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MILO and Polar Express

Polar Express Equipment

he Polar Express animated movie is not a film one would normally associate with Simon Wakley, motion control operator for Camera Control Inc, but it is true, Here’s the story of why:

The Polar Express is the latest creation of director Robert Zemeckis, the same man who directed “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”. It is based on the book and amazing art work of Chris Van Allsburg and while being an animated feature it is has a very live action feel to it. Although none of the characters are particularly real looking their movement has a very real feel to it which was created using motion capture. This combination makes them neither real nor unreal, but rather “compellingly attractive”. The Polar Express, while being very much aimed at children, should never be thought as “soft” or “airy-fairy”. It has a very eerie feel and creates very much the atmosphere that all is not as it seems. Many of the main characters add much to this sneaky atmosphere with Tom Hanks perfoming no less than 6 different on-screen characters.
While the movie is animated and created using computers graphics you would be quick to notice that its feel is quite different. To achieve this Zemeckis used real actors and captured their motions, a technique used more and more and refered to as motion capture or performance capture, but most incredibly he also used real cameramen! The actors motion was captured and rendered using computer graphics but new to this field, cameramen were then used to control virtual cameras to move about the virtual film scene. Zemeckis realised that while CG movies often have great action it can be time consuming for the “DoP” or cameraman to describe to the CG artist how the camera should move through space, or how an actor should be framed. Something they achieve themselves without trouble on a real set but it is much more time consuming on a virtual set. For this Simon Wakley from Camera Control Inc. supplied sets of remote handwheels to the cameramen. Such handwheels are often used in motion control or with remote heads to control the camera motion, except that in this case the handwheel circuitry was changed to send the data to the CGI machines. Therefore any motion the cameramen made such as panning or tilting using the handwheels was instantly shown on screen as if the cameraman was looking through a video assist monitor on set. Therefore no computer programming was needed to created the final camera framing and you will notice the look this gives to the finished product. Such handwheels are now referred to as 3D Wheels and are likely to be seen on CG “sets” more and more. These 3D Wheels were also used in the recent Martin Scorcese film The Aviator to allow the cameramen to do all the manual framing during the Maya pre-visualisation of the CG aircraft models. All the pre-vis shots were then sent to the director for approval and once approved the move data was exported from Maya and shot with Milo motion control on real models.

Shots from Polar Express

Shots from Polar Express

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