How many ways can one story be told?
For Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the popular moral-heavy tale centered around the “Bah, humbug” growling Ebenezer Scrooge in 19th century London, the adaptations are numerous and the possibilities endless.
Director Robert Zemeckis has led his love affair with performance-capture technology into the Christmas season with his extravagant yet surprisingly faithful 3-D take on A Christmas Carol, which opens Nov. 6 and stars Jim Carrey as Scrooge.
The latest performance-capture exploration from Zemeckis, A Christmas Carol rounds out the director’s digital 3-D animation triumvirate, which includes winter-themed film, The Polar Express, and literature-to-film adaptation, Beowulf.
As a remake of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine in digital 3-D will follow in 2010, it’s undeniable that the filmmaker, who first garnered attention with the Back to the Future series and critical acclaim with the Academy Award-winning Forrest Gump, is “falling in love with this digital cinema.”
“Ever since Polar Express, I’ve been on this quest to think of movie ideas that can be presented in this new art form,” Zemeckis said at a recent Los Angeles press conference. “I just got hit with this idea that it could be A Christmas Carol.”
Struck with inspiration, Zemeckis reread the novella to refresh his memory of not just the story, but also Dickens’ vision.
“[Dickens’ story] hasn’t been realized in the way it was imagined by him,” he said. “So I thought this will be perfect: Take a classic story that everyone is familiar with and re-envision it in a new and exciting way.”
This new and exciting way, however, is not solely the creation of computers. As Carrey puts it, performance capture does not limit actors to voice-over work but instead generates “full performances by actors.”
“The technology is so far advanced from Beowulf, where our eyes, every movement, the minutia of our acting, you see on the screen,” added Robin Wright Penn, who plays Belle in the film. “Every movement is capture and yet, you can change the size of the eye with the animation.”
As if performing in a stage-play, the actors work within a minimally designed space — in this case, a block of infrared lighting — and run through an entire scene from beginning to end without stopping. Without having to worry about cameras, lighting or running out of film, the actors are able to spend more time on honing the blocking and action of the scene.
“As a film actor, you’re used to having a proscenium in your head somewhere,” Carrey said. “But there are no boundaries anymore.”
But this freedom is not without its creative pitfalls.
“Certain aspects of the technology make things easier to get a lot of scenes done … and to create the world [Zemeckis] wants,” Carrey said. “But for an actor, there are extra challenges. You have to create the ambiance and your surroundings in your head, and oftentimes, like when we [Carrey and Penn] did our dance, you’re clacking these pincers together with cameras on them, going ‘clack, clack’ against each other’s head. It’s really disconcerting.”
Disconcerting, maybe, but it’s a small price to pay for a stimulating performance. Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol and passion for exploring the digital animation medium provided Carrey the daunting yet thrilling task of playing seven additional roles beside Scrooge, including the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come.
“Every spirit was an aspect of Scrooge’s personality,” Carrey said. “It’s like talking to himself.”
To prepare for his role as Scrooge — perhaps his most emotionally taxing performance in the film — Carrey was not afraid of using older adaptations of Dickens’ text as research. The one that stuck out the most in Carrey’s mind was 1951’s Scrooge — a film Carrey claimed to watch every year when he was a kid — with British actor Alastair Sim as the title character.
“His whole being had an acid-reflex bitterness to it. I wanted to have that feeling,” Carrey lightheartedly said of Sim’s interpretation of Scrooge.
But for Carrey, a comedic talent who’s mostly known and lauded for his control, precision and commitment to physicality, the role of Scrooge called for a more introspective approach than Carrey’s usual in-your-face bravado.
“I based this character on the lies that we believe about ourselves,” he said. “[Scrooge] believed he wasn’t worthy of love, and so why should love exist for anybody?”
Although 3-D animation tends to be reserved for fantastical kids films, Zemeckis and his cast prove that animation can transcend beyond its assumed gimmick.
A Christmas Carol might not depict a traumatic miscarriage like in Pixar’s Up, yet the tone of life and loss is set from the film’s opening lines: “Marley was dead,” voiced over an animated corpse. There’s going to be whimsy, there’s going to be slapstick, but, most unexpectedly, there’s going to be a quiet essence of the human condition.
“The only thing we have to be aware of in this world is the unloved,” Carrey said. “Scrooge is abandoned. He tried desperately for a long time to cling to whatever’s good … but was slowly disappointed by life. He can’t build anymore unless he really goes inside himself — and the film gives him the opportunity to do so.”