The Polar Express was a milestone in IMAX history. As our first DMR 3D movie, The Polar Express changed the way the industry viewed 3D technology, especially in IMAX. We invited Hugh Murray from our film technology team to come share his experience working on the film.
Read what Hugh had to say below:
Finding the right opportunity to develop our first 3D feature film was no easy feat. We were winning studios and filmmakers over with our Digital Re-Mastering (IMAX DMR) technology, but this was our opportunity to take it a step further by displaying our 3D conversion (or rendering because it isn’t subject to the limitations in a live-action conversion to 3D) technology in a Hollywood movie. Although our 3D technology had been proven through our multiple space and science documentaries, introducing this technology to Hollywood was a tough sell.
Creating a 3D version of the film just for IMAX was an idea suggested by IMAX and supported by Warner Brothers, but was greeted with a bit of skepticism by both director Robert Zemeckis and the team at Sony Pictures Imageworks - who were creating the performance-captured animation. Although they were hesitant, we were confident that the result of our DMR and 3D transformation process would surely turn doubters to believers.
Under the initial agreement, Rob Engle and the team at Sony Pictures Imageworks were to render 3D versions of a few of the shots that were near completion at that early phase in production. This way they would gain some experience and Robert Zemeckis would get to the see the results. An early test raised a concern by the production group that the shots chosen were very tame in terms of camera motion and that there might be a strobing issue in IMAX with other, more typical sequences. To address these concerns, a second test was designed around a very fast motion sequence.
In this sequence, the hero/boy in the film (he was never given a name in the film) pulls the emergency brake to stop the train to allow another (un-named lonely-boy) character to get on. The cutting is fast and in one shot the camera does a very fast pan-around inside the carriage – conditions that can sometimes make the action hard to follow on a larger screen. While the sequence suggested by the production for the test had four shots, it was followed by a shot in which the braking locomotive comes straight at camera. Knowing what we could do with a shot like this, I asked Sony Pictures Imageworks if they would add this shot to the list as a cleaner ending to the test sequence. I designed the 3D so that the business end of the cow-catcher on the locomotive appears to come to a final stop just a few feet from your nose. When we screened the test for Robert Zemeckis in March 2004, he turned in his seat as it ended, and the rest of the small audience applauded and simply said, “I think you guys are going to be busy”. And that was the launch of Polar Express in IMAX 3D - no more doubts!
We’d like to say “and the rest was history,” but the project was far from over. After the director agreed to do the movie in IMAX 3D, the project was then handed off to Rob Engle from Sony Pictures Imageworks. We also tracked down Rob to find out more about his experience and he graciously gave his account of creating The Polar Express in IMAX 3D.
Check out Rob’s point of view below:
After Hugh and the IMAX team were given the green light, my team was brought in to complete the process. I was responsible for building the pipeline or the tools needed to make the movie in 3D and had roughly 6 months to make this happen.
The excitement among our group was booming around what I’d like to call “The Grand Experiment”. This was my first time working on an IMAX 3D film and Hugh and I worked to develop the recipe for creating a great stereoscopic 3D film. We worked together, scene-by-scene, from converting the 2D portions to 3D to finding the right opportunities to maximize the 3D effects. It was a case of figuring things out as we went along.
One great thing about making The Polar Express in IMAX 3D was Robert Zemeckis filmmaking style. His style is very spatial in nature, which lends itself well to 3D filmmaking. He tends to use longer cuts, which allows individual shots to stay on screen longer than average. This pairs well with 3D films because oftentimes when you do a cut in 3D it’s like pulling a rug from under the audience. Bob also tends to keep the camera in motion with deep composition of shots—with foreground, midground, and background subjects that works strongly in a 3D picture.
Working with Bob and the IMAX team on The Polar Express was a great experience that shaped my enthusiasm for 3D movies. We were able to experiment and push 3D in ways that hadn’t been imagined before that point. Watching the movie in IMAX 3D was like watching a different movie entirely, the story came alive in the 3D medium.
Now, 14 films later (only one 2D), I’m dedicated to using 3D technology as an art of storytelling. I witnessed how The Polar Express introduced 3D to Hollywood feature filmmaking and changed the industry’s view of the technology. What started as an experiment ended up teaching many people how a powerful 3D picture could positively impact the filmmaking industry. As many of our greatest inventions, it all begins with “The Grand Experiment”.
The Polar Express was IMAX’s opportunity to take our DMR technology one step further and introduce IMAX 3D to Hollywood feature films. Now, 44 IMAX 3D films later, we continue to push the envelope on entertainment technology. We’re no stranger to proving the seemingly impossible and helping to turn an experiment into an art form. The Polar Express has changed the way the industry views 3D technology, especially in IMAX.
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