I've delayed posting my review of THE POLAR EXPRESS for some time now because I've been so perplexed by this film. I mean, the film as a whole is not so bad. It's got some great visuals and some wonderful camera work by director Robert Zemeckis. I usually have a large grey area for movies, and this falls right in the middle for me. I do not hate it. Nor do I love it. I do feel that there may have been far too much emphasis placed on the technology, promoting all the hoopla about the motion-capture mumbo-jumbo in recording Tom Hanks' movements and his "acting," and not enough interest pushing the story and characters. But was there enough there to push? I dunno. It was, after all, based on a children's book, and so the story gets stretched far and wide in many places. Read: it's rather thin.
But being an animator, there was this immense build-up of animosity towards this film and what it meant to the feature animation community. Should I dismiss THE POLAR EXPRESS solely on the fact that it's not really animation even though it's purporting to be an "animated" film? Is it really animation, after all? And why in the heck do all the characters look so bizarre and so unconvincing?
That's my main question. Why, with all the millions pumped into the production of this technological "masterpiece," do all the children still look so creepy? It's ironic, don't you think? I mean, you read Newsweek's article on the film and you'd believe that this was the second coming of filmmaking. But after reading about 500 visual-effects specialists working for three years, and about 72 cameras capturing Tom Hanks' movements, 194 "jewels" on the actor's body for recording thus movements into the computer (152 on the face alone), and $164 million spent on the movie, I just have to say: SO WHAT? So what if you spent so much on the technology for this film. If you can't make believable characters and put them in a likable story, it's like putting paint on poo. You can't hide the stink.
So, what's going on here? Motion-capture is what the big hub-bub is all about. And guess what? It's nothing new. But don't tell the promotional department at Warner Bros. They want you to think that what Zemeckis & Co. are creating here is the next level in motion picture making, that this is where's it's heading to. Not so. This technology has been used before in other movies, most recently in the entire LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, and even going back as far as 1997's TITANIC, for all the little crewmen and passengers on that doomed ship. Actors in the latter film were recorded doing basic movements like walking, picking things up, waving, talking, etc. In the LOTR movies, the technique was ramped up and utilized the best most notably with the full-fledged digital character of Gollum. It's also used extensively in the gaming industry, capturing movements for characters fighting, hitting, dodging, blocking, all sorts of moves.
But actually, it doesn't begin with TITANIC or with games. It's really a gussied-up version of rotoscoping, if you ask me. Rotoscoping: tracing over live action movement. Some animation purists will balk at the use of this technique, but believe it or not, it's been around since Max Fleischer created a device to do such a thing in 1914 for his "Out of the Inkwell" series. It's been used for help in many animated films throughout the years, including SNOW WHITE and CINDERELLA. Ralph Bakshi used it extensively (and not really for assistance) in several of his films. Was it animation? Not really, as here Bakshi and his artists were just drawing over live action that was shot specifically for each scene. Why do it, then? I would like to think it was for a unique look, to give some sort of different aesthetic to a dying art-form (this was the 70's, remember). But it probably was because of money. Ralph didn't have enough money to pay for any "real" animation, so he just decided to film it all with actors and get some dudes to trace over everything. It's interesting to look at, but I do feel like after watching AMERICAN POP, that it really would've been an incredibly boring movie if it was just live action only. And it does get old after about an hour of it.
So, now, we've got POLAR EXPRESS, and after talking with several of my coworkers, we've all come to the conclusion that this movie would've been a much better film if it was live action characters in a digital environment. That way, you would've still kept the whimsy of the environments, setting, and overall look, yet kept the characters from veering off into "living-dead land." As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed the film. To a certain degree. I enjoyed the use of the camera as you can definitely tell that Zemeckis was having fun with his new-found freedom from the usual restraints of camera work within a live action setting. If you've ever watched a movie being made, you know how much time is spent on getting the camera and lights set up. It literally is like watching grass grow. Very tedious and time consuming. So you can see where he's wanting to go with this film. Zemeckis just wants to have fun. And he does with several shots, like the lost ticket scene. Also with the train on the frozen lake. There's some great visuals going on here, but I swear, each time we cut back to a reaction shot of the characters, I was thrown out of the film like a Bob Knight chair. It was so hard for me to watch this film.
Why do this to an audience? Why subject us to freakish half-dead soulless children up on a huge screen? It's frustrating me, I tell ya. I just had to figure this out. Why do these kids (and Tom Hanks, too) veer into the now-famous uncanny valley? This narrow, yet horrifying proverbial trench of seemingly realistic characters being so close to reality that they become eerie and unsettling? Dr. Masahiro Mori's concept here was originally coined for humans' relationship to robotic design (in the 70's, even). And now, with almost-real cyber humans sharing space up on screen with real human counterparts, it's been resurrected as a very truthful description for what is going here. Others have brought this subject up on various blogs, such as Robot Johnny (although he was talking about Pixar's INCREDIBLES), Comic Con's The Beat, and the excellent Intelligent Artifice. Why do this anyway? Is it to boast that ultra- or even hyper-realistic humans are the Holy Grail for CG artists? Some feel that it is. But is it worth it? Once these artisans and engineers reach that level, then what? It's not going to make a dent in the long run, save for a few footnotes in CG history. Film history buffs may find it interesting for a paragraph, but this achievement will not force us to scrap our history books entirely.
Take a look at history. When photography was introduced in the mid- to late-19th century, everybody thought that it was the end of painting. Not so. Painters reacted with interest as the Impressionists took to the subject matter in similar ways that the fledgling art-form of photography was focusing on: everyday life and regular subject matter. It became a different tool, rather than rendering painting extinct. The same thing has been going on for years in the animation camp. The question is always brought up about computers taking over 2D, or traditional, hand-drawn animation. And many on both sides of the fence always agree that CG animation will not force 2D animation extinct. Again, it's just a different tool brought to the table. As for the issue of realism in art, take a look at the Photorealism, or Hyper-realism art movement of the 60's and 70's. These artists resorted to photos for reference and painted EXACTLY what they saw. It was not a progression to a level that was the upmost for artists, but rather just another art movement. No one expected that this was where all art was heading to, but rather another way of looking at life around you. Warhol and the Pop Artists did the same thing, but in more abstract and conceptual ways, without all the super- and hyper-realistic details and over-the-top information that the other artists were painting. Just another mirror to make us look through.
My main problem with THE POLAR EXPRESS is not that they are trying to give us a new and creative way of looking at films, but rather that the filmmakers are suggesting that this is the end-all be-all thing to filmmaking in general. That what they are doing is the shiz-nit, man! And the fact that Zemeckis himself has suggested that what he's doing is not attainable by any animator:
"I think when you see the movie, you’ll realize it’s absolutely nothing like an animated movie,” Zemeckis said. “You’ll see such subtlety in the performance of these characters that you would have to have the genius-of-all-genius animators. In my opinion, there’s no animation in the world that could have created it.”
I'm surprised by Zemeckis's comments here. (You can peep the full article here.) Considering that he was important in bringing about the Second Golden age in Animation with WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, it's very disheartening for me to read this quote by him. It's the equivalent to the general population out there saying that you're the best artist ever if you render EXACTLY what you see onto paper. Which is complete crap. (Throughout my life I've encountered countless people who suggested to me that I was a better artist because I could draw exactly what I see.) But rendering is not the same as looking at something and depicting it a certain way that only you uniquely see it. Painter David Hockney has the best title to a book of his work, "That's The Way I See It". That sums it up for me as an artist. We artists are not here to visually re-render what we see in front of us, verbatim. Where's the fun in that? Cameras can do that already. We artists are here to interpret the world around us in ways that others may not have imagined. To offer something new to the table. To look at life around us through new and unique offerings.
I've established that the reasoning for hyper-realistic characters are not necessarily important, but I haven't talked about why exactly do these characters look so creepy. I'll have to do this in my next post. This one got too long! Stay tuned....
UPDATE: Click here for part two of Polar Express: A Virtual Train Wreck (conclusion).