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The Polar Express

Production Credits:

Director: Robert Zemeckis | Producer: Steve Starkey and Robert Zemeckis | Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis and William Broyles Jr. | Book: Chris Van Allsburg | Cinematographer: Don Burgess and Robert Pressley | Country of Origin: USA | Year: 2004 | Running Time: 100 min

Principal Cast: Tom Hanks, Michael Jeter, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Steven Tyler

The Polar Express is a heartwarming story about the power of belief that resonates across generations and cultures. A young boy wanting to find out if Santa is real by hearing his sleigh bells finds instead a train on his lawn and embarks on an amazing adventure. The book is now widely considered to be a classic Christmas story for young children and has been praised for its detailed illustrations and calm, relaxing storyline. In 1986, its author, Chris Van Allsburg was awarded the Caldecott Medal for children’s literature. With its immense popularity, it was only a matter of time before the story made the move to film and in a way it is an appropriate fit as the author himself has said that when illustrating a book, he sees “the story unfold as if it were on film.”

The journey to turn the book into a film began with Tom Hanks, who approached Van Allsburg first about bringing The Polar Express to the big screen and then asked his friend Robert Zemeckis to adapt and direct the film version. Both Hanks and Zemeckis were determined that the film remain faithful to both the story and the feel of Van Allsburg’s book and realized that it couldn’t be a live-action movie in the traditional sense. For a solution, Zemeckis turned to visual effects master Ken Ralston who had worked at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. It was decided that the film version would take a cue from the lush illustrations in the book and use a new technology to – as Zemeckis explains – “give the visuals an elegance as if it were a moving oil painting.”

The result was the first feature length motion picture to be shot in “Performance Capture,” which is a motion capture process whereby the entire film is shot digitally with live actors and who are then replaced with computer generated doppelgangers. The actors, including Hanks (who voices five parts in the film, and was the live action model for “Hero Boy”), would wear Lycra suits covered with blue sensors that tracked their movements, which were then mapped to 3-D models in a computer so that the models would perform the same actions as the actors. In effect the film is live-action without any true “live” action. The process can be a challenge for the actors due to the lack of props and elaborate sets on which to base their performances, as they had to work in front of a green screen.

Other challenges that the filmmakers faced included expanding a 32-page picture book into a 100-minute feature-length film. This was done in two ways. Several scenes in the book were expanded, such as the “Hot Chocolate” production number, which was inspired by a single sentence and a single illustration in the original book. The introduction of new characters like the “Hobo,” the “Lonely Boy,” and the “Know-it-All” kid, and scenes such as those on rooftops and on the locomotive, and the runaway observation car sequence are also added to the film.

Filmmakers used actual places and machines in creating the world of The Polar Express including the steam locomotive that pulls the Polar Express which was modeled after the Pere Marquette No. 1225, a restored steam locomotive located in Owosso, MI. Artistic liberty was taken with the train’s appearance making it to seem even more massive than the 794,500 pound (361,136 kilogram) Pere Marquette but many of the train’s sound effects, such as the whistle blowing and steam exhausting, were created from live sampling of the actual train. Continuing the train theme, many of the buildings at the North Pole reference buildings related to American railroading history, such as the buildings in the square at the center of the city which were loosely based on the Pullman Factory located in Chicago, and the Control Center which was based on the old Penn Station in New York City.

The Polar Express was released in both standard theatrical 35mm format and in a 3-D version for IMAX, which was generated from the same 3-D digital models used for the standard version. It was the first animated feature not made specifically for IMAX to be presented in this format, and also the first to open in IMAX 3D at the same time as the general 35mm release. The response to the IMAX presentation was enthusiastic. The 3-D version out-performed the 2-D version by about 14 to 1. The film would go on to be nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Song. Today, for many, experiencing The Polar Express is an annual Christmas tradition, and a chance to remind us all that no matter your age, for those that truly believe, the bell will always ring.

Some Interesting Trivia:

The scene in the North Pole City communications room where an elf describes a bad little boy in New Jersey named Steven who is terrorizing his two little sisters is actually a nod to Zemeckis’ friend and mentor, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg grew up in New Jersey and has admitted many times that he frequently terrorized his two younger sisters.

The film would be actor Michael Jeter’s last movie before his death.

The real name of the Hero Boy is never mentioned.

The address spoken by the conductor early in the film “11344 Edbrooke” is the real address of Zemeckis’ childhood home.

For Further Reading:

Murray, Rebecca. Aug 25 2004. “Robert Zemeckis Directs Tom Hanks in ‘The Polar Express.’” About.com. http://movies.about.com/od/thepolarexpress/a/polar082504. htm

Roetenberg, D. 2006. “The Fascination For Motion – Introduction About The Beginning of Motion Capture Technology”. Inertial and Magnetic Sensing of Human Motion. PhD Thesis. http://www.xsens.com/en/company/research/human_mocap.php

Van Allsburg, Chris. 1986. The Polar Express 1986 Caldecott Medal Acceptance Speech. http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/features/thepolarexpress/polarcaldecott.shtml

“The Polar Express.” TCM.com. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=452714

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