Laura Wilkens

Thoughts - A Design and Film Related Blog

The blog portion of focuses on graphic design, film, and travel.

Lets Talk About: The Polar Express

With Christmas right around the corner, I figured there was no better time to discuss one of my favorite holiday movies, The Polar Express. With a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 55% and most of my friends questioning my love for it, my feelings for this movie are definitely in the minority. The reason for the complete lack of holiday love? Let's take a look at some of the reviews:

"Tom Hanks (in a number of roles) and the other actors do a nice job of voicing their parts, but the waxy animated faces they've been given are off-putting."
"People in Hollywood should never work with children or animals, W.C. Fields once said. Maybe that should be expanded to hyper-realistic computer-generated children and reindeer, too."
"Zombies have their place, but not in Christmas movies."
"If I were a kid, I'd have nightmares. Come to think of it, I did anyway."

And from one of my friends: "Those kids are scary as hell." -sung to the tune of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schimdt theme song

So the general consensus is that the CGI fails, leaving us with lifeless, characters to (attempt to) connect with as we join them on their journey to the North Pole. With Robert Zemekis directing and a budget of $125 million, The Polar Express garnered a lot of hype both for the advanced special effects and the retelling of the classic children's story that has become a staple in many households. In the development of the film, Zemekis wanted the effects to be as human-like as possible:

“The problem with traditional animation for a project like this is that it falls short in depicting authentic human characters. With exaggerated images, fantasies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, or cartoons, it’s great. But I was looking for something more realistically alive.”

Little did Zemekis know that all his work would have the opposite effect on viewers. Let's look at the technology used, the scientific reasons for why it was unsuccessful, and the film in relation to future blockbuster releases and game culture.

Reimagining CGI and the Corresponding Problems
The Polar Express utilizes a form of CGI known now as "Performance Capture". This technology existed back in 2004 but was never used to such an extent as Zemekis planned. In fact, The Polar Express was the very first feature film to be completely shot through Performance Capture. This technique allows an actor to become a human blueprint as a multitude of computerized cameras capture every 360 degree movement down to a twitch of the finger. These movements were then used for mapping the animated character. It was the possibilities of this groundbreaking technology that convinced Zemekis to actually move forward with the film.

via  UCLA

via UCLA

As a 15-year-old (who was also a total film nerd and knew about the performance capture process) when I first saw the film, I could not understand why the faces of the children were so disturbing. This amazing technology was pulling information from 60+ points on the actor's bodies and over 150 points on their faces. How could all this information lead to such a bleak outlook? This is where an overarching scientific theory comes into play, known as The Uncanny Valley. I first heard of The Uncanny Valley in a documentary about robotics years ago, since it is most often applied to robotic science. The Uncanny Valley, developed by Masahiro Mori "proposes that viewers are generally less accepting of a character as the human likeness of that character increases" (Tinwell, The Uncanny Valley in Games and Animation) to the point that the viewer can actually reach a level of revulsion when a computer-generated character bears a near-identical resemblance to a real human being. This means that Zemekis had an inherent instinctual human response working against him the entire time. The closer to photo-real, the more uncomfortable these characters make the audience because something is never quite right. There's always something just slightly off that we reject. In many cases, it's the spark in a person's eye that simply cannot be recreated. This can be seen even in the recent film Furious 7 where parts of Paul Walker's performances were created through CGI. The emptiness of the computer-generated eyes leaves a lot to be desired. It's kind of refreshing to know that despite the way that technology has taken over our world, it still can't replace true human emotion...yet.

Graph of the Uncanny Valley by Masahiro Mori. Note that the more human-like a computer generated character looks, the more it resembles a corpse or zombie.

Graph of the Uncanny Valley by Masahiro Mori. Note that the more human-like a computer generated character looks, the more it resembles a corpse or zombie.

In response to the negative response the performance capture received in The Polar Express, I went on to look at all the films since that have used the same technology. Which had effects that were the most successful critically? the Na'vi in Avatar (2009), the apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and of course Gollum in every Lord of the Rings film. Although all these characters have human characteristics, none of them are attempting to replicate a true human being, which shows that the Uncanny Valley doesn't come into play in these cases.

The Film vs Game Culture
Jessica Aldred, writer of "All Aboard The Polar Express: A 'Playful' Change of Address in the Computer-Generated Blockbuster" argues a fascinating point that films are going through a fundamental change as they start to merge with other media forms, specifically video games. If we move past the look of the characters as we watch the film, we'll end up immersed in a highly detailed and photo-real world of beautiful landscapes and nature. The details are so sharp and vibrant that the background images are just begging to be explored, as if we were a first-person character in a video game. Aldred references the backdrops in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith in the same way saying that this desire to explore them is "an invitation that can be more fully realized in the alternate media platforms [such as] its video game". In this case, the video game for the film was released before the movie with the tagline "Before you see the movie, experience it."

One particular scene that puts the viewer into this mindset in The Polar Express is one of my favorite sequences: the train flailing down the tracks as the pin for the brakes is lost. At times the action is seen from a first person perspective. As someone who has never been on a roller coaster (due to motion sickness, not fear) I love coaster scenes in movies (ie. Despicable Me) and actually bought the newer version of Roller Coaster Tycoon specifically because you could actually ride all of the rides (hey there's that video game tie-in). Apparently I'm guilty of Aldred's point of people wanting to enter film worlds as well. This shift is becoming more apparent as a growing number of films require special effects via CGI. Scenes that were once made so impressively out of models (the original Star Wars trilogy, 2001) are now completely done in post-production with months of special effects work. It's becoming the norm for movies to be completely shot in front of green screens.

The Positives of The Polar Express
Despite it's flaws, The Polar Express really is a magical film. The soundtrack works seamlessly with the wonder and awe the children experience as they get closer and closer to meeting Santa, and the fact that such a short book could be turned into a feature-length film is beyond impressive. I find the effects of the blowing snow to be especially beautiful. It's such an overlooked aspect of the film but watching this scene in particular on a large screen and seeing snow blustering towards you is very powerful. It was also the first movie to be shown in IMAX 3D!

Major shoutout to Tom Hanks who voices the adult version of Hero Boy (the main character) as well as the boy's father, the Conductor, the Hobo and Santa Claus. He is also the performance capture actor for the latter four. With the last three characters we're given an unconventional re-telling of A Christmas Carol. The movie opens with Hero Boy, who is a child that doesn't believe in Santa Claus. He is then whisked away on a journey of discovery where he encounters the equivalent of the three ghosts of Christmas past, present and future: the Conductor, the Hobo, and Santa Claus. By meeting these three individuals, Hero Boy is forced to see the error of his ways and change for the better. Gotta love seeing this story retold without the SUPER creepy and nightmare-inducing ghost of Christmas future.

And really, who doesn't want to be served hot chocolate by a slew of choreographed dancing waiters?

via  Giphy

via Giphy

Sources referenced include:
Aldred, J. "All Aboard The Polar Express: A 'Playful' Change of Address in the Computer-Generated Blockbuster." Animation 1.2 (2006): 153-72. Web.
Tinwell, Angela. The Uncanny Valley in Games and Animation. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2015. Print.

Theatrical Trailer: