Christmas Captured

The Polar Express sets new genre in motion

By Megan Mansell Williams|Monday, November 22, 2004

Courtesy of Warner Brothers


A new kind of movie hits theaters this month. Sure to please family audiences with its blast of holiday cheer, The Polar Express also holds out some appeal to cinemaphiles and technogeeks who usually steer clear of seasonal sentiment: This movie makes computer graphics history. 

The film, directed by Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, Forrest Gump), stars Tom Hanks in five digital roles, including the doe-eyed main character, a young boy who’s lost his faith in Santa only to regain it after a midnight ride to the North Pole aboard a magic train.

Far from the familiar cartoon line drawings and voice-overs of most animated features, this film used real actors in a process called performance capture, which lets any actor play any role, regardless of age or sex. Hanks plays not just the boy but Santa Claus, a train conductor, and a ghostly hobo too, each having a different voice and look tweaked to perfection during production. The technique also releases filmmakers from the constraints of location shooting.



Courtesy of Warner Brothers


Motion capture, as the approach is more commonly called, is not new.  It has been around since the 1980s and is frequently used in the sciences and in medicine to study locomotion. What is new is using this method to make an entire movie, a completely computer-generated end product, but with an all-human cast.

Instead of donning fancy costumes, these actors slipped on wet suit-like outfits equipped with hundreds of light-reflecting beads. Dozens of infrared sensors on propless stages digitally recorded the movements of the actors as they performed their scenes. The data were converted by computer into three-dimensional representations of the characters, conveying every nuanced movement of the face and body. A small army of 500 visual-effects specialists from Sony Pictures Imageworks then virtually layered on flesh and fabric to the digital stars and filled in the scenery until they had their movie—a startlingly good visual match to Chris Van Allsburg’s beloved 1985 children’s book by the same name.


The Polar Express was released November 10 in both traditional movie houses and IMAX theaters across the country. The IMAX version offers more than a screen as tall as seven stacked elephants: It’s in 3-D. This means snowflakes appear to fall directly on the audience, and at one point the movie’s steam train stops just short of patrons’ noses. The all-digital shoot

Courtesy of Warner Brothers

made conversion into 3-D easier, but the images still had to be transferred via laser printer onto real film for projection. IMAX theaters actually play two reels simultaneously on one screen, their images separated only slightly in distance, and 3-D glasses mesh them into one.

Wherever you see it, the result of the $150-million-plus budget and three-year production schedule is stunning. The faces of the characters look breathtakingly lifelike, from freckles to hair follicles to facial twitches, and you may believe you are seeing real actors—for an instant. The movie perfectly recreates the icy blue-and-white tones of the original book’s oil and pastel drawings as well as its warm glows and dreamy sense of nighttime hyperrealism.

Unfortunately, after a few minutes of awe, the boundaries of performance capture begin to show; the characters’ body movements appear jerky like puppets on strings, and their hands somehow don’t look right, often hanging motionless in space. Yet, for the novelty of watching an entire movie about people but never really seeing one—it’s worth taking a ride on The Polar Express.

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