x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The right spirit

Robert Zemeckis keeping his film of A Christmas Carol as faithful to the Dickens novel as the medium would permit.

The director Robert Zemeckis, left, and the cinematography Robert Presley on the set of Disney's A Christmas Carol, which has just opened in the US and UK to critical acclaim.
The director Robert Zemeckis, left, and the cinematography Robert Presley on the set of Disney's A Christmas Carol, which has just opened in the US and UK to critical acclaim.

Few filmmakers have done more to pioneer special effects than Robert Zemeckis. His visions of the future and past have been vivid fantasy worlds brought to life by cutting-edge filmmaking techniques and larger-than-life characters. The 1980s saw him combine animation and live action in the Oscar-winning Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, as well as making time travel plausible in the Back to the Future trilogy.

In the 1990s, he used special effects to put Tom Hanks next to JFK in Forrest Gump, and put gunshot holes in Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her. As he approaches four decades of filmmaking, Zemeckis is still at the forefront of visual storytelling, having made two films already using the "motion capture" animation technique. His latest, his third to use "mo-cap", is Disney's 3D adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol, starring Jim Carrey as the infamous London miser, Ebenezer Scrooge.

Why has one of Hollywood's biggest directors now abandoned the traditional method of filmmaking for this new technique, and how can he use it to bring us an original take on a very well-known story? Bringing something new to such a familiar tale was always going to be a challenge, even for the director known for pushing the limits of our imaginations. "I think that one of the things I found very interesting about reading the story, which I read a long time ago and I've since seen the majority of the versions that have been made, was that the description that Mr Dickens puts in his writing had never been truly brought to the cinema screen in a way he would have imagined it. That's because we've never had the tools at our disposal to do such a large-scale adaptation of it.

"Even the characters share that unique description of their author - they're quite surreal in the way Dickens describes them. So now in motion capture we finally have a tool to bring an illustrated version of it to life." The whole process was shot with motion capture technology, where actors' movements are "captured" on computer and animated over to create their characters. This not only allows a more fluid form of animation but also for a larger scale.

It is on that larger scale where the story deviates from the book - most notably in two action sequences, one of which drags a screaming Scrooge across the London skyline while in the other a considerably smaller Ebenezer flees a ghostly hearse. Neither scene is in the book, but Zemeckis maintains that such a decision was in keeping with Dickens' vision. "It was a way of getting around the fact that the whole story was narrated," he explains. "Like with the death of Marley. We have a scene about it at the very beginning, which isn't in the book, but it was a necessity because of the fact that our film would be told in a different style to the book."

He also feels the action sequences were essential for the aesthetic of the later scenes in the film. "I used the hearse later just to move Scrooge in a more dynamic way from place to place and basically get him into Old Joe's Bottle Shop," Zemeckis says. "What I did with the ghost of Christmas future was to portray him as a shadow. He's a shadow cast by Scrooge and at the same time leading him around, but he's not physically leading him. So, Scrooge had to go to these places by himself, so the phantom hearse was a device to chase him through London."

The method by which the film was made is one he had used successfully twice before, in another Christmas film, The Polar Express, and in the mythical action film Beowulf starring Angelina Jolie and Ray Winstone. Regularly used in modern video games, the process involves actors wearing headsets and special suits with sensors that record each movement, storing it on computer. These captured movements provide the base for filmmakers to "animate" over, and so without the use of make-up, lighting or even a change in lens, a whole scene can be shot with actors who can be turned into any type of character - old or young, black or white, human or spirit.

It also lends itself to being rendered in digital 3D or IMAX formats, in which all three of Zemeckis's mo-cap films have been released. "The thing I love the most about digital cinema, or rather what I love about working in it, is that you're only limited by your imagination," he says. "There's no restrictions, even the laws of nature do not apply. You don't have to worry about physically moving heavy - and expensive - film equipment through a certain space, and there's no need to worry about things like lighting and rigging, because it's all done in post [production].

"I think that's why I'm so vocal about it, because for me it's been a huge liberation in the way I make films. It allows me greater control, I don't have to ask so much of my actors, and they don't have to be beat up so much." Zemeckis has been at the front line of this way of filmmaking for more than 20 years, and he believes the modern methods are light years away from when he started. "Oh definitely," he says. "So much more is possible now. With Roger Rabbit, although the character wasn't there we still had to have the sets. If Roger picked something up we had to have a marker or machine to represent that movement for our human actors to work with. Now whole landscapes can be created, and scenes can be shot from start to finish. Many of the actors working on this film have compared it to working in theatre in that sense."

A prominent theme in the reaction to this film has been its darker interpretation of the story. This is not a comic, glossy version of Scrooge, but a genuinely sombre and realistic portrayal by Carrey. Gone is the comedy scowl with stuck on sideburns. What we have instead is a thin, twisted (physically and emotionally), cold old man who not only has no feeling for Christmas but none for humanity itself.

It also brings us a far more graphic version of the spirits that visit Scrooge. Jacob Marley, his late partner whose ghost warns him of the night to come, is portrayed as decaying and writhing in the chains he bears as a spirit. The 3D version also has characters and objects flying out at the audience. Given this, it has been commented that certain scenes are too scary for younger viewers, something Zemeckis dismisses: "I think it would be criminal to pander to that notion, that you leave something out or tell a story differently just because you might be afraid that there may be a child somewhere who might be scared.

"It is a ghost story. The images of the ghost aren't terribly scary. What you're reacting to are the dramatic tools - suspense, tension - that we use to tell stories. I had only one goal while making the film, which was to be as faithful to the original book as I possibly could and to the original tone. "The tone of Mr Dickens's book was dark, it was scary, and so is our film in places. But I think a child can connect to the story intellectually, as everyone identifies with the spirit of Christmas. So if they can identify with it intellectually then emotionally there shouldn't be a problem."

The only problem he personally has with the film is that people brand it an animation rather than another incarnation of live action. "It still annoys me when I read people refer to the performances in this film as 'voice-overs'," he says. "What Jim and everyone here has done, it's acting, it's not animation. These films are the next stage of live-action filmmaking." Despite a particularly un-Christmassy release of early November in both the UK and US, the production has harnessed the yuletide spirit in both. The cast had the prestigious task of turning on London's Oxford Street Christmas lights, while in America it opened in the number one spot in the box office chart. Ticket sales currently stand at over US$150million (Dh551m).

Critics have applauded the film's visual effect, but question marks still hang over whether Zemeckis's new-found direction is truly the future of cinema as he believes it to be. As for what the ghost of cinema future holds for Zemeckis, next year sees him concentrating on the producer role as he works with his wife who is directing the documentary Behind the Burly Q as well as the animated comedy Mars Needs Moms!

There is also talk of Zemeckis's, next motion capture venture, a project even more ambitious than the last in the form of a motion capture version of the Beatles film Yellow Submarine. Can the man himself elaborate? "Not at the moment," he smiles. "I want to concentrate on Victorian London before we go to Pepperland."