A Train, Christmas in Summer, Charles Dickens, and DISNEY?

| June 25, 2009 | 5 Replies

Can you think of anything more American, that brings more old fashioned excitement, than a train pulling into your town, bringing the latest and greatest of everything? Well that excitement is what the folks at Disney are banking on with the development of the Christmas Carol Train Tour.  It is making 40 stops at cities around the country this summer until its final show at Grand Central Station in New York City.

The Christmas Carol Train in Los Angeles

The Christmas Carol Train - covered with "skins" of movie art

I tell you – that excitement certainly worked on me!!! When I first saw the emailed flyer for this experience, I had 2 reactions.

  1. I got on the phone to Tony and Wendy. We all agreed this was something we had to see, even though none of us had heard anything about Disney doing a version of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol.
  2. My second thought was that this was marketing genius at its finest and I wondered how they were going to pull this off.

Then, it occurred to me…. This could be like the Bicentennial Freedom Train and how cool was that!!!!! (I know I’m dating myself…)

By car, train, and subway, we all converged on Los Angeles Union Station – the first time any of us had been there. Can I say, what a beautiful place to experience this! They parked the train on Track 12 and we hiked up the ramp to join the line.

The Passenger Hall at Union Station

Los Angeles Union Station Passenger Waiting Area

There she was. The entire Amtrak Train covered in scenery from the movie, with Jim Carey’s Scrooge big as life across the engine!!!! What was even more interesting is that these huge images weren’t painted on the train. They were actually “skins”, like the ones you find for advertising on buses (most of us have seen this in practice at Disneyland and Walt Disney World). Who would have thought HP made printers that could do a project that big???? I think of HP as doing stuff for the home and office, so that was kind of neat.

It was nice that the line was able to wrap around the front of the train – something that won’t be possible at most cities. We got to enjoy the sight of the train during our wait, which wasn’t bad, at least not compared to everyone who came after us – it was about 45 minutes or so. After we all finally arrived, we went to find Bob Gault, the man in charge of producing this experience. In fact, we felt a bit guilty when we were marched across the crowd to the head of the line and into the train before it officially opened. We had our own private tour of the exhibit!!!!

I’m going to give you our biggest piece of advice straight up front…. GET THERE EARLY!!!!! This exhibition had wait times of 4 hours or more when we left. If you come later, bring snacks, water, and good conversation!

For those of you that will be waiting in line, Disney has planned some great entertainment to “distract” you during your wait time. Here in Los Angeles, there were carollers, jugglers, a small band, a magician, a stilt walker, and more! They also had tents off to the side that had Christmas themed temporary tattoos, a drawing to enter, and water for the hot waits. (A vending truck had also pulled up behind the area for folks wanting snacks too! I’m not sure if it was sponsored by the train station or a brilliant independent vendor!)

Christmas Tattoos, Carollers, Activity Tents, Jugglers, and the Disneyland Correspondents with Bob Gault

Clockwise from bottom left: Christmas Tattoos, Carollers, Activity Tents, Juggler, and the Disneyland Correspondent Team with Bob Gault

Bob took us through each car, which is designed to explain how this movie came to be and what makes it so unique. For those of you who haven’t heard about this movie, it is done entirely in performance capture animation. This isn’t your mother’s animation in any way, shape, or form. It’s a hybrid of real life acting and computer generated imagery. We’ve seen this techniques from other companies before, Gollem in Lord of the Rings, all the characters in Polar Express, and Disney has most notably used it for Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean 3. This is the next generation of that technology. There are no movie sets, no costumes, just these odd suits, lots of dots, and an amazing team of artists, actors, and technologically saavy wizards, that have the vision to put something like this together.

In the first car, we met the characters – portraits hanging on the wall. Their costumes were there to greet us as well. But wait – if the actors don’t use costumes, why are these here? Bob explained to us that everything in the first room is a reference. Along with the traditional animation maquettes, artists had to have actual costumes to design from. This keeps the look and feel of the film consistent. The portraits showed how the actors are “morphed” into their characters – something we would get to play with later.

Costumes and artwork used for reference

Character Portraits and Costumes in the Reference Room

These items were all flashy and exciting, but for us the real draw of the first car were the Dickens artifacts. There are several cases that contain hand written excerpts from his novels, first edition books and his quill pen – all from the Dickens Museum in London, England. It’s so rare to see items like this and many folks just walk right by them, so if you attend the event in other cities, make sure you take the time to look at these treasures and explain them to your kids. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Charles Dickens artifacts - books, notes, and other items.

Charles Dickens personal artifacts - notes, books, drafts, and other items

We followed Bob on to the next “room” to see background art and learn a little bit about how this really established the feel of the movie and made the seasons and settings believable. It also helped the artists to further design the more necessary elements of the movie, such as buildings, furniture, and handheld items like ledger books and candlesticks.

Background art for the movie

These other elements were then presented to us as we entered the next area. The model room contained figure maquettes (sculptures), facial masks, and architectural models of buildings that play key roles in the movie.

Clockwise from upper left: Models of the Hearst Carriage, Fred Scrooge's home, Scrooge & Marley's office, Masks of Scrooge and Cratchet, Interior of the Office Model, Model of Big Ben, Maquettes of Marley, Scrooge, and Mrs. Fezziwig

Bob discussed how tiny “lipstick” cameras are used with these models to go in and out of rooms, plotting the actual spacial relationship of the building. These measurements are then used on the filming stage to keep the actors from running into “walls” as they act. This concept wasn’t completely clear until we stepped into the “Volume” Room. The “Volume” is the special soundstage used for performance capture acting. It’s half something out of Tron and half a math student’s nightmare! As you can see in the photos, one wall is mirrored, giving you the visual effect of a huge room!

Performance Capture Suit for an Actor working on a Volume Room Soundstage

All of this mathematical mayhem actually serves a purpose. It allows the computer programmers/animators to use the actor’s own motions to control the physical movement and facial expressions of the characters. Here we learned about how the special suits (with reference marks) and the special markings on their faces are captured by the camera and then entered into the computer. The animated character then moves in accordance to the positioning of the actor. You can see from the photos that the actors even wear special headset cameras to record every movement of those dots from various angles. It helps produce extremely smooth and natural facial movements in the animation.

The soundstage is also graphed with reference marks – indicating walls, furniture, etc. That’s where the models and the lipstick cameras come in. They map out the blueprint of the model and let the programmers, director, and actors know their limitations. They can then build prop sets to match the size and scale of the model. One thing we noticed very quickly was how the sets are extremely bare! This type of movie is inexpensive in terms of physical materials. No fancy, painstakingly created, historically acurate sets, no costumes, and best yet – the actors are on and off the set in a matter of days. Bob said Jim Carey completed all his roles in 22 days!!!! Wow. Unheard of in the days of heavy makeup and time/weather specific shooting schedules.

Clockwise from upper left: A Volume Room, Actors in motion, Facial cameras and markings, a performance capture suit, Jim Carey films a scene, Nancy interviewing Bob Gault

I would sincerely recommend taking your time in this room. The videos on the wall were taken during actual filming and are fascinating. I thought this one one of the best parts of the exhibit. You really get a look into the performance capture movie making process!

We then moved through a tunnel of video screens, which showed you all of the stages in the process of the charater animation. We stopped and chatted a bit about movie making, because you could really compare the videos on each screen and understand the progression of development. I think this room could bring up some great conversation with your older kids or adult companions.

The video tunnel shows the film in all stages

Exiting the tunnel brought us to the interactive areas of the exhibit. Here we were shown how this generation of computer animation allows us to travel through the background scenery and “fly” with the characters. With this station of Hewlett Packard touch screen computers, we could peek into the windows of houses and fully appreciate how realistically the backgrounds looked as you passed through them. There was a companion exhibit of touch screens that allowed you to explore the scenery on your own. My oldest daughter was completely fascinated by it.

Zoe demonstrates the touch screens

Zoe demonstrates the HP touch screens

After playing with the city of London, we met a cast member at the entrance to the Morphing exhibit. They gave us a barcode and escorted us to an empty interactive computer. Bob explained the process to us and then off we went to turn ourselves into Scrooge, Tiny Tim, or Jacob Marley. The computers won’t accept data from those under age 13, so older kids and parents will have to bite the bullet and get their photo taken! The younger ones will get a kick out of seeing mom or dad as a spooky ghost or cranky old man, even if they have no clue what the movie is about. The bar code is a bit tricky and the biggest problem we had was the computer timing out on us as we went to enter our information. In the end, we didn’t get an image from Wal-mart, probably because it was difficult to fix typos in your email address, but we had a pretty good time playing with the software.

Clockwise from upper left: The Morphing experience, The Morphing room, Tony discusses movie making with Ian and Zoe, Bob teaches Andrew how to morph

The train tour itself was about to come to an end as we entered the last room. It was themed to be Fred Scrooge’s living and dining room – the setting of one of the story’s final scenes. The cast members manning this area said that many guests are taking their family Christmas card photos early with their help. The popular photo spots for this are the fireplace or the feast-filled dining room table, so don’t hesitate to ask if you can hand your camera over to them – we did!!!!

After leaving the train, we were handed Amtrak coupons and coloring sheets of Christmas ornaments. Then, as we went down the steps, the impossible began – snow in Summer!!!!!! The snow machine was just starting up, so it wasn’t too heavy, but still fun. The kids noticed right away and were happy about it (of course living here in Los Angeles, they never see it…).

We were then escorted into the movie theater “bounce house” (copyright tspittell) and given our 3D glasses to see the movie preview. I don’t know what I was thinking by bringing the girls into the theater, but I honestly have to remind you all that this movie is not for the smaller kids in the family. There is a very nice “behind the scenes” documentary before the clips. Then came the selected scenes. Neither were for small children, especially since the feature sequence was that of Scrooge being visited by Jacob Marley. It was amazing and truly showcased the amazing sound system in the theater building. This was not your average portable theater!!!! Both of my girls cringed and hid when Marley entered the room. I even had a bit of a startle. If the quality of these clips are any indication of how the movie will be when completed, I can truly say it will be an amazing success!

So from all of the Disneyland Correspondents and our families – Tony, Wendy, and myself:

Merry Christmas!

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