Why does Robert Zemeckis hate live action?
Back in the day — a long, long time ago — Robert Zemeckis was best known for directing Back to the Future and its eventual sequels. He probably became a big mainstream name with the massive success of Forrest Gump. That movie also perhaps signaled the beginning of the end for Zemeckis as a traditional live-action filmmaker (although one could argue that moment was earlier signaled by his helming of the then-groundbreaking animation-combined-with-live-action Who Framed Roger Rabbit?).
With Forrest Gump, Zemeckis played with the notion of compositing live action with archival footage, allowing Tom Hanks to appear in the same shots as TV footage of President Nixon, among plenty of others. It was a gimmick that Zemeckis later employed in Contact, in order to merge the movie with footage of President Clinton in press conferences.
If you watch the special features on the Contact DVD (or maybe it was the VHS tape, to be honest), you see that Zemeckis’ penchant for tweaking existing images began in earnest with that film: He found that when the skies in particular outdoor shots weren’t “interesting” enough, he could replace them with skies that had better-looking clouds. I think it was this sort of “because I can” mentality that guided Zemeckis’ career into the 2000s.
It seems to me that Zemeckis — not totally unlike George Lucas in some regards — has within him a tech-geek-auteur mentality. He’s very much a filmmaker who is interested in, and relies on, CGI and technology. In 1999-2000, Zemeckis made Cast Away — a terrific film — and I was startled to learn from the DVD special features the sheer amount of faked imagery that was in that movie. Many shots on the island were simply not real at all, instead created by virtue of CGI. (This was a case of CGI used in the service of maintaining a perfect illusion of reality, instead of unreality.)
But since Cast Away, it seems Zemeckis has become a director of purely “performance capture” 3D CGI animated fare. His last three releases: The Polar Express, Beowulf, and now A Christmas Carol. All animated, based on performances by real actors.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticizing Zemeckis for his choices. I am simply observing the course of Zemeckis from a traditional filmmaker with a penchant for visual effects to a full-blown technology-driven Animation Guy.
I suppose everyone has their niche (or pigeonhole). With Michael Bay, it’s CGI for the purpose of sledgehammering you in the face with testosterone-driven action mayhem. With Roland Emmerich, it’s CGI for the purpose of ending the world as seen from the point of view of dysfunctional families and government bodies. With Tim Burton, it’s quirky animated fare or offbeat projects starring Johnny Depp.
Will Zemeckis ever make a live-action movie again? One wonders.
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