film reporter

ImageMovers builds new way to make pics

By now you've heard that Robert Zemeckis' ImageMovers Digital and Walt Disney Studios are making a new version of "A Christmas Carol" that will star Jim Carrey (HR 7/9). Production will include the use of ImageMovers' performance-capture system to create a film mixing computer animation and live action that is planned for a 3-D release. Zemeckis wrote the screenplay and will direct.

ImageMovers has quietly been building a studio in San Rafael, Calif., and growing its team to produce "Christmas Carol" as well as additional titles. It also is further developing a process that it hopes will bring a fresh perspective to storytelling.

VFX vet and Oscar winner Doug Chiang recently was named executive vp at ImageMovers Digital, and he sounds excited about what lies ahead.

Chiang won an Oscar for the visual effects in 1992's "Death Becomes Her" and has worked on several Zemeckis films, including "Forrest Gump."

More recently, he worked on Zemeckis' pioneering performance capture-based films "The Polar Express" and the upcoming "Beowulf," serving as production designer.

Performance capture is a filmmaking technique where an actor's movements and expressions are captured in the digital realm. The technique is sometimes used to create computer-animated characters.

"In many ways, we are at the beginning of this process and where we can take this art form," Chiang says. "It's an opportunity to design a new filmmaking style. Bob (Zemeckis) loves to push technology forward to use for filmmaking and storytelling — it's always to drive the story forward."

The excitement appears to be contagious. Chiang says that interest from artists has been strong; ImageMovers already has recruited more than 100, and he expects that number to top 200. "This is a testament to the partnership with Disney," he says, citing the deal announced this year. "There is such a strong vibe about this new filmmaking style. We are hoping to build a company that will define this medium."

Chiang also is thrilled that it has united talent and friends who have worked together in the past.

With "Christmas Carol" in production, ImageMovers already has landed George Murphy, an Oscar winner for the visual effects on "Gump," who will serve as visual effects supervisor. Jenn Emberly has joined the company as ImageMovers Digital's animation supervisor; her credits include "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "War of the Worlds." Chiang will serve as production designer on the film.

As for the process, Chiang says that performance-capture films are designed at the beginning in the same manner as a live-action film. "The difference is that the actors perform with very minimalist sets, and the rest is created digitally," he says. "It's really like a stage play. Bob can direct the actors on long takes; he can really focus on the actors. It is a director and actors medium … you can go for performance."

Pointing to the pacing, he says, "(Actors) can act, rather than waiting for setups."

On "Christmas Carol," the chameleon-like Carrey will play Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Future. "He can be a character of his choosing," Chiang says. "This is where the power of performance capture really comes through. We can redefine his look but use Jim Carrey's performance. … In the physical world, you can't really do that."

Additionally, Chiang says that the team has the control of malleable sets. "We design a film to a certain point, but then when Bob starts to assemble a film, that (process) will continue," he says. "Performance capture is distilling the storytelling down to its essence. Because you really can create the perfect shot."