Image: "Polar Express" at Imax
Imax Corp.
The ultra-big-screen, 3-D version of "The Polar Express" is identical in content to the 2-D version, with Tom Hanks taking on the roles of the Conductor and four other characters. The 3-D version takes advantage of some classic tricks of the medium, however.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com

“The Polar Express,” a holiday film that takes moviegoers on a computer-animated trip to Santa's North Pole hideaway, also features a technological trip from the traditional flat-screen version to an ultra-big-screen, 3-D spectacle.

Simultaneous with the start of its run at thousands of conventional theaters across the country, "Polar Express" is beginning its rollout at scores of large-format Imax theaters capable of showing 3-D movies. Imax has presented 3-D documentaries before, but retrofitting a big-screen Hollywood feature with the third dimension is something else entirely, said Greg Foster, president of filmed entertainment at Imax Corp.

"One of the reasons that most people don't know it could be done is because it never has been before," Foster told MSNBC.com. "This is the very first full-length Imax 3-D feature that began as a 2-D movie."

Foster credited the revolution in computer-generated animation for making the interdimensional trip so easy for “Polar Express” – and for future features as well.

"Hopefully in a year or two we'll be discussing the first live-action 2-D film that we've converted into 3-D," he said. Already, Imax is processing footage and stills from the Apollo moon missions to add the three-dimensional effect for a documentary titled "Magnificent Desolation" — a project that, like "Polar Express," gives a prominent role to actor/producer Tom Hanks.

Capitalizing on performance capture
The transformation from 2-D to 3-D draws upon the gigabytes of performance-capture data that were collected for "Polar Express," an all-digital technique that is considered revolutionary and risky .

To create the film's animated characters, Hanks and the other actors were wired up with sensors that tracked their movements and even subtle facial expressions. Those readings were then used to generate animated characters who could be manipulated within a virtual 3-D space.

The three-dimensional depth of that virtual space had to be flattened into two dimensions for the conventional film version. But when it came time to convert the film into the wider-format Imax version, the animators could start fresh with the same 3-D coordinates.

Imax's DMR conversion software produced two slightly offset views, mimicking the images that your two eyes would see if they were looking at actual scenery. Those two perspectives were then printed up on film designed to be run through Imax's stereo projectors. When filmgoers see the movie through polarized glasses, the brain fuses the two images together, perceiving a 3-D scene that never existed in "the real world."

3-D gimmicks
It's traditional in 3-D movies to spring a few visual gimmicks on the audience — for example, turning a long spyglass in your direction or having butterflies flutter right in front of your face. "Polar Express" director Robert Zemeckis couldn’t resist adding those kinds of twists to his movie as well.

"There are certain sequences that he really tweaked to take full advantage of the Imax 3-D release," Foster said. "For instance, it snows a little bit more, and where he placed the snow in certain sequences allows you to feel as if it's snowing in the theater. There's a sequence toward the very beginning of the movie where one of the little boys pulls a stop on the train ... (and) the train lands in your lap."

The 2-D version of the movie was updated with those "tweaks," but of course they don't have quite the same impact.

Coming attractions
"Polar Express" strongly hints at the three-dimensional shape of things to come. Foster said operators of the large-format theaters are always looking for ways to distinguish themselves from run-of-the-mill multiplexes, and the 3-D, surround-sound experience is a powerful selling point.

"That's not something you can see on television," he said. "That's not something you can get on a DVD."

In the future, almost all of Imax's documentaries will be filmed in 3-D, and about half of the animated features will be reprocessed for 3-D, Foster said. He said his company is also working with a "handful" of directors to do live-action features in 3-D, but declined to name names.

As for retrofitting 2-D movies for 3-D viewing, Foster said the movie would have to be a special case to justify the expense.

"I can see 'Star Wars,' I can see 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' I can even see 'Lord of the Rings.' ... They would have to be films that either had an anniversary coming up, or were just such cultural icons that they could sustain themselves years afterward," he said.

In future years, perhaps "Polar Express" will qualify as one of those icons. Only time and audiences will tell. But even now, Foster feels confident that the "Polar Express" experience has put 3-D moviemaking on the right track.

"There are very few opportunities in professional life when you get to do something for the very first time that you are just so proud of when you see the results, and you realize that it worked," he said. "And this is that time."

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