Harry interviews Robert Zemeckis about A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Digital Cinema & Eddie Valiant!!!
Published at: July 22, 2009, 3:22 a.m. CST by headgeek
Hey folks, Harry here and this was a surprise today. I came back from my INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS screening to pack my bags, shower and get ready for my PAPER HEART screening - but fate had another plan. This is our Exclusive 1 on 1 interview with Robert Zemeckis - now - for the record, I don't enjoy the interview process, I'd rather "shoot the shit" - but when you have a brief amount of time, there's less room for that. I had almost zero prep time, but I think it came out pretty well. You Comic Con geeks can see Zemeckis and his presentation as part of the Thursday (11am - 12:30pm) DISNEY: 3D PANEL - where he'll screen some of A CHRISTMAS CAROL in 3D - and we'll also get a peek at ALICE IN WONDERLAND & TRON - with Tim Burton, Sean Bailey & Steve Lisberger - all moderated by meta-geek Patton Oswalt in the hallowed Hall H. See you there. Till then, I'm in transit. Hope you enjoy this rare interview from me.
Harry Knowles: Hello.
Robert Zemeckis: Hello.
Harry Knowles: Hey Bob, how are you?
Robert Zemeckis: I’m good. How are you doing Harry?
Harry Knowles: I’m doing fine. It was a nice little surprise that I was going to get to talk to you today.
Robert Zemeckis: That’s good. How’s it going? You are down in Texas, right?
Harry Knowles: Yeah, but getting ready to go jump to San Diego, like half of the nation it seems like.
Robert Zemeckis: [Laughs] Yeah, it feels that way! That will be something. I’ve never been to there before, so that will be an experience.
Harry Knowles: What footage are you showing down there? Is it the thing that I saw earlier this year?
Robert Zemeckis: Yeah, well it’s the Marley scene that you saw, but then we have this scene that is… It’s a scene in the Funiary where Scrooge is paying for Marley’s funeral.
Harry Knowles: Oh?
Robert Zemeckis: That wasn’t reading when we did the thing that we showed to you earlier, so we thought that would be something that the COMIC CON folks would enjoy, so we tacked that on.
Harry Knowles: One of the things that I noticed when I saw the footage was while it’s still very Charles Dickens and classical CHRISTMAS CAROL, you sort of take things a little more EC’ed, I felt, than Dickens did and I just wondered if that was just sort of a conscious decision to go there with the material. I’ve never seen Marley’s jaw unhinge in any version before and just the power of the ghost coming threw the wall is just so… You can see the kids go “Whoa” back in their seats when that happens and I’ve always loved your love for EC Comics, because I was raised in a household that they were chapter and verse in. I just wonder if any of that has sort of leaked into this for you.
Robert Zemeckis: I would say that EC is channeled through Walt Disney, because there’s no gore involved and there’s no… That was the thing that was great about EC, we don’t have any of that, but I’m taking a page out of Mr. Disney’s book in that cinematic drama can certainly have tension and suspense in it and if you are going to tell a ghost story, you might as well tell it. I actually think thought that in the actual writing of those scenes in CHRISTMAS CAROL, I think Dickens evokes a fantastic sense of suspense and dread and I don’t think it’s ever been realized the way that he wrote it. Now do you think I’m projecting on that or do you think that’s in there?
Harry Knowles: I think it’s in there. Definitely CHRISTMAS CAROL… I had never heard anyone refer to it as a time travel story before until I heard you say that, whereas I had always thought of it as a ghost story, a definitive Christmas tale, that sort of “rich man’s guilt” story. What was it about this 160 some odd year old story that made you want to do it and do it in this fashion? This is very expensive technology, so what about it makes you feel that at this point in history its going to sweep people up?
Robert Zemeckis: I have no prediction to answer the last thing you just said, I just have to do things that I feel passionate about and I always felt that… I think instead of it… You see, I think that one of the great things that we can do in the digital cinema is we can represent the classics in a way that is more accessible to a modern audience. For example, I consider this to be a graphic novel version of CHRISTMAS CAROL.
Harry Knowles: OK.
Robert Zemeckis: It’s not a cartoon version. It’s not a Muppet’s version. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s a graphic novel version, the way that… I don’t know how old you are, but when I was a kid we had comics…
Harry Knowles: You had CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED.
Robert Zemeckis: Yeah, we had CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED, which took the classics and made them into comic books and you were able to go “OK, I’m reading MOBY DICK” or “THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTREDAME.”
Harry Knowles: MAN IN THE IRON MASK, THE THREE MUSKETEERS and all of that stuff, yeah.
Robert Zemeckis: I think that in the digital cinema, we have a chance now and the thing was to present these things in a way that is much more accessible.
Harry Knowles: Is that where you are wanting to continue? Are you wanting to continue to do the great classics in this form?
Robert Zemeckis: If they lend themselves. See, that’s the thing, you don’t want to do anything that could be done better live action and when you read Dicken’s description of the Ghost of Christmas Past… John Leech, the famous illustrator who illustrated his first edition, didn’t even attempt to draw it, because he had no idea. It was so surreal. It was so unbelievably surreal that he just said “No, I’m not even going to try.”
Harry Knowles: Yeah, he just put the guy in the hood with the hand sticking out of it.
Robert Zemeckis: Right, he did something like that and so why not now? We get a chance now to do it in a way that is very surreal, the way Dickens wrote it and not just have it be a woman like they used to do in the old versions of it. They didn’t know what to do, so it was “Make this ghost a woman.” Not that there’s a problem with that, but that’s not what Dickens wrote you know? It was like a man baby with a weird light thing, it was really very weird. Something amazing about Dickens is how cinematic he rights and that’s the thing that always impressed me about it, so CHRISTMAS CAROL, I think it might be the first time travel… No wait, when did Mark Twain write CONNECTICUT YANKEE? Was that before this or after this?
Harry Knowles: I think before, but I’m not sure, so I’ll look it up. (NOTE: CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT was 1889 and A CHRISTMAS CAROL was 1843 – for the record.)
Robert Zemeckis: That might have been the first time travel story that was written in English, but I don’t know. This is certainly one of the early ones.
Harry Knowles: Absolutely. What’s it about Jim Carrey that made him your Scrooge? My personal favorite Scrooge was Alastair Sim, but there are so many great people that have played him and Jim, I love what I’m seeing from him. It sort of looks like Scrooge meets Uncle Creepy to a certain degree. What about bringing Jim in that made you excited about having him?
Robert Zemeckis: I think Jim first of all is a great actor and he is probably the greatest working character actor that we have working in films today and I just knew instinctively that he would be a magnificent performance capture actor, because when he does a performance and unfortunately in so many of his earlier films… He works with his entire, I mean every muscle in his body performs every single moment of every single movie that you see and we generally don’t get to see that in a lot of these movies and that’s what makes his Scrooge work so well. He’s not just doing a facial performance. He’s not just doing a voice performance. He’s doing an entire instrument performance and that just comes flying through the process and that’s why and he is so meticulous and he is so absolutely conscientious about what he does. His accent is absolutely flawless.
Harry Knowles: One of the things that sort of stunned me when I saw that initial scene between Scrooge and Fred with Cratchit off to the side, when I went to look up who was playing Cratchit, I was absolutely shocked to see that it was Gary Oldman, because visually there is no similarity really.
Robert Zemeckis: Oh but there is though! The problem with Gary is he is a master of disguise, you don’t really know what he really looks like most of the time, but yeah there is a tremendous similarity, but you will see more of it when you see the whole movie in it’s entirety, yeah.
Harry Knowles: Yeah, because just in that scene he’s sort of off to the side and really just eerie feeling in a way, like he’s sort of just spying in on everything that’s being said in the other room, which I love. I can’t to see how he brings Tiny Tim to life.
Robert Zemeckis: He’s great and of course you saw what he did with Marley, so that…
Harry Knowles: Marley was amazing. I thought his Marley was just absolutely tremendous, but on the scene between Scrooge and Fred, there’s still something where sometimes between the two of them when they are talking to one another, I don’t seem to catch that their eyes are actually focused on one another.
Robert Zemeckis: Right.
Harry Knowles: I think you have sort of gotten past the stare that people would once complain about, but what is it about the eyes that are so hard.
Robert Zemeckis: Well first of all, let me say that those scenes that you saw are completely revamped and that scene that you saw, those scenes were the very first finals that came out and for someone with such a discriminating eye as yours, you would see that, where most people didn’t, but none of those scenes are in the final movie. They are completely redone and all of those flaws that you saw in those scenes I guarantee you are no longer there, but the answer to your question is it’s a learning curve and I think the thing that we…
We made a couple of technological breakthroughs including now using the retina as a marker, so whatever the performer does, even with the smallest movement of the eye is recorded with four high def cameras now, so we’ve got that really really zeroed in on as far as the technology is concerned, secondly and what we realized and when I did POLAR EXPRESS, the thing that I thought was a noble gesture if you will, was to bring the design of the characters the way that Chris Van Alsburg designed them to life and what you realize is that maybe sometimes characters that are painted in a certain style don’t necessarily lend themselves to be digitized in performance capture.
So what we learned is there are certain things that you have to do in the design of the character to alleviate that. The second thing is that it’s all about lighting them more photoreal and in an interesting way, you have to go in with an artist’s paintbrush and I mean a digital paint brush, like the way Rembrandt would, rather the way a computer would paint it within it’s virtual reality, so in other words the computer sees “Oh this character is over here and it’s light source is over here and there’s this light source is over here and so that’s where the highlights have to go and that’s “real,” but it’s not right if you know what I mean.
Harry Knowles: I know what you mean.
Robert Zemeckis: The other thing that we realized as well too is you don’t see anywhere near the amount of detail on film that you can do digitally, so basically we fixed the eyes by turning off detail. You see much less than you think on film, which is what you are used to seeing. You see way more in images that are digitally rendered, so it’s basically understanding the art form, but we don’t want to do is we don’t want to throw out the tools, just because we haven’t perfected the artform.
Harry Knowles: Exactly. When I saw it, I saw it at The Drafthouse here in town and they have got one of those 4k digital projectors, so it was just beautiful to look at and there was just a couple of little spots where I noticed that problem, like in the Marley and Scrooge scene, everything was just rearing. It was just great. I see that Bob Hoskins is playing Mr. Fezziwig in this, did you have any discussions with him about returning as Eddie Valiant?
Robert Zemeckis: [Laughs] Oh yes, he always has them with me. He loves Eddie Valiant and he would love to do it. We talk about it and it’s something we are thinking about.
Harry Knowles: Cool. Where are you on the film right now? How far along is it?
Robert Zemeckis: Well we are about three days away from what we call “animation,” which is getting all of the final digital performances completely completed and we are about three days away from that and then the rest is just lighting and final rendering, so the film is basically locked and we are just now perfecting all of those little blemishes that you were talking about, like that whole Fred scene has just been completely relit and completely re-rendered. One of the problems that we have in this art form is we are forced, because of modern marketing techniques, we are forced to violate the one rule that they beat into me in film school which is never show anybody anything until you are completely finished with it, but unfortunately we can’t do that in the world today.
Harry Knowles: That’s one of the reasons… When I wrote up my coverage of the piece that I saw, I didn’t take you to task on that, because I know that when you see something like a Super Bowl commercial for THE INCREDIBLE HULK, well that movie’s five or six months away from coming out, there’s no way that those are final renders. Intellectually I know that, but when I’m talking to you, I just wanted to make sure you were catching those things. [Laughs]
Robert Zemeckis: Absolutely. Trust me, I’m completely dedicated to… My goal here is to present this art form to tell stories that we never had a way to do before and I use the graphic novel as an example, because animation is a magnificent art form that I’m a big fan of and that I’ve been a fan of my entire life. Live action… We are never going to replace actors, we actually liberate actors. All of the fears that you are hearing about this new art form is the same fear we heard about sound, color, wide screen, and everything. My feeling is we now have this new art form to present stories that shouldn’t be animated and are impossible to make live action.
Harry Knowles: My thing is this; I think anyone who has a sense of history about animation isn’t offended by the concept of motion capture, because it’s essentially just a much larger version of rotoscoping and the sort of work that Fleischer was trying to do at one point, but at a level that just screws you up entirely. Once you have that movement captured, you can move all around it and everything. I find that very interesting. I think some of the shots that come out of being able to do that have been pretty amazing. In BEAUWOLF, that whole flying sequence on the dragon scene… we had never really seen anything like that before and I think that came out of the tools you had.
Robert Zemeckis: Absolutely and that’s the whole point and the point is to do something that you couldn’t do in any other form and you are absolutely right and that’s the fun of it. I’ll tell you the other thing that I think is really the great bonus about having what I call “The virtual cinema” or “The digital cinema” and I’m really excited that The Walt Disney company is so dedicated to digital cinema. When you think about it, it’s amazing how they are behind this. When you think of their commitment to Pixar and their commitment to 3D and their commitment to what I’m doing, it’s huge. It’s gigantic! What I love about it is the cinema is so liberated. Your ability as a filmmaker to do things that are absolutely only restricted by your imagination. You don’t have any physical restrictions on what it is that you have to do. I think if they were alive today, guys like Hitchcock and Kubrick, they would love this art form. They would love to be able to work with this art form and that’s why, by the way, the guys who are on the train are Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, you know Jim, this isn’t happening by accident.
Harry Knowles: Last question, any desire to return to traditional live action filmmaking?
Robert Zemeckis: I’m really committed to getting this art form off of the ground, but of course I would and I’m never going to say never to anything, but right now though I really want to make sure that we get this out there so that younger filmmakers have these absolutely breathtaking tools that they can use.
Harry Knowles: I think you are doing a fantastic job.
Robert Zemeckis: Of course I’d love to do a live action movie and it always depends on the right story. It’s always about the story.
Harry Knowlers: Cool. Well thanks for the work that you have been doing, I’ve been a fan of it and I’m very much looking forward to seeing the rest of this particular film.
Robert Zemeckis: Well good and I hope you enjoy it and thanks for taking the time.
Harry Knowles: No problem. Thanks for talking the time to talk to me!
Robert Zemeckis: Alright, take care!