Back from the future
"Everyone keeps thinking I haven't made a movie in 12 years," the director Robert Zemeckis said. "It's like I've gone off and done opera or something."
Flight, which stars Denzel Washington as an airline pilot whose assured, unflappable demeanour masks a major substance abuse problem, is Zemeckis' first live-action film since Cast Away in 2000. But this filmmaker—who won an Oscar for Forrest Gump (1994) and is responsible for enduring favourites like Back to the Future (1985) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)—has not been off riding with the Valkyries.
Instead Zemeckis has spent the last decade conducting some very public experiments with new digital technologies. Over the course of three animated features – The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009)—he has set out to explore the new century's alliance of computing and filmmaking.
At 61 Zemeckis is a soft-spoken, solidly built man. His determination to bring the softly naturalistic, fully dimensional look of Chris Van Allsburg's illustrations for the beloved children's book The Polar Express to the screen led him to investigate the emerging field of motion-capture technology. The process, known as mo-cap, uses scanners rather than cameras to track the movements of performers and convert them into three-dimensional models, bypassing traditional forms of animation. In effect the technology transforms a human actor into a data field that the filmmaker can manipulate to his heart's content. In the completed film Tom Hanks was able to portray six characters, from a train conductor to a rather sinister Santa Claus.
It is difficult to imagine the mo-cap-dominated 3-D blockbusters of the last several years—films like Avatar or Avengers—without the innovations that Zemeckis and his collaborators nursed along through those three movies.
With Flight, Zemeckis sees no break with his standard practice, which is to use state-of-the-art technology in the service of classic cinematic storytelling. The computers are still there, though this time they are churning away in the service of naturalism rather than fantasy.
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