Hanks embraces technology to expand his range

— Like the boy in "The Polar Express" who doubts whether Santa Claus exists, Tom Hanks is often plagued by the same questions. Only now they come from his own children.

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Hanks

His strategy?

"I flummox them with semantics," Hanks replies.

"I say, 'What's your question?'

('Is there really a Santa Claus?')

'Let me get this straight. You go to bed on Christmas Eve?'

('Yeah.')

'Do you leave out the milk and cookies?'

('Yeah.')

'Are they gone in the morning?"'

('Yeah.')

'Are there Christmas presents that weren't there the night before?'

('Yeah.')

'Well then, WHAT'S YOUR POINT?'"

This rather aloof and unswerving logic isn't so different from the tone established in Chris Van Allsburg's revered children's book, which serves as the basis for the film version of "The Polar Express." A fan of the story since it debuted in 1985, Hanks himself proposed the idea to the author about adapting it to the big screen.

"The (book) is a haunting, very effective thing that you really can't quite put your finger on," says Hanks, interviewed at a press conference in New York City prior to the picture's release.

"There is something very stunning about Chris Van Allsburg's paintings. ... They're impressionistic versions of this child's house and what it was like to be on a train and all the aspects of the adventure they go on. There was always a very tactile feeling that I got from reading the book, as well as a very elegant, simple but sophisticated story about what Christmas means."

But the distinctive look of the book made it all the more difficult to realize how to film it. So when Hanks brought it to his longtime filmmaking collaborator Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump"), the pair had to pinpoint a method for conveying the story.

They chose the process of "performance capture" technology. This meant the actors would don outfits that resembled diving wet suits, upon which dozens of "jewels" made of light-reflecting material were sewn. These allowed an elaborate setup of cameras to turn body (and even facial) movements into digital code.

"It's an extraordinary opportunity for actors to no longer be limited by size, weight, color of hair or gender," Hanks explains. "I've used this analogy many times, and I apologize to Meryl Streep -- she's just the name that comes up -- but if Meryl Streep can perform the greatest Genghis Khan in history, Meryl Streep could play Genghis Khan."

Multiple choice

This revolutionary process allowed Hanks the opportunity to tackle multiple roles, yet it almost lured the actor into becoming too overwhelming a presence within this landscape.

"Bob (Zemeckis) at one point said, 'I think you should play EVERY role in this movie. Because you could do it; you could play every role.' But I said, 'Well, wait a minute. There are girls in this movie. And I'm going to play every elf?' There's only so much I could internally grasp as an actor," Hanks recalls.

"In my mind I had a track on the five characters I played. I could understand the differences between them all. I understood how they related to the boy and understood what the boy's perception of them were. It was possible to do it in a way like how Jerry Lewis made 'The Family Jewels.'"

Shot entirely on a rather cozy soundstage, Hanks likened the experience to rehearsing a play for theater-in-the-round.

"You don't have to worry about lights, angles, rails, cameras, over-the-shoulders coverage," he says.

Despite the ability to have computers physically alter his appearance from a pre-teen boy to a grizzled hobo to Santa Claus himself, Hanks prepared for each part in a rather conventional manner.

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Warner Bros. Pictures Image

Tom Hanks showcases "performance capture" technology while portraying the conductor in the reference facial dot image on the left and then in the final rendering for "The Polar Express."

"I would even change my shoes based on which character I would play," the 48-year-old admits.

"The body language just kind of came about. There's no trick to it. Because, quite frankly, that's my job."

Shake, shake, shake

Hanks is used to being immersed in technological wizardry when working with Zemeckis. The Oscar-winning director is already well known for tricky visual gems such as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

"The Polar Express" marks the team's third collaboration together, along with "Forrest Gump" and "Cast Away."

"I pride myself to remaining oblivious to the other stuff that goes on," Hanks says of the special effects aspects of the movie-making process. "Every time I've done something with Bob, I've found myself in some insane position. Like Bob is saying, 'OK, stand up, look at the tape, shake, shake, shake, stand off, go back, step up, stand up, look at the tape, shake, shake, shake, step off.' In the movie I ended up meeting President John F. Kennedy."

Despite the freedom that the innovations of the $150 million "Polar Express" presented him with as a performer, the star says there are still some major drawbacks to the procedure.

"Right now it's still pretty prohibitively expensive," he says. "And it's very difficult for the computer to capture the essence of a man kissing a woman. All those dots would meet and all the sudden the computer would go nuts, and there would be one big head who looked like a banana."

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