Tom Hanks: 'The Polar Express' Was 'Like Rehearsing a Play in the Round'

The Polar Express paved the way for such groundbreaking visual effects in movies, it’s hard to imagine just how groundbreaking the film was in 2004. For Tom Hanks, The Polar Express simplified the acting process. At the film’s 2004 press conference, Hanks compared filming the Christmas movie to rehearsing a play. 

For Tom Hanks, ‘The Polar Express’ got right to the performance

The Polar Express used performance capture technology to create its animation, Hanks and co-stars like Nona Gaye wore suits with sensors on them and performed the scenes in a simple studio.

“I found, and Nona might agree, that it is actually a return to a type of acting that acting in films does not allow you to do,” Hanks said. “It was exactly like rehearsing a play in the round. You don’t have to worry about lights, angles, rails, cameras, over the shoulders coverage. We essentially did a great series of 10 or 15 minute plays in which we did it real, we did it all in real time, and when we were done Bob had everything that he needed to. So, as far as being an actor goes, it was a blast.”

For Tom Hanks, ‘The Polar Express’ was all upside 

When The Polar Express came out, critics worried that it paved the way for the elimination of actors. If computers could create any character, would they need actors of Hanks’ caliber? Hanks only saw the technology as an opportunity.

What this can do from an actor’s point of view is, quite frankly, is free us up to a huge degree. I’ve used this analogy many times, and I’ve apologized to Meryl Streep, but she’s just the name that comes up. If Meryl Streep can perform the greatest Genghis Khan in history, better than anyone else can play Genghis Khan, Meryl Streep can play Genghis Khan. And if James Earl Jones can play the greatest Mickey Rooney in The Mickey Rooney Story, James Earl Jones can now play Mickey Rooney in The Mickey Rooney Story. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for actors to no longer be limited by size, weight, color of hair, gender or race. That’s actually really great news. 

‘The Polar Express’ did not take over Hollywood

The Polar Express was only the beginning of the performance capture technology. Robert Zemeckis directed two more in that style, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. He produced another, Mars Needs Mom. The technology allows Andy Serkis to play Caesar in Planet of the Apes and the Avatar actors to play N’avi. 

“The nature of motion capture is only going to work for certain films,” Hanks said. “It’s not going to put any other type of movies out of business. In fact, motion capture has been used for movies you yourself have said are great. There’s been The Matrix. There’s been Titanic. It’s in countless movies and it’s been used in the same sort of way.”

Hanks kept a level head about the dangers of such technology. 16 years later, he was right. Movies still need actors. 

But the fact is it’s right now still pretty prohibitively expensive and it’s very, very difficult for the computer to capture, for example, the essence of a man kissing a woman. All those dots would meet in the face and all of a sudden the computer would go nuts and it would be one big head, so there’s not even a way to do that yet. So what this allows from a filmmaker’s point of view is, literally, if they can imagine it there’s a new way in order to film it, and it’s a little easier and a little more costly than some of the other ways. So far as an actor goes, it’s possible now to play any character in any circumstance in a way that simply was not as feasible as before.

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