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Read the reviews by Xpress Film Critic Billy Norris

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Technology brings book's magic to life

Published November 8, 2004

Polar Express
[Warner Bros.]
Cutting-edge technology makes the animated characters nearly real in The Polar Express.

Billy Norris
Read the reviews by Xpress Film Critic Billy Norris

Take the talents of two Academy Award winners and some state of the art technology and the result is a movie that already is creating quite a stir among kids and adults even before it is released.

The Polar Express, the award-winning children's book that is generally touted as one of the most noteworthy and well-orchestrated stories ever written, is being brought to the big screen after a lengthy conception process and countless obstacles.

Actor Tom Hanks envisioned the concept of making Chris Van Allsburg's book into a motion picture. It was a holiday tradition in his home to read the story to his children. He noticed that the story took on a life of its own each time he read it.

In the story, a skeptical boy who remains nameless throughout rides a magical train to the North Pole. Aboard the train are many other children who are traveling to the North Pole to commence the Christmas gift-giving tradition with Santa Claus. It is a heartwarming story of self-discovery that emphasizes that it's okay to believe in something you can't always see.

Hanks (Forrest Gump, Philadelphia) decided that, if it was done correctly, a film based on the book could be a magical experience. But it would need the same rich illustrations and whimsy that the book has.

Five years ago, he went to director Robert Zemeckis, whom Hanks worked with on Forrest Gump and Cast Away, with the idea and it has taken that long to evolve into this groundbreaking film.

Van Allsburg's 1985 book is noted for its lush oil-pastel illustrations, which earned it a Caldecott Medal, an annual award given for outstanding artwork in a children's book. Those illustrations bring to the table a certain element of warmth and have a way of wrapping the reader in the cozy blanket of the story.

But those illustrations posed a major problem for Zemeckis and his team: How were they going to bring that warmth to film without losing its enchantment in the process?

Filming in live-action was ruled out because it would ruin the integrity and timbre of Van Allsburg's masterpiece. Imaging techniques involving 2-D digital animation were experimented with, but nothing was capturing the action as Hanks envisioned.

Finally, the team had a breakthrough. Academy Award-winning visual artist Ken Ralston at Sony Pictures suggested the idea of 3-D motion capture, or "mocap," the same process used to animate the character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It involves live actors acting out the scenes while wearing a series of electronic sensors that record their every move.

Ralston had been researching a new extension of that technique that used digital cameras to capture facial expression and movement from 360-degrees around the actor. By recording every aspect of human motion and then rendering it into animation with computer-generated imagery, they would be able to accurately convey the warmth of live action through animation.

The process was tediously detailed and production was started many months before filming actually began. "Virtual stages" were created in layers to deepen the visual appearance. A large cache of props, costumes and other textures was filmed from every possible angle using mocap. This virtual environment was completed so that all that needed to be done was to plug in the "mocapped" characters after filming.

Hanks has said that he was thrilled with this technique. It enabled him and the other actors to give their own personal touch to the characters rather than just using their voice.

It has been reported that it took $165-million to produce The Polar Express, but some estimates place the actual figure at well over $200-million. Those figures make this the most expensive animated film ever created. With other promising animated films like The Incredibles and The SpongeBob Square Pants Movie either out or on the horizon, investing so much in one film is a huge gamble.

But from the looks of The Polar Express trailers, their strategy was a dramatic success, and they have captured that very elegant allure that has enchanted people for years.

The Polar Express is rated G and opens Wednesday.

- Information from Warner Bros. Entertainment was used in this report. Billy Norris, 16, is in 11th grade at Seminole High School and is a former member of the X-Team.

[Last modified November 5, 2004, 11:33:00]

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