It’s the eyes. It’s still the eyes. CGI motion capture technology has come very far since Robert Zemeckis unleashed Polar Express, with its character’s faces frozen in horrific expressions of pain, but the technique remains stuck firmly in the Uncanny Valley.

This morning I went to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles for a press event commemorating the launch of a national train tour promoting A Christmas Carol. The train is going to spend the entire rest of the year (I mean it – they’ll be making stops through November) winding its way across the country, and it’s bringing exhibitions and clips from the movie with it.

I got a chance to watch those clips, and my reactions are mixed.

Watching Jim Carrey perform as Scrooge in selected scenes from A Christmas Carol, opening this November, I marveled at how much the word ‘perform’ truly applied. This was Jim Carrey on screen, not functionally all that different than Jim Carrey under heavy prosthetics. It’s amazing to see, but not in a flashy way that pulls you from what you’re watching. Rather it’s simply a complete performance.

But those eyes. While I felt that Scrooge’s eyes, for whatever reason, seemed to work, the eyes of Colin Firth’s character, Fred, looked like a mockery of life. It’s early, and maybe this sort of stuff will be addressed as the movie gets closer to completion, but Firth’s eyes would stay locked on Carrey’s Scrooge no matter where his head went. And they were flat, without a spark.

The eyes on Jacob Marley were totally different. His eyes dart around in his head like the ghost is trying to make sense of his surroundings. I would love to see the original actor’s performance (is it Cary Elwes? I’m unclear, as is IMDB) to get a look at what made the animators choose to do that with his eyes.

Then again, it’s just the eyes. Everything else on display is, frankly, magnificent. While I don’t really understand Zemeckis’ drive towards photo-realistic humans, he’s making amazing headway in that direction. Scrooge’s features are a touch cartoony, but rendered completely realistically within that aesthetic. Firth’s Fred looks like… Colin Firth. And the ghost of Marley looks so real that when he does a The Frighteners-influenced bit of comedy with his jaw it comes across as disconcerting more than funny. (For those playing at home: what I saw today was miles better than the clip from the same scene that appeared online this week)

At a press conference in front of the train, Zemeckis explained that he thought technology finally allowed him to bring this story to life in a way that it never had been before. That’s a weird sentiment to me, one that sounds very 1999; surely CGI has been advanced enough to bring these four ghosts to life before now. And the ghosts and the setting really are the least important element of the story. There’s a reason why A Christmas Carol has become a stage production stalwart – it’s all about the story.

Interestingly, while we got a quick look at some action (after Scrooge attempts to put out the flame-headed Ghost of Christmas Past with a cone of some sort the ghost rockets the old man up out of his house and far, far into the sky), most of the scenes shown were talky. Even the Jacob Marley scene was, after a quick ominous intro, about two guys chatting. I wonder if this isn’t part of why Zemeckis chose this story. He’s shown he can do a kid’s movie and an adventure movie with mocap, and now he’s moved on to a story whose core can easily be expressed on stage. Can mocap work in a film that’s mostly drama?

It’s too early to tell. What I’ve seen is intriguing, and well done. Zemeckis has obviously committed himself to being at the forefront of this technology, and he’s patiently fine-tuning it with each film. The evolution from Polar Express to A Christmas Carol is almost breath-taking.

Now it’s all about seeing if he can make a good movie with these tools.

You can see the footage yourself in the coming months as the A Christmas Carol train tour makes its way across the United States. It’s free for everybody, and even though it’s a blatant advertisement, I think kids will get a kick out of the displays on the train itself as well as the footage.

Here’s the list of train stops. It’s pretty massive.


Stop
#

Market

Date

Site

Address

City

State

Zip

1

Los
Angeles

May
22-25

Los
Angeles Union Station

800
N. Alameda St.

Los
Angeles

CA

90012

2

Grand
Canyon

May
29-31

Williams
Depot

233
North Grand Canyon Blvd

Williams

AZ

86046

3

Santa
Fe

June
2

Santa
Fe Depot

410
S Guadalupe St

Santa
Fe

NM

87501

4

Albuquerque

June
5-7

Albuquerque
Amtrak Station

214
First Street Southwest

Albuquerque

NM

87102

5

Denver

June
12-14

 Denver
Union Station

1701
Wynkoop St

Denver

CO

80202

6

Salt
Lake City

June
16

Ogden
Union Station

2501
Wall Avenue

Ogden

UT

84401

7

Sacramento

June
19-21

California
State Rail Road Museum

111
I Street

Sacramento

CA

95814

8

San
Francisco

June
26-28

Port
of Redwood City

675
Seaport Blvd.

Redwood
City

CA

94063

9

Portland

July
1

Portland
Union Station

800
Northwest 6th Avenue

Portland

OR

97209

10

Seattle

July
3-5

King
Street Station

303
South Jackson Street

Seattle

WA

98104

11

Spokane

July
7

Spokane
Amtrak Station

 221
W. 1st Avenue

Spokane

WA

99201

12

Whitefish

July
10-11

Whitefish
Amtrak Station

500
Depot St

Whitefish

MT

59937

13

Fargo

July
15

North
Dakota State University

1301
12th Avenue North

Fargo

ND

58102

14

St.
Paul

July
17-19

Amtrak
Midway Station

730
Transfer Road

St.
Paul

MN

55114

15

Chicago

July
24-26

Chicago
Union Station

225
South Canal Street

Chicago

IL

60606

16

St.
Louis

July
31- August 2

 St.
Louis Union Station

550
South 16th Street

Saint
Louis

MO

63103

17

Memphis

August
4

Memphis
Central Station

545
South Main Street

Memphis

TN

38103

18

New
Orleans

August
7-9

Riverview
in Audubon Park

6500
Magazine Street

New
Orleans

LA

70118

19

Houston

August
11

 Houston
Amtrak Station

902
Washington Avenue

Houston

TX

77002

20

San
Antonio

August
14-16

San
Antonio Amtrak Station

350
Hoefgen Street

San
Antonio

TX

78205

21

Dallas

August
18-19

Dallas
Union Station

401
South Houston St

Dallas

TX

75202

22

Oklahoma
City

August
21-23

Oklahoma
City Santa Fe Depot

100
South E. K.Gaylord Blvd

Oklahoma
City

OK

73102

23

Kansas
City

August
25

Kansas
City Union Station

30
W. Pershing Road

Kansas
City

MO

64108

24

Omaha

August
28-30

Durham
Museum

801
South 10th Street

Omaha

NE

68108

25

Detroit

September
4-6

Henry
Ford Museum Greenfield Village

20900
Oakwood Blvd

Dearborn

MI

48124

26

Indianapolis

September
9

Downtown
Bargersville

24
North Main Street

Bargersville

IN

46106

27

Louisville

September
11-13

Louisville
Union Station

1000
W. Broadway

Louisville

KY

40203

28

Cleveland

September
18-19

Cleveland
Brown’s Lot

1085
W Third St

Cleveland

OH

44114

29

Albany

September
22

Albany
Rensselaer Rail Station

525
East Street

Rensselaer

NY

12144

30

Boston

September
25-27

South
Station

2
South Station

Boston

MA

2110

31

Baltimore

September
30

B
& O Railroad Museum

901
W Pratt St

Baltimore

MD

21223

32

Washington

October
2-4

 Union
Station

 50
Massachusetts Ave. NE

Washington

DC

20002

33

Atlanta

October
6

Southeastern
Railway Museum

3595
Peachtree Rd

Duluth

GA

30096

34

Spencer

October
9-11

NC
Transportation Museum

411
S. Salisbury Ave

Spencer

NC

28159

35

Savannah

October
13

 Savannah
Amtrak Station

 2611
Seaboard Coastline Dr

Savannah

GA

31415

36

Miami

October
16-18

Gold
Coast Railroad Museum

12450
SW 152nd St

Miami

FL

33177

37

Jacksonville

October
20

Jacksonville
Amtrak Station

3570
Clifford Lane

Jacksonville

FL

32209

38

Charleston

October
23-25

Ansonborough
Field

Washington
and Concord Streets

Charleston

SC

29401

39

Philadelphia

October
27

30th
Street Station

2955
Market Street

Philadelphia

PA

19104

40

New
York

October
30 – November 1

Grand
Central Terminal

42nd
Street and Park Avenue

New
York

NY

10017