The Polar Express: A Virtual Train Wreck

This is Part One of two. Click here for Part Two, where I try and "fix" the characters in Photoshop.

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.

Chuck Close, Big Self-Portrait (detail), 1967-68, acrylic on canvas.

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).


  1. Flawed animation (cel or otherwise) with heart will ALWAYS be infinitely better than computerized "perfection" without soul. Case in point: in spite of gratuitous network edits and some of the most hurried, hacked-out animation to ever grace the small screen, A Charlie Brown Christmas (on Tuesday at 8:00, channel 2) has more heart in a single frame than an entire feature of techno-garbage like "Polar Express," or God forbid, "Final Fantasy. " Of course, those who know me would be quick to point out that I am by no means an unbiased source. And they'd be right.

  2. I can always count on Mr. Pope for plugging Sparky's Christmas Special. You know that me, Andrea, and the kids will be watching tonight! There's just something touching about the way Lucy brings about her tyranny over her little brother in a time of holiday good cheer. "Those are good reasons!"

    Hey - thanks for responding, by the way.

    I'll be writing up the second part to this review/commentary tonight.

  3. WOW... I have been avoiding this movie for the very reasons you mention. My wife's mom and stepdad SWEAR that POLAR EXPRESS was far and away better than INCREDIBLES... Of course, they aren't exactly know for their taste.

    As an illustrator who has a BURNING itch to work in animation, I have to say that rotoscoping has helped me to learn a ton about timing and pacing... But, the more I learn about character and the more I pull from my days in the theatre, I really see little value in just "animating" over existing footage.

    I don't know... The person I really feel bad for is Chris VanAllsberg (sp?). From the little I've seen and read, they took his delightful story and images and totally watered it down into a theme-park ride. Looking at the ART OF POLAR EXPRESS and comparing it to the ART OF INCREDIBLES it's easy to see how different each studio approaches the craft of filmmaking/animation.

  4. I've been avoiding seeing the Polar Express, despite the good review of a friend of mine whose taste in movies I usually share. I've thought about seeing the 3D IMAX spectacle version, but in the end I just can't manage to muster enough interest to actually make the time for it. Despite what Zemeckis may think, along with the rest of the media hyping the technology of the film, animators are actors, and the best ones are just as good as Tom Hanks. Lets remember that it was the Pixar animators who really "played" Woody in Toy Story, not Hanks. Not to denigrate his voice acting talents, but his part in Toy Story was as a collaborator with an animator, and from what I've seen of the clips from PE, the difference between that process and the motion capture setup is apparent. I love great photography, but I love painting as well, and often find a painting to be a "truer" reflection of a subject than any photo could ever be.

    Theres been some buzz lately about the coming 3D animation boom from Asia, with India and China set to become the powerhouse studios ready to take over the world with 3D animated films. Sorry, I don't buy it. All the software in the world does not an animator make. Story, storytelling, and acting should come first, and I have a feeling thats whats going to come last in most of these studio's output. I'm afraid that a bombardment of bad 3D films, or more expensive films that don't make their budget back like PE, will lead to the kind of moritorium on 3D animation that exists with 2D now. And then we'll have neither. That would suck.

  5. WHEW!! Okay, I can't come in and post like some professional animator that knows what he/she is talking about, but I can always count on my bro' to shoot from the hip.

    I have no desire to see The Polar Express. And Wardles, you should be proud of your niece and nephew who have not even ASKED to see it. Expose them to enough of the good stuff and that "poo" sticks out like a sore thumb.

    I dig your honesty, as always. And I see you are not alone in the greyness, either.

    Love ya,

    Ward's sister

    P.S. Totally putting that "paint on poo" quote in my signature at the forum I haunt. Too. Frickin. Hilarious!! But the beauty is I knew EXACTLY what you meant by it ;)

  6. Genius, genius, genius, fricking GENIUS, man! Bravo!

    Came over via a link on Cartoonbrew. Very glad I did. Now you're bookmarked by an anonymous L.A. storyboard artist. : )

    I only wish YOUR article would have been published in Newsweek.

    Keep it coming.

  7. Hey! Thanks so much for stopping by. And mucho gracias on the kudos on the articles. Can you even imagine what would happen if they printed my article? I'd be backlisted! Well, only in the mo-cap industry, so I guess that doesn't really count. Thanks again for visiting!

  8. Ha! "blacklisted"? I wonder....well, obviously Zemeckis would not be too pleased, but hell-*he's* the one who dug that hole for himself, with those extremely Bakshiesque, ballyhooing quotes-which were, unfortunately, just plain ignorant. If his "startling new technique"(quotes mine)were so fabulous-he wouldn't HAVE to bang a gong quite so loudly, would he?

    The film should be allowed to speak for itself, anyway, no matter how it's made. Personally I don't care if people use hand puppets if it *works*.
    No, I think your piece was written so authoritatively and WELL, that no one could get away with any dismissive "f--- him!" stuff...it's exactly the sort of argument I crave and admire: thoughtful anaysis given with clear examples to back everything up. And I'm betting that many of the animators would have agreed with you, and who knows? Most likely did-vis a vis the facial expressions on the kids, etc.--they just had zero power to do much about it.

    The general consensus does seem to be: why not do it with live action and CG? That would have worked so much better.
    Anyway, longwinded followup to my other "anon" post above-just to add another "thanks!". : )

  9. I am not an animator, yet I appreciate good animation when I see it. My taste in drama is quite discerning, as it is easy for me to 'see through' the facade, if not performed well, thereby causing an immersion-breaking return to reality. I am a graduate student studying game design and development, and the topic you have written about in these two essays (I read them in reverse) is particularly poignant to my field of study.

    With that said, I believe you nailed it spot on: For it is more an issue of character emotion than mere motion. Since we, the audience/player, vicariously experience the unfolding drama through the characters, it is through character reaction to the situations presented that drives a story—and our willful suspension of disbelief—forward.

    You have nicely demonstrated how the characters in PE could have shown more emotion, and contrasted the work in that film to the excellent work done on Gollum in LOTR. I have read about the Uncanny Valley, and yet your discussion does more to explain why zombies look so frightening.

    With increasing emphasis, the games industry, it seems, is headed down this same path, inching ever closer to the goal of photo-realism. And I share your view that more stylized human characters are preferable, and leave the art of animating the inanimate to the true artisans of the field.

    I really don't have all that much to say other than I really enjoyed reading your articles, and thank you kindly for the inspiration and enlightenment. =)

  10. "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. "

    I think the problem is not that it's a children's book, but that it's a picture book. A 30 page picture book.

    There are plenty of children's books that could fill a movie.

    I'd love it if Pixar or Peter Jackson would do The Phantom Tollbooth. That'd rock.

    Ironically, considering the topic of conversation, there is a movie of The Phantom Tollbooth. It's from 1971, it combines actors with animation, it's by Chuck Jones, and it apparently was really bad.

    (Speaking of Peter Jackson, it's a shame he's taking on The Lovely Bones, when by all rights he ought to be doing Fantasy and Science Fiction that otherwise will be done as low-budget travesties for cable...)

  11. I happened to see your blog on the Blogger Dashboard, and I'm glad I gave it a click. I am really digging this article. While I am no authority on animation (even if I do watch a lot of it), I have to agree with your take on it. I really have not had any desire to see that movie (looked like the kinda schmaltzy crud that just doesn't warm my coccles like it used to).

    It was funny seeing Zemeckis talk about the amount of subtlety in the performance, and how none but the most genius animators are able to capture that. Bull hockey. To counter, I have one movie to recommend: "Voice of a Distant Star." It's an hour-long movie that was animated by one guy from Japan, it's a mix of 2D and 3D animation, and it is an absolutely beautiful movie. Not only for the artwork, but for the story and characters too. But that's just this guy's opinion.

    Finally, I would also like to commend you on your authoritative writing. Well written, well planned, very thoughtful and thoroughly backed-up. Kudos, and I can't wait to read the second half.

  12. I avoided 'The Polar Express' not just because of the wooden, creepy characters in the trailer but because it looked like a Thomas Kincaide painting.

    PS: To the poster who said Peter Jackson should be doing nothing but SF/Fantasy films, I suggest you rent his 'Heavenly Creatures' to see what the guy can do with real human beings.

  13. it was just a kids movie, there was no reason for them to go all out. they should, but dont really need to, they juts need enough things to distract the kids from computures and video games

  14. You know I thought it was actually a great movie...a simpler time a simple plot. I felt good to watch it.

  15. Well Ward, [as June Clever would say] if you don't like it--let's try, try again, and this time YOU do it, I know you can do it better, dear.

  16. Your anaylsis on motion-capture animation and your review on this movie as a whole: Maybe attracted similarly minded viewers and critics who see it as a cinematic failure based primarily on its technical aspects. Or in your words 'A Virtual Train Wreck'.

    The amazed and mesmerised look on my 3 year old son's face and the Christmas joy it brings him for 90 odd minutes: PRICELESS

    Maybe we have to sometimes look 'beyond' the technical aspects in film making.

  17. Chanpion, my analysis was purely for the benefit of those who work on animated films or are artisans who work in animation and/or entertainment industries, not for a general audience. My words merely reflect upon the frustration that I see when it comes to filmmaking in general, that the art direction and character designs in this movie (and in Zemeckisis' other mo-cap films) lack the attention to detail that would make a film like this a pure classic. It's lazy filmmaking, purely for the profit. I'm glad that your son enjoys the film - my kids did as well. But they've never really asked to see it each Christmas as opposed to other Christmas favorites like the Peanuts special or Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Funny how my family gets more milage out of films that came out decades ago, rather than a highly-touted film that came out (well, as of this comment) almost 5 years ago.

    Next time, please read all the comments (including mine) from this post and the other (part two) - I've brought this issue up before when others, like yourself, thought that I needed to "look beyond the technical aspects" of this film.