Ghosts in the Machine

Robert Presley and Robert Zemeckis Employ Leading Edge 3D and Motion Capture Technology to Re-imagine Dickens’ Enduring Holiday Tale

Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843 and its subsequent retelling down through the years – through books, TV, film and theater – has become an annual tradition. This holiday season, visionary director Robert Zemeckis will infuse the Victorian-era tale, stuffed full of Dickens’ trademark themes of social and economic class divisions, with the latest technical innovations in stereoscopic 3D and performance capture.

Disney and ImageMovers Digital’s A Christmas Carol recounts the now familiar story of the cold-hearted (and well-off) business owner, Ebenezer Scrooge, who goes through a personal transformation after visits from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet to come, to become the most generous man in London, as he opens up his heart and purse strings to the city’s impoverished lower rungs.

“It is something that Bob Zemeckis has had on his mind for some time,” observes Steve Starkey, one of the film’s producers, as well as a co-creator of ImageMovers Digital with Zemeckis and Jack Rapke. “And now he finally had the tools to tell the story in the way he wanted to, based on his vision of what Dickens wrote on the page.”

Motion Capture … Every One …

Performance capture is the process of capturing the performance of an actor in the digital realm, and it was used as the basis for each of the film’s characters. Animators used this digitally captured data to bring the CG characters to life, meaning the live-action actors could play (and multiple) parts. Lead Jim Carrey, in fact, portrayed Scrooge, as well as all three of the ghosts of Christmas. Other cast members with multiple roles included Gary Oldman, who portrayed Bob Cratchit, Marley and Tiny Tim. The cast also included Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes and Fionnula Flanagan.

Through the art direction of ImageMovers’ Doug Chiang, Victorian London is rendered in a striking use of computer graphics, from the city’s snowy streets to famed landmarks such as Big Ben. Chiang’s work also served as a blueprint during the performance capture, guiding blocking and lighting sources.

“Performance capture is a beautiful process,” Zemeckis said last summer during a press conference at Los Angeles’ Union Station to kick off a promotional train tour that traveled from Los Angeles to New York. “We don’t have to do things out of continuity, (or) break things up for coverage. The cast does the scene from beginning to end, just like they are doing theater. So the pacing of a scene is all up to the actors. I don’t have to worry about the cinema technique. I can concentrate on what the characters are doing.”

The performance-capture stage is called a “volume” – a theater in the round, if you will. It was surrounded by 100 Vicon motion capture cameras that recorded 3D data of the performances, which was used by the animation and editorial teams to bring the characters to life.
Director of photography Robert Presley is hardly new to this unique and fluid process. He first used 3D and performance capture while serving as co-director of photography with Don Burgess, ASC, for Zemeckis’ The Polar Express, which was released in 2004 in Imax 3D as well as 2D cinema. He then served as director of photography for the filmmaker’s 2007 digital 3D release Beowulf, which was based on the Old English poem of the same name.

For A Christmas Carol, the production technology continued to advance.
“We were looking for the next level of facial capture and acquiring better data to see how a performer’s face moves,” Starkey explains. “The most important element was getting better traction on the eyes. That’s where you see the performance come through.”

“The eyes have always been an issue on these types of movies,” Presley concurs, adding that “the ability to better track facial and eye movement,” was the biggest advancement made on A Christmas Carol from the previous films. Starkey points to the “head cam,” a football helmet-like device equipped with small HD cameras that point at the performers face for more accurate tracking of facial markers, muscle movement and the pupils of the eyes. Presley also adds that the body capture, while more refined, was generally the same process as what was used in The Polar Express and Beowulf.

Filmmaking in the Round

Performance capture was acquired at ImageMovers Digital’s new stages in Playa del Rey. The main stage is 60- by-30- by-18 feet. The smaller pre-cap stage is 20- by-15- by-12 feet and was primarily used for close-ups. All ‘sets’ are wire frame.

In addition to the 100 Vicon units that lined the volume, there were also reference cameras – ENG cameras from Panasonic – used during the capture process. Some were static for wide shots and Local 600 members operated the rest.

“We need expert eyes and operating, and people who are adept at following sometimes unpredictable movements. There were no focus pullers,” Presley shares.

For the Local 600 camera team, the performance capture shooting was about collecting reference footage for the animators, who were simultaneously creating the 3D CG characters, and for editor Jeremiah O’Driscoll and his team, who would begin cutting the scenes before they had the performance capture and the facial capture information.
Close-ups of actors with a speaking role were essential, as well as wide shots for the full setting. In some instances there were up to eight actors with speaking parts in the volume at the same time. There was also a dance sequence that involved 40 performers.

In terms of camera movement, Presley singles out a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past that was carefully assembled to look like one continuous shot. “The sequence starts with flying to the past, and once they land at the town where Scrooge grew up, there is dialogue,” Presley begins. “Then they fly to the next location. On the mo-cap stage, that is a good breaking point. For shooting, each chunk of acting was broken down into pieces and the flying and other transition elements made them appear to be one shot.

“There are elements of that shot that needed to be handheld,” he continues. “There are elements that needed to feel like they were grounded on a crane. We were able to seamlessly blend between those types of camera movement. It was planned out from the time Bob wrote the words on the script. The beautiful thing about this process is once you get all the pieces together you still have time to go in different directions.”

Change of Perspective

Camera operator Patrick O’Brien served as a sort of camera supervisor, coordinating the reference cameras during production. Like Presley, his performance capture experience includes The Polar Express and Beowulf.

The Local 600 operators on A Christmas Carol included Matt Moriarity, Chris Schenck, Tony Olivieri, John Scott, Maurice McGuire, Brian Garbellini, Trey Clinesmith, Nick Paige and Gerald Saldo.

During production, O’Brien sat in what was dubbed “mission control” where he had a group of monitors so that he could see each camera operator’s shots, as well as the stationary cameras. He, Presley and the camera operators were all on headphones so they could communicate to ensure that everything was covered.

“Every actor in the volume needed a close-up, no matter which direction they faced or turned,” O’Brien explains. “It takes a lot of handoffs from operator to operator to make sure every actor is covered.”
Garbellini explains that this process meant a change in thinking.

“Generally your framing is dictated by storytelling in that you try to create beautiful frames that convey emotion and ideas,” he shares. “Mo-cap framing is about collecting data for animators to animate facial expressions. For example, while a three-quarter profile might be a beautiful shot in telling the story with emotion, we would have to stop thinking that way and position ourselves for a more frontal shot to have more of the face to give data to the animators. Your thinking has to adapt a bit. Patrick reminded us or gave us heads ups as to what might be a better shot.”

Presley describes yet another change: “The actors are not repeating their performance over and over for a wide shot or close-up. Once they nail a performance, it’s done,” he says. “We’ve got it – the close-ups, the wide shots. I think that helps the actors a lot. But Bob still blocks every scene with the camera in mind. Part of what I did is make sure we were thinking down the line – making sure actors were turning in the right direction, facing where the light will be coming from, and staging with the cameras in mind.”

To that end, the mo-cam (Steadicam operated by Presley) was used to represent where the final camera would likely be in the movie. The cinematographer says it provided a first pass at the camera that was going to be in the movie, so they were able to work out timing for actors.

“It really helped the actors to have a better understanding of where the actual film camera would be,” Presley says. “It doesn’t mean that we always followed it, but I would say 75 percent of the time that we blocked with the Steadicam, it ended up being in the movie. One of the things that Bob loves about this process is we are not constrained by the limitations of filmmaking, where an actor has to hit his mark for focus. It enables an actor like Jim Carrey to be freer to experiment with his character.”

Garbellini goes on to describe covering the malleable Carrey in the volume.

“He was not restricted at all. Sometimes he might do each take slightly different, and you had to really study his mannerisms and his body language. Each ghost he played was different. For instance, one was like a flame on a candle, dancing side to side; there was a lot of bobbing and weaving that was challenging to get. We were also working without focus pullers, so we had to frame and pull our own focus.”

“In terms of how you cover a scene,” O’Brien picks up, “you have to throw out what you know. There are some things that you do that relate to traditional operating. But the priorities are really on providing reference for the animators in close-ups and the geography of the scenes for editorial.” The veteran operator says that there is even a slight similarity with documentary work, in the sense that “the actors are just going out there and we are expected to cover it on the fly. You have to go with the flow.”

For A Christmas Carol, Zemeckis insisted all the mo-cap reference cam operators be Local 600 members, which was not the case when the format was in its infancy on The Polar Express. “Robert (Presley) and I were really happy to hear that,” O’Brien states. “We knew we could do a great job professionally, and it settled any doubt about whether these are camera operator positions that should be filled by 600 members. We were fortunate that this came from the director.”

To the Dark Side

While A Christmas Carol’s lighting is actually done by the digital artists, Presley explains that base level lighting was required in the volume.

“For the reference cameras, it was important to have very evenly lit, almost shadowless lighting on the stage,” he recounts. “And Bob was concerned that it would feel too sterile during some of the more dramatic scenes.”

To meet the production’s needs, the crew built a system with Kino Flos that allowed for control of individual bulbs and dimming. “Motion capture cameras don’t like red,” Presley adds, “so we tried to keep everything as blue as possible.” While the team had the flexibility to adjust the lighting, in the end it was generally kept at one constant setting.

The cinematographer cites the film’s opening (from a lighting standpoint), which finds Scrooge in a funerary after his partner Jacob Marley’s death. “We wanted to make it really dark and sketchy, almost like Gordon Willis (ASC) shot it,” Presley says. “We wanted to save what Scrooge was going to look like in the movie for a reveal (in a later scene). So the opening was a daylight scene but we kept it very dark and contrasty. We had one main door that sunlight was coming in from and windows that would create shafts of light that Scrooge could come in and out of so he was always hit from the side or something very sketchy. He would be in the shadows to set his miserly personality and represent that his life is cold and unfeeling, so we kept the color temperature very cool.”

A Christmas Carol was the debut project for ImageMovers Digital’s new 250,000 square foot facility in Marin County, Calif., one-time hangars on the former Hamilton Air Force Base. The complex was built specifically for 3D performance capture-based projects that the company will be making for Disney.

All digital postproduction and animation was completed in this facility by a team that at the height of production included more than 400 digital artists. This is where all the final shots, characters, sets and stereoscopic 3D were created.

As Starkey explains, “We create all the models of the characters and build our sets in 3D, so everything is done from the outset in 3D. So contrary to (live action) processes that covert to 3D, we are already there. All we have to do is render out the other eye.”
The producer says it is all done in-house as the movie is being created. “We have a screening room at our facility so we can actually view the material in 3D,” he concludes.

To Presley, the performance capture process signals a true blurring of production and postproduction. “While we think of performance capture as production,” he relates, “the movie doesn’t exist at that point. We’ll shoot a scene and send it to editorial, and then Bob looks at it and decides if he wants to reshoot. It’s an evolutionary process.”

And a workflow that blends traditional and new processes like none other in the industry. “We actually go into the computer with a virtual camera and try to breakdown each scene just like we would on a live-action movie,” Presley concludes. “We generally came back to the Steadicam, but once we had everything assembled, we’d move to the lighting phase, which is the last phase in this process. You basically have a locked film before lighting, and I was working with the digital artists, the electricians if you will. They are the ones that handle the light quality, the light direction, and are also the focus pullers. I hope audiences get the same excitement from this film that we all had creating it!”

By Carolyn Giardina