumpeted by the then-Mayor, (whatever happened to him?) and its failure led to ructions for the newly minted studio collaboration.


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Following the high-profile box-office failure of 2011’s Zemeckis-produced sci-fi flop Mars Needs Moms, (at that point the costliest bomb in Disney’s history), ImageMovers Digital was shuttered by the House of Mouse.

Incidentally, this also put an end to Zemeckis’ planned remake of the Beatles’ animated film Yellow Submarine, which had Peter Serafinowicz, Dean Lennox Kelly, Cary Elwes, and Adam Campbell lined up to play the Fab Four – but that’s a feature for another time.

The director instead returned to live-action in the 2010s with features like Flight, The Walk, and Allied. He later used performance capture for selected sequences of 2018’s Welcome To Marwen, in which Steve Carell’s traumatised artist escapes into World War II fantasies with a collection of dolls. Again, these scenes aren’t going for photoreal human characters and the production design, coupled with more advanced effects work, is far more effective.

Other filmmakers have done interesting things with the techniques Zemeckis pioneered in these films, but outside of these three (okay, two and a bit) festive outings, full performance-capture animated features are few and far between.

While the latter two are less fondly remembered, The Polar Express seems likely to come back around right on time every December.

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