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Why ‘The Walk’ Is a Career-Definer for Robert Zemeckis (VIDEO)

Why 'The Walk' Is a Career-Definer for Robert Zemeckis (VIDEO)

The Walk,” which fittingly opened the New York Film Festival last week, couldn’t have happened without Bob Zemeckis’ pioneering (if controversial) performance capture work (“The Polar Express”) in IMAX 3D and his previous tech wizardry on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” “Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump.”

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Indeed, “The Walk” best sums up Zemeckis’ ethos about idealistic dreamers and technical perfection conveyed through immersive spectacle: “Everything I’ve done my whole career has prepared me to make this movie,” Zemeckis said. “It’s a win-win for me and I used performance capture invisibly with digital doubling. I certainly identify with that passion that Philippe has. The thumbnail description of the whole act [110-stories high and 140-feet across] told me that this has the potential to be a movie. And so I kept running it down and, of course, when I spoke to Philippe and he told me the story, it was instantly obvious that this could be a movie. It could do everything that movies are supposed to do — that was my instinct.”  

Zemeckis’ original intention was to make “The Walk” as a performance-captured animated feature. But that was before Disney closed down his ImageMovers studio. However, he still got Petit to don the mo-cap suit and virtually pantomime his legendary high-wire balancing act as part of an elaborate animatic of the entire movie. That performance-captured walk obviously served him well as a choreographed roadmap.

“It morphed and it changed but the one thing that was a constant was that I knew it had to be a 3D movie. I knew instantly that inside/out this was a 3D movie. But being sort of the modern day inventor of 3D, I was saddened seeing all these 3D movies being converted which have no reason being in 3D whatsoever.”

VFX supervisor Kevin Baillie of Atomic Fiction (who began working with Zemeckis during his performance capture crusade) studied the Towers intensely. He got photo reference from ’74 and shot plates from a helicopter and then accurately recreated the historic New York moment by digitally stitching the environment together (Joseph Gordon-Levitt performed on a green screen stage in Montreal).

“I spoke to Kevin about how they might be lit and evoke a feeling of color like I would talk to an actor. What I learned is that you get the same feeling of awe looking up at them as you do looking down from them. There’s something about the way they scrape the sky that’s amazingly powerful when you’re at the base looking up. Of course, I only did that virtually because I haven’t been able to do that in person for 15 years. It almost gives you the same visceral feeling as it does when you’re looking down from up on top of them.”

As for the walk itself, Zemeckis was definitely in new cinematic territory with no storytelling precedent: “There’s a guy on a wire and you’ve gotta keep it dramatic, you’ve gotta keep it moving and emotional. The thing that’s great about virtual cinema is that there are no physical limitations. So you sit there and ask if there’s something you can do virtually to make it work with this physical camera and this physical actor and this physical wire. Sometimes it actually improves things.”

Obviously “The Walk” turned out for the best as a live-action hybrid, since there are no uncanny valley distractions to impede the visceral thrill of watching Petit’s amazing accomplishment and inaugurating the Twin Towers, which lends a sense of melancholy to the movie. “What Philippe did from day one was speak about the Towers as living, breathing, organic things. They were his accomplices, they were his partners in this art. I thought that if I could continue to evoke that feeling, that would be great because he did put this human face on them.”

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