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November 21, 2020

Saturday Evening Movie Thread 11-21-2020 [TheJamesMadison]

Robert Zemeckis and the Nightmare Faces

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Robert Zemeckis started his feature film career as a protege to Steven Spielberg, having forced his way into Spielberg's office and showing him a copy of a short film he had made which impressed Spielberg enough that Spielberg started pushing for Zemeckis at Universal Studios. His career started sluggishly with a pair of well-received films from critics that gained no real wide audience until he was hired to make Romancing the Stone which became a sleeper hit and saved his career. Following that up with Back to the Future, Zemeckis became the next wunderkind that Hollywood had hoped from him and he ended up feeling like he could do no wrong for almost twenty years.

Then Zemeckis made a movie where he had to shut down production for a full year so that Tom Hanks could lose weight, changing his physical appearance completely, Cast Away. It'll be hard to convince me that that experience and the fact that his next movie started his love affair with performance capture in The Polar Express aren't related. Suddenly he could cast Tom Hanks in five separate roles, including as the main character, a twelve-year-old boy, and it wasn't a problem. There was no waiting for Tom Hanks to de-age, or for makeup, or for even costumes. He could have Hanks in any role, no matter what the character looked like, and all he needed was Hanks in a warehouse in a silly looking suit. Computers would fill in the rest of the gaps.

It's easy to see how appealing that is to a director, a controlling personality that doesn't want to wait for silly little things like Nature or reality.

So, Zemeckis made his performance capture trilogy, and they're rather interesting time-capsules into a changing cinematic landscape as well as of a talented director going down a rabbit hole that everyone seems to agree he shouldn't have gone down at all. The three movies were The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol.


The Uncanny Valley

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So, pretty much the first, and often the only thing, people talk about when these three movies comes up is their placement in the Uncanny Valley. The Uncanny Valley is a concept that describes the increase or decrease of an audience's comfort with the look of non-human characters as they get closer to and further away from resembling reality. The graph is above, obviously. There's a point where, if the characters are too close to real but still not close enough, that audiences begin a rapid rejection of acceptance. Here are pictures of the main characters in all three films:

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Now, it's easy to see that Hero Boy (I hate that they never gave him a name and I have to call him Hero Boy) in The Polar Express is off. Even still, without motion, he seems plasticky with textures on his face that are simply too smooth, and yet the effort is obviously towards photo-realistic effects. The lack of fine detail in the face seems to be the main problem, making it feel like we're watching a robot instead of a human child. In motion, it becomes worse. The eyes feel dead, like a doll's eyes. There is an effort to move them around naturally, but it's far from enough. Most of the time the eyes just stare ahead, and it feels off.

That technology got better in Beowulf. I believe I'm in the minority on this one, but the characters in this second motion-capture film don't sit in the Uncanny Valley for me. They've emerged on the other side. They're still not quite real with a certain rubbery feel to them, but the eyes feel much better. Here the biggest problem is the mouths, a problem that it shares with The Polar Express. The mouths don't move quite right. The sounds of the letter O, for instance, produce mouths that are just too roundly perfect. So, they're not quite human, but, for me, they're human enough.

In A Christmas Carol, Zemeckis finally pulled away slightly from the effort to be photo-realistic and real-life. The character designs have moved from an effort at looking like real people to more exaggerated forms. That's best exemplified by Scrooge himself. His nose is so long and his chin along with it, that he feels more cartoonish than any of the characters in the previous two films. That is combined with an effort for more detailed textures (that includes the teenage version of Scrooge having pimples) for a better place on the graph above. This is a combination of more realistic technology supporting a less realistic look, and it actually works really well. This probably should have been how Zemeckis approached character design from the beginning.

Spectacle

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So, Zemeckis could make movies with any actor playing any role and, according to what he told the screenwriter who rewrote Neil Gaiman's script to Beowulf, anything he chose to film would cost no more than one million dollars per minute to film. Whether sitting in a chair or fighting a dragon flying through the air on its back, it was going to cost about one million dollars per minute. So, what did Zemeckis do with this incredible freedom? He made roller coaster rides.

This is most evident in The Polar Express. For most of the running time, the nice little story about a boy re-engaging with his innocence gets shoved aside for what amounts to loud nonsense. The worst part, to me, is when the train meets an iced over section of the track. The engine guides the rest of the train over the ice, swerving back and forth, as the ice breaks behind it into the water below, until the train and every single one of the wheels lands hard and precisely on the tracks on the other side of the ice. The spectacle of the sight is well done, but it serves nothing in the story and would feel more at home in a 3D ride at Universal Studios.

The most natural fit for the spectacle of this kind of filmmaking is in Beowulf. Adapted (heavily) from the Old English poem about a Geat warrior who kills a series of monsters in modern day Denmark and Sweden, it feels like the kind of story that fits spectacle really easily. The fight multiple fights with Grendel, Beowulf's stories of his past heroism, and the final fight with the dragon are gussied up greatly from the original poem and given a modern Hollywood sheen, but it actually fits. Beowulf has to fight Grendel, so while the fight between the two may be outrageous, it's actually part of the story. Beowulf has to fight the dragon, so while the fight between the two may be outrageous, it's actually part of the story.

A Christmas Story is where the fit between the smaller storytelling elements and the larger bombastic sequences is most uneasy. In The Polar Express the bombastic elements vastly outweighed the smaller narrative. In Beowulf it was a natural fit. In A Christmas Carol the bombastic elements don't fit, but they're a smaller part of the story. There's the Ghost of Christmas Past, for instance, where the entire sequence is told extravagantly but the focus never wavers off of Scrooge and his past until the whole thing is over and Scrooge casts away the spirit. Suddenly, Scrooge is riding the spirit's extinguisher cap over the rooftops of London, gets launched over the clouds to silhouette the moon, and comes crashing all the way back down to appear in his bed. The worst offender, though, is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, where Zemeckis turns the stationary spirit with a finger that gets Scrooge to finally admit the full error of his ways through revelation into an absurd chase sequence that sees Scrooge shrinking, crawling through pipes, and hanging on his bed curtain rings in miniature.

The Draw
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So what was it about these stories that appealed to Zemeckis. The technique of the process is obvious enough, it provided him with greater control, but what about the stories themselves. This is going to delve directly into mind reading on my part, but let's have at it.

I've read the handful of interviews that Zemeckis gave about The Polar Express and he almost exclusively talks about the technology and the visual design. He loved the look of the original book, thought it could never be made properly until ImageMovers showed him how they could replicate the look of the book digitally. He also talks about how the shoot was the easiest he ever had since he could do anything he wanted and it was just about showing up in a warehouse with his actors or telling his animators to add a tree in a particular spot without argument. So, he seems to have really liked the source material and found it a great excuse to explore this new technology that let him do whatever he wanted. I think that is evident based on what actually went on screen.

Beowulf feels like a direct reaction to the critical opinion of The Polar Express. I cannot find any interviews with Zemeckis about this movie beyond a very short little video where he says about three sentences he talks about the movie's themes and never mentions the technology of making the film and a short Q&A he did after a screening at USC on the Blu-ray disc. In that Q&A he talks about his draw to the script, how he held onto the rights for a decade, and how he felt that performance capture was the right medium for the script while making The Polar Express. I also found this interview with his producer, Steve Starkey, where Starkey talks extensively of the ease of using the production techniques of motion capture from set design to actor schedules, but all of that was true of The Polar Express. Zemeckis obviously loved the freedom of the technique, but what was it about Beowulf specifically? One thing's for sure: The script for Beowulf is more adult than the one for The Polar Express. Beowulf feels like a conscious effort to counter arguments that the technique was limited and "animated" and for children. He objected to the idea that The Polar Express could be nominated for Best Animated Picture at the Oscars because he didn't see it as animated but digitally rendered (an important distinction to him). Beowulf was Zemeckis telling the world that his new digital capture technique wasn't limited to children's movies, but that it had a wider potential use.

A Christmas Carol, reading interviews with Zemeckis about it (there are extensive interviews available for this one, the best I found was this), appealed to Zemeckis most from a story perspective. He loves Dickens and he loves the written A Christmas Carol in particular. Seeing it as a good mesh of material and technique, he jumped at the opportunity to make it. The way Zemeckis talks about this movie, it feels like The Polar Express and Beowulf were opening acts to A Christmas Carol for him, like this was the movie he considered the performance capture medium to be built for. And, to be honest, outside of the rather wild extraneous stuff, I agree with him. The use of the technology to transform Jim Carrey into Scrooge as well as the three spirits makes for some rather great visuals. The technology that captures and renders the performances digitally are advanced enough to show interesting subtleties not possible in the earlier films.

Another quite side note: Zemeckis is one of those directors that enjoys doing commentaries on the DVD releases of his films. From his first film through Cast Away, he did commentaries on each of them except Romancing the Stone. However, he just stopped at The Polar Express and hasn't done one for a new release since.
And then...

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And then Robert Zemeckis tried to get a new version of The Beatle's The Yellow Submarine off the ground using the same technology, it fell apart, and he's been doing live action films again ever since. There was Flight, The Walk, Welcome to Marwen, and The Witches. His next movie will be a live-action version of Pinocchio for Disney.

Zemeckis saw the future of event filmmaking that gave filmmakers the freedom to do whatever they wanted, and...no one came along with him. The three movies weren't bombs by any measure, but they were never nearly successful enough to inspire the kind of new wave he was expecting.

I don't really lament the lack of blockbuster success for the films in question. I enjoy them all to a certain degree, and he's gone on to make better movies since. However, I still feel like the technique shows a lot of promise, but there's a lot of danger to it. It's just too easy for filmmakers to do whatever they want, falling to indulgences that they otherwise couldn't explore, as Zemeckis showed rather clearly himself.

Movies of Today

Opening in Theaters:

Freaky

Movies I Saw This Fortnight:

Romancing the Stone (Rating 3/4) Full Review "Romancing the Stone is far from a challenging work, but it's both of its time and works as a fun little adventure movie outside of it. It's a good thing that audiences appreciated it in enough numbers, because if they hadn't the rest of Zemeckis' career might have never happened." [Library]

Back to the Future (Rating 4/4) Full Review "It's energetic, fun, and expertly crafted. This is Zemeckis and Gale have a ball and inviting the audience along for the fun." [Personal Collection]

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Rating 4/4) Full Review From the technical performances to the narrative, this film is a joy to watch. Zemeckis took on a difficult job and made it seem almost effortless." [Personal Collection]

Back to the Future: Part II (Rating 2.5/4) Full Review "It's a near miss for me overall, though. The first act just feels way too disassociated from the rest of the film, feeling more like a precursor to Part III rather than the final two-thirds of Part II, for me to ignore. There's definitely fun to be had, for sure, but I just hoped for more." [Personal Collection]

Forrest Gump (Rating 3/4) Full Review "It's an appealing journey that's easy to sit through and often quite funny, but it also seems to ride heavily on nostalgia that I don't share, limiting its impact on me and potentially anyone else who doesn't share in the same outlook on the 60s." [Personal Collection]

Contact (Rating 4/4) Full Review "This is a great film, and it may be the best Zemeckis ever made." [Personal Collection]

Flight (Rating 4/4) Full Review "This is a wonderful character study of a broken man forced to face the reality of his own faults through an act of heroism and its aftermath. This is the work of a skilled technical director using the medium to craft an emotional product of a truly human situation." [Library]

Welcome to Marwen (Rating 1.5/4) Full Review "This is Robert Zemeckis hitting the bottom of the hole in his pursuit of excuses to use motion capture in filmmaking. I doubt it will be his last foray (he is signed on for a Disney live-action remake of Pinocchio that will surely use the technology), but I have little doubt that it will remain his least successful for the rest of his career." [Library]

Contact

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