We caught up with producer Jack Rapke to discuss the latest version of the classic Dickens tale.

Imagining a New 'Christmas Carol'

on October 13, 2009 by Amy Nicholson


When you're changing the look of cinema, you need a trusty right hand man. Or in the case of Robert Zemeckis, two. Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey founded the production company ImageMovers with Zemeckis in 1997. After a few years of live action dramas like Cast Away and Matchstick Men, Rapke and Starkey signed on to do something even more suspenseful: help Zemeckis popularize performance capture 3D animation. Starting with 2004's The Polar Express, ImageMovers has been the leading face of the new technology, which Zemeckis has touted as the future of film. After Monster House and Beowulf were hits, Disney threw their weight behind them and ImageMovers transformed into ImageMovers Digital. Starting with this blockbuster revamp of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, their announced line-up is so eclectic and ambitious that Hollywood is following their every move—as we went to print, the announcement that ImageMovers Digital was gearing up to remake Yellow Submarine had every blog in town buzzing. B OXOFFICE talks to Jack Rapke, the producer who has shepherded performance capture since the beginning, about this great leap forward for animation and star Jim Carrey, who plays as many as three characters at once—a feat that has Eddie Murphy wriggling out of his fat suit and dialing his agent.

Tell me about your reinterpretation of Charles Dickens' book, which surprisingly has gone 15 years without a big budget film adaptation.

It's a re-imagining, if you will, using the most current updating technological tools available to filmmakers to tell the Dickens story—as written—in Victorian, Dickensian period. But the tools that we have now allow us to portray and visualize the imagery as if Dickens himself was actually visualizing the imagery. By that I mean: he wrote an amazing, amazing novel in the 1840s that was very cinematic, but predated the birth of cinema by at least fifty years. He wrote this amazing ghost story on top of this iconic story about a character going through a transformation that's one of the greatest in all of English literature. The iterations of this story—whether they've been the Muppets or Scrooged or even done in the period—have never taken it on in its full glory. The descriptions that Dickens himself wrote in the novel, we're now able to do them given the technological tools that are available to us. We're very, very excited about re-imagining this in a way that no one would have imagined it could look like, and yet we follow all the classical story beats and structure and the character arc that Dickens laid out so magnificently.

It's as though the original Dickens novel was a ghost and action story that he meant to be captured by imagination. And it's only now that the technology has caught up to the imagination he expected his readers to bring to the book.

Exactly. I could not have said it more poetically.

I've always heard that one of the biggest challenges filmmakers have had is figuring out how to bring the Ghost of Christmas Future to life.

That is a challenge, but it's no more of a challenge that the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Past. The Ghost of Christmas Past, he actually described as a floating candle. We have been able to create visually—and of course, the Ghost of Christmas Past is played by Jim Carrey—this amazing visual of the candle with a flame being the head. It's melting, and the incandescence of the flame as he talks—because there's less oxygen as he talks—the flame gets a little less, then the flame gets a little more. It's extraordinary. The Ghost of Christmas Future, that's written by Dickens as a shadow. It's a dark, dark shadow that obviously has a slight edge and darkness to it. If you don't change your ways, if you don't look at your life and take responsibility for your actions, that's your future.

How does the development process work between you and Robert Zemeckis and Steve Starkey when you're deciding how you want to approach the material?

The first thing when we embark on a project is to get the story and character correct. The good news is Dickens' source material is so rich that as long as you stay relatively true to it, you're going to be fine as a filmmaker because it has all the classic elements. This is our fourth film with performance capture technique and our first with Disney—now we actually have our own studio to do visual effects. For us, we need spectacle as well as character, and then Bob starts to express his vision as Steve and myself and our production designer Doug Chiang start to develop iterations of what that spectacle could look like. There have been some illustrations over the last 170 years that we have looked to as inspiration, but then we go back to the source material and come up with the visual palette, and that's how we ultimately get our final image. What does Bob Cratchit's house look like? What do Jacob Marley's chains look like? And as you know, Jim Carrey plays multiple roles. When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes him to the past, he's seeing himself as a young boy, an adolescent, a young man, a little older man and then as Scrooge—all having the resemblance of Jim Carrey wrapped in our perception of what the Scrooge character should look like. And he plays the ghosts, too—all three of them.

You see as many as three Carreys on the screen: as Scrooge, as younger Scrooge and ghost. What were your impressions from set of how that can be directed?

It was amazing. Bob would go to Jim and say, 'Jim, which one of these characters would you like to play first?' Depending on where Jim was at on a particular morning, Jim might say, 'Well, I'd like to play the ghost first.' And we'd have extras—well, not extras, Cary Elwes—play against Jim. Cary would play Scrooge so that Jim could play against an actor. Then he'd play the iconic Scrooge and Cary Elwes would play the Ghost of Christmas Past. A live actor would create a rhythm for him, and then he'd play all the other roles. They'd move around like musical chairs, but what we see on screen are just the Jim Carrey performances.

That must be one of the biggest challenges he's done.

He was amazing. He channeled this Scrooge character both in his physicality and his vocals. He just got into each and every one of these roles. When you're the iconic Scrooge, you have age and experience and cynicism and disappointment, and then he had to access a more innocent Scrooge, a sadder Scrooge who was hurt and felt pain that ultimately informed his later life. You had to channel those emotions and the Scrooge emotions to the emotions the ghosts have. The Ghost of Christmas Past isn't' judging; he's just showing him his life. There's nothing that ghost can do one way or another. Emotionally and psychologically, Jim had to pull off all these roles and he did it magnificently.

When and how did you decide to double-cast many of the other roles?

When Bob first wrote the screenplay, he came to Steve and I and said, 'Guys, there's only one Scrooge. Jim Carrey. What do you think?' And we said that would be unbelievable. We were really excited when Carrey said he'd do it because this was Bob's vision in making the movie. Then Gary Oldman came up and we thought he'd be perfect for Bob Cratchit. Since Tiny Tim is Cratchit's son, we asked, 'Well, why don't' we have him play both of those roles because the characters will look a little like Gary Oldman. If Cratchit is Tim's father, then it's not a great leap that he and Tiny Tim would share a resemblance. And who better to play Marley than Gary Oldman? Robin Wright plays multiple roles: Belle, the road-not-taken, and Scrooge's sister when they were very young children. We move very quickly through our process. This isn't animation; it's very much like live action except there's no makeup, costume, sets, camera set-ups, lighting—these are all done later in the computer. There are props that actors interact with, and they interact with each other. Because we can wrap their likeness in any likeness we want, we can have actors playing multiple roles. They're just acting as if they're in black box theater. If we have an actor on the set, we can make it worth their while to stay seven or eight days and play three roles. We have an enormous amount of flexibility that's not available to animation or live action, and we can get actors to play really cool roles that they might not be physically perfect for, but they're otherwise perfect. They don't have to look how they look in life.

Black box theater is what I was picturing—it sounds like everyone on set is having to use their imagination at all times.

They have to take a leap. They go out, they're in the dots, they're wearing a helmet cam, they look like they come out of Tron and they all look the same. And they go out on a very abstract set—they see the environment, but it's all done with wire frame props—and they just act all day long. Traditional live action, the actor goes out there for 15 minutes and then sits in their trailer for three and a half hours. Very rarely on our sets do the actors even leave the stage. They're going through six or seven script pages a day. Every actor that we've brought on to the process, after the initial goofy strangeness dissolves, all they need is their imagination—they love it. They're liberated.

Bob Zemeckis made that statement that the future of film will be motion capture—where do you stand?

Not every movie should be an animated movie. Not every movie should be a performance capture movie. And not every movie should be a live action movie. We have all these tools available to us that will allow us to tell a certain story in a certain way. Movies that you're unable to do in live action become candidates for performance capture. Depending on the price points of this medium, I would see the future having more and more movies made with this technique. But if I was going to do GoodFellas, The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire, I wouldn't do it performance capture because there'd be no reason to do it. I don't know what the world will be like for your typical optical device that bends light and puts chemical reactions on a strip. I'm not ringing the death knoll of live action—it will be here for a long, long time. But James Cameron with Avatar, parts of that were done with performance capture, and Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg are using a slightly different version of it on The Adventures of Tintin. Right now what you have is the renowned genius filmmakers seeing the potential of this medium, but it is always driven by story and character. What best serves that story?

So what should audiences look for to appreciate the quality of the technique and the differences between the different technologies?

I think that we fail if the audience is sitting there trying to look at technique. What we're trying to do is the lights come down and you have your popcorn and up comes this story. Hopefully you get lost in the storytelling. You're dazzled by the spectacle, but you're most involved with the characters. Any time you're more interested in looking at that great sunset, personally, I think the filmmaker has dropped you. You're supposed to surrender to that screen.

As you've seen the technology evolve, is the uncanny valley less of an issue?

Our first film, The Polar Express, you had the uncanny valley come up, which is a robotics term. I'm not sure most people truly understand that. But having said that, I think we have made incredible strides in eliminating the uncanny valley effect. We're using a different technology to capture the eyes and I think it's the best it's ever been. We've learned a lot of lessons. When you see A Christmas Carol, I don't think it's an issue. The uncanny valley concerns are a remnant from an earlier work, a first attempt. That was our maiden voyage, our Columbus. As I speak to you, we've embarked on our fifth performance capture film, Mars Needs Moms, which will come out in summer '11. We're always striving every movie to enhance the experience of what we can do and how we can do it better—there's no greater critic of what we do then ourselves because we sit with these images all day long.

The release date is early November—a bold choice for a film that would typically be a Thanksgiving weekend blockbuster.

In today's exhibition environment—especially when you have a Christmas-themed movie, not a movie that's in the Christmas window—we know that the numbers fall off very rapidly after the holiday. You can't open a movie at Thanksgiving that's quickly going to fall off a cliff for no other reason than that people are no longer in the Christmas spirit. You can't make the economics work with such a narrow window. Avatar is going to be released on December 17th and it's not going to drop dead—it can play for who knows how long. So we're coming out earlier to get as healthy and robust a run as we can generate.

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