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The ImageMovers Animated Film Guide

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ImageMovers is an independent film company that was created in 1997 by acclaimed filmmaker Robert Zemeckis. Since 2000 it has made a number of live action films as well as pioneering Performance Capture techniques in five animated films. Despite some early success, its last animated film, Mars Needs Moms (2011), was a huge box office disaster.

Robert Zemeckis

Robert Zemeckis is an Oscar-winning filmmaker who established himself in the 1980s as a highly talented writer and director who has since pushed the boundaries of using computer graphics in live action films. In the late 1970s/early 1980s he and his then writing partner Bob Gale established a reputation for writing incredible film scripts that had very positive reactions in test screenings, but resulted in films that no-one actually went to see. His first film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), was about a group of American Beatles fans who wanted to see them on the Ed Sullivan Show, but it flopped. His second film was 1941 (1979). Directed by Steven Spielberg, it also flopped. Used Cars (1980) was another flop. It was not until he directed 1984's Romancing the Stone that he enjoyed success1. He wrote and directed 1985's Back to the Future, a film that had been turned down by every major studio but became a huge success for Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. He followed this with co-writing and directing the two sequels. However it was 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit that set the seed of combining animation with live action that ImageMovers would later specialise in.

In the 1990s Zemeckis' career continued to enjoy success, most notably with directing Forrest Gump (1994) which won six Oscars: Best Director and Best Picture, as well as Best Actor for Tom Hanks, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Visual Effects, and Best Editing. This was followed by another huge hit, Contact. Such success allowed him to form his own studio, ImageMovers. He directed the new studio's first film What Lies Beneath in 2000 followed the same year by Cast Away, which again resulted in Tom Hanks winning a Best Actor Oscar. Yet following this unprecedented success, Zemeckis changed direction and focussed on creating animated films by pioneering Motion Capture techniques.

Mo-Cap and Performance Capture

Motion Capture, commonly called Mo-Cap for short, is a way of recording the movement of people and objects. In ImageMovers' animated films the technique was used to combine actions in the real world with digitally created objects. Actors wear special Mo-Cap suits covered in markers, which traditionally look like blue ping-pong balls, attached to key parts of their body. More marker dots are painted on each performer's face, to a typical total of 250 markers on each actor. Receptors pick up the movement of these reference markers to map the actor's face and body movement. This information is combined with an animated 3D digital character linked to the actor so that any move the actor makes is precisely replicated by the character.

When Mo-Cap is used to replicate far more subtle movement, particularly facial expressions, it is called 'Performance Capture'.

As Mo-Cap records performances in a 3D environment, it excels at creating realistic 3D images that are more impressive than films filmed in 2D and converted into 3D. All ImageMovers' films have been released in 3D.

Making Mo-Cap

ImageMovers' Mo-Cap process involves actors giving realistic performances in a three-dimensional cube-shaped stage area known as the Volume. Spotlights flood the Volume with infrared light. The Volume is surrounded by Receptors on the four walls and the ceiling which detect any movement made within the Volume. There are a minimum of 40 on each side; for example 224 Receptors were used on Beowulf. Computer software combines all the Receptors' data, triangulating to make a virtual reconstruction viewable from any conceivable angle.

In order for the characters to realistically interact with their virtual environment, full-scale props were built for the actors to interact with. These were wire-framed hollow models that allowed infrared light to pass through without blocking the Receptors. Each prop was barcoded so the computer knew which prop was in use and could match it with its virtual equivalent. Large-scale props and rigs were used to make everything as realistic as possible. So for example, door props were used to capture the movement of opening a door. In Beowulf, to recreate the animation of a ship, a boat-shaped rig was built that actually swayed side-to-side while, for the horse-riding scenes, real horses covered in 95 markers were used to capture horses' movements, and were even ridden up a replica spiral staircase.

Dead Eyes in Uncanny Valley

The Polar Express was heavily criticised for its eerily realistic-looking creepy characters who appear to have strangely plastic skin and dead eyes, in a phenomenon known as 'uncanny valley'2. To help overcome this, from Beowulf onwards Electrooculograph electrodes were developed to record eye muscle movement and create more realistic eyes. Later, high definition video camera helmets were used to record every movement of the actors' faces.


The five films made by ImageMovers are listed below – the first three were co-produced by various different studios, while the final two were made by ImageMovers Digital, a joint venture between ImageMovers and the Walt Disney Company. ImageMovers' logo shows a steam locomotive approaching the camera, pulling a train of film-shaped carriages. ImageMovers Digital's logo showed a ball falling down a staircase, with the stairs forming the letters IMD. ImageMovers Digital had announced plans to make six animated films. However, following the disastrous performance of the second, Mars Needs Moms, Disney ended the joint venture and the remaining planned films were all cancelled.

ImageMovers' animation style combines not only Mo-Cap but also the use of 3D. The films aren't always suitable for younger viewers, so their BBFC3, IFCO4 and MPAA rating is included. Also indicated is whether the films pass The Bechdel Test, which can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more female characters who have a conversation together that does not include or mention any male characters.

1. The Polar Express (2004)

DirectorRobert Zemeckis
  • Warner Bros. Pictures (Distributor)
  • Castle Rock Entertainment5
  • Shangri-La Entertainment6
  • Playtone7
PlotOn Christmas Eve a boy who doubts the existence of Santa Claus is invited on board a magical train called the Polar Express by the conductor. The boy befriends a girl and a nervous boy named Billy, meets a ghost-like tramp and witnesses the late-running train have various nerve-wracking adventures on the way, including steep inclines, sudden drops and sliding across a frozen lake before finally making it to the North Pole, where Santa is said to give the first present of the year. But does the boy believe?
Length96 minutes
SettingChristmas Eve, 20th Century, on the Polar Express between the United States and North Pole
  • 'Hero Boy' (Voice: Daryl Sabara, Adult Voice: Tom Hanks, Motion Capture: Tom Hanks)
    • Ticket: Believe
  • Conductor (Tom Hanks)
  • Girl (Voice: Nona Gaye, Singing: Meagan Moore, Motion Capture: Tinashe & Chantel Valdivieso)
    • Ticket: Lead
  • Know-It-All Kid (Voice: Eddie Deezen, Motion Capture: Jimmy Pinchak)
    • Ticket: Learn
  • Billy (Voice: Jimmy Bennet, Motion Capture: Peter Scolari)
    • Ticket: Depend On, Rely On, Count On
  • Hobo (Tom Hanks)
  • Santa Claus (Tom Hanks)
  • Boy's Father (Tom Hanks)
  • Boy's Mother (Leslie Zemeckis)
  • Sarah, Boy's Sister (Voice: Isabella Peregrina, Motion Capture: Leslie Zemeckis & Ashly Holloway)
  • Smokey and Steamer, train driver and engineer (Voice: Andre Sogliuzzo, Motion Capture: Michael Jeter)
  • Elf General (Charles Fleischer)
Based OnThe Polar Express (1985) by Chris Van Allsburg
MusicScore composed by Alan Silvestri, songs by Alan Silvestri & Glen Ballard:
  • 'The Polar Express'
  • 'Spirit of the Season'
  • 'Hot Chocolate'
  • 'When Christmas Comes to Town'
  • 'Rockin' on Top of the World'
  • 'Believe'

A strong film about the magic of Christmas that not only is officially the first film where all acting was done by Motion Capture, but also it was Oscar nominated for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Original Song. Costing $165 million, at the time it was the most expensive animated film yet made. It was also released in 3D IMAX. The Polar Express itself was based on a 2-8-4 Pere Marquette 1225 locomotive that had been on display at a sports stadium near where the book's author and the film's producer Chris Van Allsburg had played as a child.

Of the children on the train, only the lonely boy Billy's name is revealed; everyone else remains anonymous. However, the messages punched into their tickets by the Conductor reveal much about their personality and what they need to learn. With Santa Claus, the ghostly tramp, the conductor and the main boy all played by Tom Hanks, many have speculated that the film symbolises faith and the Holy Trinity (Santa the father, the Conductor the son and the Hobo the Holy Ghost), or that the boy grows up to become the conductor. Another theory is that they are the ghosts of Christmas past (hobo), present (conductor) and future (Santa). The boy also encounters a puppet of Scrooge; Zemeckis would later adapt A Christmas Carol. Neither of these theories explain what Tom Hanks' role as the main character's faithless father represents.

The film contains nods to Zemeckis' Back to the Future trilogy, especially Part III which contains a steam engine. Both the hero boy and Doc Brown in the earlier film say they had always wanted to blow a train whistle. The look of the North Pole itself was inspired by American railway architecture. Incidentally the boy named Steven who just escaped being put on the naughty list was a reference to Zemeckis' friend Steven Spielberg.

Though successful, the film was criticised for the 'plastic' appearance of its characters as well as the expressionless eyes. ImageMovers would work hard to improve this in later films.

2. Monster House (2006)

DirectorGil Kenan
  • ImageMovers
  • Amblin Entertainment
  • Relativity Media
  • Columbia Pictures (Distributor)
PlotIt is Halloween and DJ's parents have gone away for the weekend, leaving him with disinterested babysitter Zee. DJ spends his time spying on old Nebbercracker, whose house is across the road; whenever a toy lands on Nebbercracker's lawn he breaks or takes it, screaming at the children to stay away from his house. When DJ's friend Chowder's basketball lands on the lawn, DJ tries to rescue it but is caught by Nebbercracker, who has a heart attack and collapses, apparently dead. Yet someone phones DJ from Nebbercracker's house, leaving DJ and Chowder to believe it is haunted. Those who go near the house disappear and after the house tries to eat them they save Jenny, a door-to-door candy selling school girl, from being devoured. How can a group of children stop a house from eating all the innocent children who will call on Halloween? What secret is the house really hiding?
Length91 minutes
SettingLate 20th Century suburban America in the 24 hours leading up to Halloween
  • Dustin 'DJ' Walters, 12-year-old boy (Mitchel Musso)
  • 'Chowder', DJ's best friend, also 12 (Sam Lerner)
  • Jenny Bennett, 12-year-old girl and love interest (Spencer Locke)
  • Horace Nebbercracker, former Army demolition expert and scary old neighbour (Steve Buscemi)
  • Elizabeth 'Zee', DJ's babysitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal)
  • Bones, Zee's drunk punk boyfriend (Jason Lee)
  • Reginald 'Skull' Skulinski, computer game-playing super geek (Jon Heder)
  • Constance 'The Giantess' Nebberracker, circus freak show exhibit and Nebbercracker's deceased wife (Kathleen Turner)
  • Police Officers Landers and Lester (Kevin James & Nick Cannon)
  • DJ's parents (Catherine O'Hara & Fred Willard)
MusicComposed by Douglas Pipes

Monster House is an enjoyable horror film, containing many references to films such as It (1990) and The Shining (1980). Though not suitable for younger viewers, it has a similar tone to 1980s classics like The Goonies (1985) with some critics claiming that central characters DJ, Chowder and Penny are essentially copies of Harry Potter, Ron and Hermione. In order for the film to have a PG13 rating in America, no victim dies during the film; everyone (including the dog) who was eaten by the house is seen escaping in a mid-credits sequence.

Monster House was Israeli-British-American Gil Kenan's directorial debut, made after Robert Zemeckis had been impressed with his 10-minute student film. It was the second film to make extensive use of Mo-Cap following The Polar Express and was even nominated for a Best Animated Feature at the 79th Academy Awards8. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Back to the Future trilogy, the film was executively produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg. Kathleen Turner had previously starred in Who Framed Roger Rabbit as Jessica Rabbit; Constance was quite a different character.

3. Beowulf (2007)

DirectorRobert Zemeckis
  • ImageMovers
  • Shangri-La Entertainment
  • Warner Bros. Pictures (International distributor)
  • Paramount Pictures (North American distributor)
PlotWhen a vicious man-eating monster called Grendel attacks Denmark, King Hrothgar promises a rich reward to any man who kills the monster. Beowulf arrives to fulfil the quest, but Grendel is only the first monster he encounters.
Length109 minutes
SettingDenmark in 507 AD and several years later
  • Beowulf, hero and later king (Ray Winstone)
  • Grendel, giant flesh-eating monster (Crispin Glover)
  • King Hrothgar, ruler of Denmark, a kingdom cursed with Grendel (Anthony Hopkins)
  • Grendel's Mother, demonic seductress (Angelina Jolie)
  • Unferth (John Malkovich)
  • Queen Wealtheow, Hrothgar's wife (Robin Wright Penn)
  • Wiglaf, Beowulf's right-hand man (Brendan Gleeson)
  • Ursula, Beowulf's concubine (Alison Lohman)
  • Dragon (Ray Winstone)
Based OnBeowulf, 10th Century epic poem
MusicSongs composed by Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri except 'Olaf Drinking Song' by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary
RatingBBFC: 12A IFCO: 12 MPAA: PG-13

This film is based on the epic poem Beowulf, written around or before the 10th Century and considered the first story written in the English language. Acclaimed author Neil Gaiman and Oscar-winning screenwriter Roger Avary9 had written the adaptation in 1997 as a mid-budget live-action fantasy film for Warner Bros., but after Warner passed on the project the initial draft impressed Zemeckis so much that in 2005 he bought the screenplay. Even though it had not been conceived as a Mo-Cap film, some changes to the initial script enabled Zemeckis to take advantage of the greater freedom allowed by the technique.

The adaptation made changes to the original story in order to link the three acts together and include references to sex and alcohol. The portrayal of Grendel is remarkably like Gollum in the 2001-2003 adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Both Grendel and his mother converse in Old English, adding a pleasing dimension to the tale.

This was the most-complained about film of the year on both sides of the Atlantic, because of the amount of horror, violence, nudity and sex for a film rated 12. A director's cut includes more nudity and graphic violence.

4. A Christmas Carol (2009)

DirectorRobert Zemeckis
  • ImageMovers Digital
  • Walt Disney Pictures
  • Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (Distributor)
PlotGreedy miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, on Christmas Eve. Scrooge is told that three more ghosts will visit him to help him repent from his selfish, wicked ways and live a better life or he will suffer the same fate as Marley, spending eternity in misery, carrying heavy chains with each link representing a selfish sin.
Length92 minutes
SettingVictorian London, 1843
  • Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey)
  • Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, Yet to Come (Jim Carrey)
  • Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman)
  • Tiny Tim Cratchet (Gary Oldman)
  • Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman)
  • Fred (Colin Firth)
  • Fezziwig (Bob Hoskins)
  • Belle (Robin Wright Penn)
Based OnA Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens
MusicComposed by Alan Silvestri

The first film by ImageMovers Digital was A Christmas Carol starring Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge. This was not the first time that Disney had adapted Charles Dickens' classic tale, having made short film Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983) and co-produced The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). As a Disney film, it opens in the traditional Disney way with the camera zooming in on the book being adapted. Yet this version is certainly unsuitable for young children, being quite scary in parts.

Visually impressive with stunning detail, it creates by far the most realistic animated depiction of London, not only beautiful but also dirty and full of smoke. The 3D is very effective, often shocking, with disconcerting use of shadows. This adaptation of the Christmas classic seems to be suffering from the illusion that it is a rip-roaring rollercoaster ride, and so rarely stays still, with Scrooge flying across the skies over London or shrinking to the size of a mouse. The audience is constantly swooped and twirled about until left quite dizzy, which means that despite A Christmas Carol being one of the most feel-good stories of all time, the audience is unable to notice. There is a vast difference between feeling motion sickness and feeling emotion.

Time travel has long fascinated Zemeckis, who dealt with similar themes in Back to the Future. A Scrooge puppet had also appeared briefly in The Polar Express.

5. Mars Needs Moms (2011)

DirectorSimon Wells
  • ImageMovers Digital
  • Walt Disney Pictures
  • Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (Distributor)

No one would have believed in the dawning years of the 21st century that human affairs were being watched from the dying world of Mars. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded our mothers with envious eyes and slowly and surely they drew up plans.

The Martian Supervisor arranges for Milo's mum to be kidnapped from Earth and brought to Mars, hoping to drain her memories to implant in the next generation of nanny robots that will care for the next generation of female Martian hatchlings, who emerge only once every 25 years. Milo, trying to rescue her, is brought to Mars too, where he encounters Gribble, a man in his early 30s whose mother had been kidnapped and killed 25 years earlier, and his pet spideresque robot Two-Cat. He also meets Ki, a friendly Martian female who wishes to know about Earth and love. They discover that Mars is a stratified society with the females living in a shiny world above, raised by robots, while the males are discarded into an underground rubbish dump, where they live loving but feral lives.

Can Milo, Gribble and Ki save Milo's mum? And what is the buried truth beneath the Martian way of life?

Length88 minutes
SettingEarth and Mars, early 21st Century.
  • Milo, nine year old boy (voice: Seth Dusky, motion capture: Seth Green)
  • Ki, Martian rebel (Elisabeth Harnois)
  • The Supervisor, head Martian (Mindy Sterling)
  • Milo's mother (Joan Cusack)
  • George 'Gribble' Ribble (Dan Fogler)
  • Milo's father (Tom Everett Scott)
  • Two-Cat, a robot (Dee Bradley Baker)
  • Wingnut, huggable male Martian (Kevin Cahoon)
Based OnMars Needs Moms! (2007) by Berkeley Breathed
MusicComposed by John Powell, except
  • 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love' written by Freddie Mercury, performed by Queen
BechdelPass. Though of the four humans in the film only one is female (who spends most of the film unconscious), most Martians seen are female.

Mars Needs Moms is a film confidently directed by Simon Wells, the experienced director of animated films including An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991) and The Prince of Egypt (1998) as well as live-action film The Time Machine (2002). He had worked with Zemeckis in the past on projects including the Back to the Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Simon Wells is the great-grandson of HG Wells, whose legacy can be clearly felt in this film: aliens from Mars were encountered in The War of the Worlds, and, like the Eloi and Morlocks in The Time Machine, Martian society is divided into city-dwelling females and underground, feral males.

In 2000, Fox Animation Studios released Titan AE. This was an animated film set in space about a boy who embarks on an interstellar quest accompanied by an assortment of aliens. It was a major box office disaster, making only $36 million, a loss of approximately $100 million, and resulted in the closure of the studio. Two years later, Disney released Treasure Planet, an animated film set in space about a boy who embarks on an interstellar quest accompanied by an assortment of aliens. It too was a major box office disaster, losing approximately $70 million and becoming the 8th biggest box office loss of all time. Mars Needs Moms is similarly a film about a boy who embarks on an interplanetary quest accompanied by an assortment of aliens. It cost approximately $150 million to make. Mums, however, felt no need to bring their families to see the film, so it clawed back less than $40 million at the box office, placing it in the top five biggest box office losses of all time and Disney's biggest failure.

Animators are still predominantly male and often wish to make the sort of film they would have most enjoyed when they were younger. However, the group most likely to avoid animated films in Western culture is the male 15-30 bracket. Since the 1970s, animated films aimed at this age group have consistently flopped10. The storyline, about an abandoned child whose mother is kidnapped, is also not suitable for younger children who would find this terrifying. The chances of any large audience coming to watch Mars Needs Moms were a million to one, and they didn't come.

The End

Before the failure of Mars Needs Moms, ImageMovers Digital had planned to produce a Mo-Cap remake of Yellow Submarine11, having secured approval to use 16 Beatles songs. The plan had been to release the film during the 2012 London Olympics, which was felt to be a good time to promote a British-themed film. This would have been followed by a remake or sequel of Zemeckis' own Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Following the failure, Disney immediately severed all ties with ImageMovers and these projects were abandoned. ImageMovers still exists as Zemeckis' own production company; however, it has only made live-action films since then.

1In fact the studio had fired Zemeckis after production was completed as they were disappointed by the finished film, only for it to receive unexpected critical and commercial success.2This postulates that the more humanlike something appears, the more positively humans respond to it up until a point; following this point people feel increasing revulsion and creepiness when confronted by artificial replicas the more the replica appears almost, but not quite, entirely like a real person.3British Board of Film Classification. Established in 1912 as the British Board of Film Censors, this rates films U Universal - suitable for all, PG Parental Guidance – may not be suitable for younger viewers, 12A suitable for over 12s or those under 12 accompanied by an adult and 12, 15 and 18 suitable only for viewers of or over the stated age. E stands for Exempt and is used for education and sport.4Irish Film Classification Office, founded in 1923 that rates films released for home viewing in the categories G as General – suitable for all, PG, 12, 15 and 18 similar to the BBFC. The IFCO is stricter on violence and nudity, but more tolerant of swearing than the BBFC.5A production company owned by Warner Bros.6Financing production company.7Tom Hanks' production company.8Monster House and winner Happy Feet both used Mo-Cap, while Pixar's Cars was the non-Mo-Cap nominee. This led to animators claiming Mo-Cap was puppetry rather than true animation. In 2010 the rules for qualifying for the Best Animated Feature Oscar were amended to exclude Motion Capture.9Avary co-wrote Pulp Fiction (1994) with Quentin Tarantino.10As well as the science-fiction animations mentioned above and Astro Boy (2009), hard fantasy animated films including The Lord of the Rings (1978) and The Black Cauldron (1983) are also affected.11Disney had previously invited the Beatles to play the vultures in The Jungle Book (1967), leading to John Lennon declining, reportedly replying with the words 'There’s no way The Beatles are gonna sing for Mickey f-ing Mouse. You can tell Walt Disney to f-off. Tell him to get Elvis off his fat arse...'

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