The Polar Express and the Era of Motion Capture

“The Polar Express” is an early 2000s hit turned Christmas classic. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it tells the story of a young boy who takes a journey to the North Pole during the holiday season and learns that the Christmas spirit, and really the wonder of life in general, never fades if you believe.

It’s a beautiful story and includes some great songs/ musical numbers (“Hot Chocolate” is my personal favorite), but many have dubbed the film “a little creepy” because of it’s hyperrealism. The movie premiered in 2004, and it was still jarring to see such “real” animation. “The Polar Express” was the first movie ever made entirely with performance captured technology. Also
referred to as motion capture or “mo-cap,” this technological technique had been used before, in movies such as “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” but never for an entire film.

Motion capture actually dates back to 1915. According to an article by Jessica Conditt for engadget, “Max Fleischer, the animator behind “Betty Boop” and “Popeye,” invented a technique called rotoscoping, wherein animators would film an actor, project that performance onto a transparent plane, and then trace over their movements frame by frame.” This development set the wheel in motion, and later on, in the 1960s, “The Animac” was invented. Dubbed “the grandfather of modern mo-cap,” this machine utilized analog circuits and cathode ray tubes, so when performers were hooked up to the machine, the animators were able to record movement in real time. The actors essentially wore an early, more primitive version of a body suit similar to the sensor-studded ones that spring to mind when we think of mo-cap today. Movements were able to be recorded much more fluidly, and motion capture was forever changed.

Today, motion capture is achieved by using a combination of advanced cameras, body sensors, and various software tools to create uber lifelike movements and facial expressions for characters in animated films and video games.

There’s probably a good chance you have used motion capture before on your phone! “Memojis” – a popular tool on the new apple ios software is a very simple form of motion capture technology. By using your front facing camera, you can animate your own digital character. It simply copies the facial expressions you make and takes an audio recording of your voice, and viola! You have a motion captured avatar. We are living in the digital age, and with so many technological advancements launching all around us, it’s extremely easy to forget that this same technology was being used by the top animators, filmmakers, and video game makers just a few years ago. I personally think the “Memoji” feature is pretty creepy, partly because of how simple it is. It also seems invasive to me, and I constantly worry about what the cameras on our phones are receiving and doing…but alas, that’s a different story.

However, and I am glad that this tech is becoming more and more accessible, as that can only mean a new wave of animators and artists growing up with the tools they need to produce their work, and not having to worry about the cost of creation being exorbitant. That is extremely

Tom Hanks actually performed six different roles in “The Polar Express,” including the Hero Boy, the Conductor, and the Father. The animators were able to create multiple vastly different characters in the design process, but relied on Hanks to bring them to life using exaggerated facial expressions and movements. Fifteen years ago, the sensors were not as strong, so the
motion captured performers had to be…animated themselves. Nowadays, sensors can record the slightest movement, so these more “theatrical” performances are no longer necessary.

The most difficult part of animating “The Polar Express” was creating realistic looking hair. You can’t attach motion sensors to hair, so the artists behind the film actually had to illustrate and create each and every strand from scratch, then animate it to move and fall in a realistic way. This process was extremely difficult and time consuming, but because the creators behind “The Polar Express” refused to neglect a single detail, the movie itself is so lifelike. It’s a real wonder.

“The Polar Express” will be shown at The Byrd Theatre on Saturday December 21, 2019 at 10am as part of the Family Classics Series.