Robert Zemeckis for “The Polar Express”

Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis has always tried to push the cinematic envelope, from his “Back to the Future” trilogy, to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “Forrest Gump”, “Cast Away”, and now the CGI fantasy adventure “The Polar Express”. In New York to promote this expensive, risk-taking venture, Zemeckis talked about why it is he decided to bring this classic children’s book to the screen via CGI.

Question: Is this a movie that could have been done live-action? Why the choice to do it in CGI? And also, what DVDs have you gotten lately?

Zemeckis: One of the first things I said to Tom when he said, ‘What do you think?’ was ‘I don’t think this would make a very good live-action movie.’ That was for a couple of reasons. One, I thought it would be impossible. Or nothing is impossible, but it would cost billions of dollars. You could do it with enough money. And two, you would be throwing away what I thought was the essence of the book, which were those paintings. The paintings are where the emotion comes from, in my opinion, and without those paintings you’re throwing half the book away. And the third problem would be hanging a giant movie like this on some kid actor, and you’d have to go around the world and try to find him and hope that you get a great one. It’s always the problem with these movies with these young actors; you’ve got to hope you’ve got the next Haley Joel Osment because the whole movie hangs on him. So were, I thought, the three biggest problems. So far as DVDs, the most recent one I got was Super-Size Me.

Question: For everyone, the movie is charming, but if you pick up the Wall Street Journal it talks about how risky the movie is. Could you comment on the idea of laying so much money on the line when there’s a mood of suspicion right now about movies with too much CGI?

Zemeckis: Ultimately, at the end of the day, what those stories seem to leave out is screenplay. They talk about it like it’s some manufactured hardware product rather than (a movie). I think that everybody’s who’s involved with the movie, from the studio to the creative team and everybody in the marketing of the movie, obviously they didn’t say ‘Make the movie’ until they read the screenplay. We did everything really, really responsibly. We did a test of our system that was a minute and a half long. Everyone at the studio looked at it and said, ‘Man, this really works.’ What’s great about doing movies in performance capture is that you spend only 20 percent of your budget and then you know what you’ve got before you spend the 80 percent. When you make a live-action movie you send the director and a bunch of actors off and they spend 80 percent of the money and come back and you ask, ‘OK, do we have a movie here or not?’ So this was very controllable and very responsible. What we did was realize the scripted that we said we were (going to realize). So there were no problems.

Question: If you’d been on the Polar Express what would your ticket have said and why?

Zemeckis: Well, having written the screenplay, mine probably would have said, ‘Believe.’

Question: What role has Santa played in your own life?

Zemeckis: Hey, Santa Claus is great. You know, he’s great. I mean, what a great concept.

Question: What was your role in the Imax conversion, and at what stage was the decision made? Also, did it affect the production?

Zemeckis: What’s wonderful about capturing a movie in three dimensions is the decision was made around April or May. And it’s a lot more complicated than this as you probably know, but compared to deciding to do it- – the Imax movie is 3D, so compared to mounting and producing a flat 3D movie as opposed to a 3D 3D movie, all you had to do was flip a switch. So it’s pretty great. Production had finished and Imax came to us and said, ‘You know, we want to release the movie in Imax.’ And their guy said, ‘How about 3D, can we do that?’ We said, ‘Well, everything’s in 3D. I guess you can.’ So they did.

Question: Are you happy with the 3D version?

Zemeckis: It’s fantastic. It’s actually better than any other 3D I’ve ever seen because you can adjust the depth of field for every shot, because everything’s digital and everything is separate, which you can’t do in real life because you’re hampered by light levels and depth of field. So, every shot’s perfect.

Question: Can you compare this experience with that of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Zemeckis: Well, Roger Rabbit was an insane endeavor. That was probably the hardest movie I ever made. This, in comparison, was an absolute dream. Roger Rabbit had a team of animators that had to be directed for two years after we finished doing a live action film noir movie and I walked away from every setup hoping that it was right and it couldn’t be changed and decisions had to be made before you even saw the rabbit’s performance, which took like a year maybe to do a minute’s worth of his performance, that sort of thing. This was a complete dream because you got to direct in two phases, got to work exclusively with the cast and work on their performance and only that. And then when we were done with that, in the comfort of an office, you did the cinema part. And it was just great. You didn’t have to worry about the elements, the rain, whether the trucks were going to get stuck in the mud, whether the generator’s going to run out of gas, any of that stuff. It was wonderful.

Question: But what ground did you have to break in order to pull of the film?

Zemeckis: Well, we had to perfect the system and we had to figure out what the limitations of it were, which aren’t very many. And I guess the thing we had to do was figure out how you take a traditional 2D movie and imagine, like in a lavish set, like the North Pole for example, and then grid it down into 10 x 10 chunks of volume and make the movie in 10 x 10 pieces at a time. But once we had that laid out, that really went like clockwork. Once we figured out that as the system, if we were doing a scene in this ballroom for example, what you would do is you would have the crew come in here and measure everything and break it up into 10 x 10 squares. And if I had an actor who had to walk from this end to that end, you’d just do it in these increments. But now, in the current performance capture movie that’s being done, the volume is 20 x 30. So it’s getting bigger and bigger.

Question: What measurement?

Zemeckis: Feet.

Question: Not metric?

Zemeckis: No, no, no, we’re still using feet.

Question: Can you talk about author Chris Van Allsburg’s involvement?

Zemeckis: Chris was really supportive on this. He was just great. We spent a whole day where I acted the movie out for him and he was great. For him, this was 20 years ago, so he just listened and said, “Sounds great.” Chris never wanted this to be an animated movie because he could imagine what it would look like. You couldn’t make those paintings look like that in a cartoon. So, what he wanted to make sure is that the style of the movie had the same, I guess, resonance as his paintings did. And when we showed him our conceptual art, he couldn’t be more thrilled. And one of the things that the guys from Sony did which I thought was really great is they had him come down and actually do some seminars with their artists and they could ask questions all day long about how he painted, so they would get some insight into what it was that he was doing as an artist that would help them to render the movie as best we could and make it look like his original art.

Question: At what point in your life did you stop believing in Santa Claus? And how do you keep Santa alive for your kids?

Zemeckis: In the movie, Santa Claus says to the boy, ‘I am a symbol of the spirit of the holiday.’ That’s the whole belief thing. When the symbols of the spirit start to become confused with reality that’s when you get into problems. That’s what I feel about it. That’s why I think the spirit of the holiday is what all the trappings are ultimately all about.

Question: How do you go about creating a balance to make a film for adults and kids?

Zemeckis: I have a very simple philosophy about movies and kids, and that is, when I was a kid, I never wanted to see a movie that was made for kids. I only wanted to see a movie that was made for adults. I believe that all the great kid movies that have been made, you know, like the ones that Walt Disney was making, they were all made for adults. My approach was to make this movie for adults because kids get everything. I think one of the things that they resent is when they’re being talked down to. This idea of making a movie for kids, I just didn’t even go there. I just made the movie that I would enjoy and that other people would enjoy. Obviously, you have certain boundaries because you don’t want kids offended by them or disturbed by the movie. I wouldn’t even know how to begin making a movie that a kid would kind of understand. So I just did it and hoped that the kids would enjoy it.

Question: You’ve made a lot of films that pushed the envelope, where did this fall in as far as film accomplishments?

Zemeckis: You guys saw a scanned out release print. That’s the only film that was used on this movie at all. That’s a big breakthrough, for me anyway.