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Immersed in Movies: Zemeckis Talks 'Flight' and the 'Digital Stew'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 2, 2012 at 4:21PM

While "Flight" marks Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action, he rejects the notion that he spent the last decade wandering in the virtual woods with performance capture. In fact, the Oscar-winning director likes to quote Francois Truffaut in explaining that his movies have always been about "truth and spectacle." In "Flight," we get both, of course, with a harrowing plane crash, and a riveting performance from Denzel Washington as an alcoholic airline pilot forced to confront his personal demons when his heroics turn against him. Indeed, Zemeckis maintains that the real spectacle was navigating the dramatic ambiguity of Washington's crucible.

However, Zemeckis' proudest moment is a philosophical conversation in a hospital stairwell between Washington, a recovering substance abuser (Kelly Reilly) who he befriends, and a cancer patient (James Badge Dale). The quiet bonding comes out of nowhere from some one-act play and represents the longest and most sublime scene in the director's career.

"It's funny: all these people have been talking as if I've been retired for 10 years. But what I've been doing is theater workshop. I was toned to step in with this fantastic cast," he says.

But what of performance capture and the whole 3-D and virtual production revolution that Zemeckis helped usher in with "The Polar Express"? "I think it's a giant digital stew and it's just gonna end up being moving images and nobody's gonna care where they came from and how they were created," Zemeckis suggests. "It's all going to go back to storytelling. It's going to be a live-action component where you create the image using a lens coupled with another virtual component where it's all completely done in the computer; portions of practical sets with digitally painted augmentation; and painted on lighting. One of the things you can do now is you can shoot someone in a Mova suit in the real light with the other person.

"The bad news is that you're only going to be limited by your imagination. And the good news is that everything is going to come back to the writing. The thing about the digital revolution is that it liberates everything. Now you have to be careful that you don't get sloppy.

"I've got a backlog of ideas that are simmering [including an immersive portrayal of 'Man on Wire's' Philippe Petit and his balletic conquest of the Twin Towers]. Performance capture is going to be perfected -- it's just a matter of more computing power. My concern about the Internet is that the immediacy and worldwide scale will stifle innovation. Somebody can piss on something new without even giving anybody a chance to work out a few bugs. People will be vilified on the world stage because it's not perfect."

It's reassuring to hear that Zemeckis won't be stifled from mixing it up in the digital stew.

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Bob Zemeckis, Flight, Denzel Washington, VFX

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.