The plas­tic pioneer

Di­rec­tor Robert Ze­meckis ex­plains how he cre­ated the unique toy-based look and feel of Welcome To Mar­wen


FROM BACK TO The Fu­ture to Who Framed Roger Rab­bit, For­rest Gump to The Po­lar Ex­press, film­maker Robert Ze­meckis has al­ways blazed trails, cre­at­ing in­no­va­tive vi­su­als to tell mag­i­cal sto­ries. Welcome To Mar­wen prom­ises to con­tinue the tra­di­tion, drama­tis­ing the true story of Mark Ho­gan­camp (Steve Carell), who built an al­ter­nate uni­verse of World War II dolls in his back­yard to deal with the trauma of be­ing vi­o­lently as­saulted. Here, Ze­meckis tells us how he brought it all to life.


“I came across the Mar­wen­col doc­u­men­tary in 2010. It speaks to the heal­ing power of art and imag­i­na­tion. I think that’s the whole point of art, to make sense of emo­tion­ally com­plex things. Mark Ho­gan­camp spoke about these elab­o­rate sto­ries that took place in his mind be­tween the pho­to­graphs he took, and I thought, ‘You can only do that as a movie.’ That’s what re­ally ex­cited me.”


“Be­fore Univer­sal green­lit the movie, they gave us money to shoot a test where Steve Carell per­forms as the doll, as proof of con­cept. Atomic Fic­tion, the [VFX] guys I use, de­vel­oped this process. And when we all saw how spec­tac­u­lar this sys­tem was gonna be, they green­lit the movie. It’s en­hanced per­for­mance cap­ture. In terms of bring­ing vir­tual char­ac­ters to life, it’s a step be­yond what any­one has done be­fore.”


“The only prob­lems you have are how much things are gonna cost and how long it’s gonna take. But how we were gonna do it, what was the fi­nal prod­uct gonna look like? I had a good idea of how I was sup­posed to do this. From a vis­ual ef­fects stand­point, ev­ery­thing I’ve done in my ca­reer pre­pared me for this movie.”


“They’re sup­posed to look like dolls, but evoke hu­man emo­tion. That was the bal­ance. It’s not like we’re try­ing to cre­ate hu­mans, it’s some­thing in-be­tween. I never de­cide to make movies be­cause of a tech­nique, it’s al­ways story first. But that goes hand in glove with tech­nique. The spec­ta­cle of movies is rooted in this idea of see­ing some­thing you can’t see in real life.”


“The film is re­alised in­fin­itely bet­ter than I thought it was gonna be when I first de­cided to make it, be­cause I’ve had eight years of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment. Hu­man emo­tion has been com­pletely in­jected into these dolls. You can’t tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween what’s real and what’s phys­i­cal. It’s a tech­nique I’m very proud of.”


Top: Toy story: Mark Ho­gan­camp (Steve Carell) and Ni­col (Les­lie Mann) come to life in the form of dolls. Above: Mean­while, the hu­man Ho­gan­camp (Carell) pho­to­graphs some dolls from his col­lec­tion.

Em­pire spoke to Robert Ze­meckis on 24 Au­gust, dur­ing his fi­nal throes of post-pro­duc­tion.

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