8 Festive Facts About The Polar Express

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The Polar Express (2004) was already a beloved story when Robert Zemeckis adapted it into his first fully-animated feature. Based on the classic 1985 children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, it follows a young Santa Claus skeptic on a magical train ride to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. From its hidden references to its groundbreaking use of technology, here are some things you might not know about the hit film.

1. It’s the first movie filmed entirely with motion capture.

Motion capture—the process by which filmmakers animate characters using recordings of live-action movements—was still a relatively new technique in 2004. When making The Polar Express, Robert Zemeckis decided to use the technology to its full extent by animating every character this way. According to Guinness World Records, the film was the first all-motion capture film ever made.

2. The animation wasn't a hit with everyone.

Motion capture has become a popular technique in high-budget films that blend CGI and live action, but it failed to take off in animated features. One reason may be that human characters animated in a hyper-realistic style tend to border on the slightly creepy side. Critics described the human characters in The Polar Express as dead-eyed and zombie-like, and the film is still brought up as a prime example of the so-called "uncanny valley" (the unsettling feeling that people have when interacting with androids or other super-realistic humanoid simulations).

3. The main boy doesn’t have a name.

Like most of the children in the film, the main character is never given a name. He’s simply listed in the credits as “Hero Boy.” Other characters were given a similar treatment, with names like Hero Girl, Know-It-All, and Sister Sarah.

4. Tom Hanks played five characters.

In addition to the lead boy, Tom Hanks played the character’s dad, the conductor, the hobo, and Santa Claus in The Polar Express, bringing his total character count up to five. Because the movie was made using motion capture, Hanks had to act out each part on a soundstage as well as speak the lines. In cases where two of his characters would share the screen, Hanks would have to act opposite a stand-in before switching to his second role to film the rest of the scene.

5. Three actors brought the main character to life.

Two actors lent their vocal talents to the Hero Boy—Tom Hanks, who plays the character as the adult narrator, and Spy Kids star Daryl Sabara, who voices him as a child. There was a third actor who’s not listed in the voice credits but who still played a big part in making the Hero Boy feel real. Along with Tom Hanks, The Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson, who was just 12 years old when the film was released, did motion capture work that was used to animate the character.

6. There are nods to Back to the Future.

Robert Zemeckis has directed several blockbusters over his career, but Back to the Future (1985) is undoubtedly one of his most beloved contributions to cinema. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that the director inserted some references to the earlier film into The Polar Express. In the beginning of the animated movie, we’re shown a photograph of Santas on strike outside the Twin Pines Mall—the same place where Marty McFly successfully time travels for the first time. There’s also a flux capacitor hidden on the wall of the train’s engine room (which can be seen in the clip above).

7. The director’s hometown gets a shout-out.

Unless you have a deep knowledge of Zemeckis’s childhood, this Easter egg likely flew over your head. Toward the beginning of The Polar Express, the conductor shouts out what sounds like a random address: 11344 Edbrooke. This is actually the address of the home where Zemeckis grew up in Chicago.

8. The Polar Express was modeled after a real train.

A scene from The Polar Express (2004)
Warner Brothers

It doesn’t take passengers directly to the North Pole, but a real-life version of the Polar Express does exist in Owosso, Michigan. When looking for a locomotive to serve as a model for the one in the movie, filmmakers chose the Pere Marquette 1225, one of the largest operational steam trains in the country at the time. The film crew took inspiration from everything from the look of the engine to the sound of its movements when creating the CGI Polar Express. The Pere Marquette 1225 still takes passengers on pleasure rides under the name “The North Pole Express” every year around the holidays.

9. There’s an homage to railroad history.

The level of detail that went into the Polar Express train itself isn’t the only part of the movie that will delight railfans. In the North Pole, the filmmakers snuck in a few references to locomotive history. The architecture in the city is modeled after the former Chicago company town for Pullman Palace Car Co., which was one of the biggest American railcar manufacturers in the 19th century.

13 Facts About Amadeus On Its 35th Anniversary

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Though much has been written about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the most entertaining look at the master composer's life might very well be Amadeus, Milos Forman's film about the artist's life (and rivalries), which was released on September 19, 1984.

Here's a look back at the Oscar-winning biopic that not only brought renewed interest to Mozart's music in the 1980s, but inspired Austrian rocker Falco to write the chart-topping "Rock Me Amadeus." Poor Salieri never stood a chance.

1. Amadeus began life as a Tony Award-winning play.

Russian poet/playwright Alexander Pushkin wrote a short play in 1830 called Mozart and Salieri, and playwright Peter Shaffer—who was already a Tony winner for Equus—took inspiration from that to write his own play. Amadeus played in various theaters in London beginning in 1979, then premiered on Broadway in 1980 with Ian McKellen as Antonio Salieri, Tim Curry as Mozart, and Jane Seymour as Constanze, Mozart's wife. The production won five Tonys, including Best Play and Best Actor for McKellen, who beat out Curry for the award; the two leads had been nominated in the same category.

2. Mark Hamill wanted the lead role, but Milos Forman wouldn't let him audition.

In an attempt to circumvent any typecasting he might get after three blockbuster Star Wars films launched his career, Mark Hamill played the composer on Broadway for nine months in 1983. But when the time came for the movie to be made, Czech director Miloš Forman couldn’t get the space cowboy image out of his head. “Miloš Forman told me, ‘Oh no, you must not play the Mozart because the people not believing the Luke Spacewalker as Mozart,’” Hamill said in a 1986 interview. “He was very upfront about it, and I appreciated that rather than getting my hopes up that it was possible I’d be playing the role.”

3. Kenneth Branagh legitimately thought he had landed the lead role.

A young Kenneth Branagh was an early contender for the part of Mozart. In his autobiography, he wrote that he thought he had the part in the bag until Forman informed him they were casting Americans for the leads. Other actors who auditioned for the Mozart role included Tim Curry and Mel Gibson. Though Mozart was a rock star in his day, actual rock star Mick Jagger was also turned down after his audition.

4. Mozart's frequent collaborator Emanuel Schikaneder was played by another stage Mozart.

Actor Simon Callow originated the role of Mozart at the Royal National Theater production of Amadeus in 1979, and though Forman told him his portrayal was "truly brilliant, fantastic, asshole and genius, funny, tragic, crazy, a baby and a god," the director wasn't prepared to give him the title role in the film. Instead, he cast Callow as Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist who worked with Mozart on The Magic Flute and played the part of Papageno the bird catcher.

5. The movie was shot without the use of light bulbs or other modern lighting devices.

The Tyl Theatre in Prague was the original theater where Don Giovanni first premiered in October 1787, and the authenticity of the building was a huge boon for the production since it had hardly been updated since it was first built in 1783. “[The Tyl is] where the opera premiered. And he conducted the first performance. And none of the opera house had been touched since he was there," choreographer Twyla Tharp recalled in 2015. "We had fire everywhere. We could have burnt down the opera house. We had live fire in the chandelier. We were lighting people on stage, and these guys were whipping these torches around."

Patrizia von Brandenstein—who became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Art Direction with this movie—had nightmares about damaging the all-wooden opera house. "I thought, 'God will truly punish me if this place catches on fire,'" she said.

6. Tom Hulce practiced piano for four to five hours a day.

In order to look believable on camera, Hulce spent a month with a piano teacher before filming. Although he knew some basics—he could read music, and had played violin and sung in choirs as a child—he needed to look like a natural. "I spent four weeks, four to five hours a day learning to play,” Hulce told People in 1984. “The first two days were scales and exercises. The next day was a concerto." And for that scene at the masquerade ball when Mozart plays a tune while lying on his back? That was really Hulce.

7. Tom Hulce's laugh is semi-historical, though he had trouble recreating it.

Throughout the movie, Mozart has an infectious cackle—it comes out just as often when he’s giddy as when he’s uncomfortable. Though there are dubious historical reports that the real Mozart had such an obnoxious laugh, Hulce created the giggle after Forman asked him to come up with "something extreme." "I've never been able to make that sound except in front of a camera," Hulce later said. "When we did the looping nine months later, I couldn't find the laugh. I had to raid the producer's private bar and have a shot of whiskey to jar myself into it."

8. Someone really did commission a requiem from Mozart—it just wasn't Salieri.

The script clearly took some artistic liberties, including the plot line of the masked man who comes to Mozart pretending to be his dead father. This was not, as the movie portrays, Salieri. But in 1791, Austrian Count Franz von Walsegg—who had a penchant for commissioning music to pass off as his own at his twice-weekly concerts—approached Mozart and asked for a requiem for his beloved wife, who had died on Valentine’s Day.

According to a famously censored document in which a teacher near Vienna, Anton Herzog, recorded firsthand accounts of von Walsegg’s court, the Count often rewrote these commissioned quartets and other scores in his own hand and didn’t give credit to the original composers. His staff musicians often laughed this off because it seemed to amuse the Count, and because the Count was also an amateur musician in his own right. Mozart’s “Requiem Mass in D minor,” the document alleges, was one such piece. And Mozart really did die later that year, in December, before completing the full mass. Salieri didn’t help him complete it though; Austrian composer and possible Mozart student Franz Süssmayr took that on.

9. The actors felt intense jealousy, too.

Salieri and Mozart were the 18th-century equivalent of frenemies: They were contemporaries in a competitive field, and though they needed each other’s support, they weren’t above petty jealousies and a little backstabbing. Hulce and F. Murray Abraham (who played Salieri) also felt those pressures. ''Tom and Meg [Tilly, the actress originally cast as Constanze] were very close,'' Abraham told The New York Times in 1984. ''They had these secret jokes and were always laughing together. I was pushed out, and I was resentful. I began to have very nasty feelings that were exactly like Salieri's feelings toward Mozart. When that correspondence between a film and real life occurs, it's a director's dream.''

“Occasionally Murray and I would go out and drink this terrible sweet champagne that they have in Prague," added Hulce. "But at other times there was a rivalry between us, and I found myself suspicious of him.''

10. It was shot almost entirely on location in Prague—while under surveillance from the Secret Police.

During filming in 1983, Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule. The production team was often followed around by the secret police, and Forman and the cast spoke about their fears that a Fourth of July prank—the unfurling of the American flag in the concert hall and the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by the large cast and crew—would lead to their arrests for inciting rebellion. Many suspected that their hotel rooms had been bugged during the six months they spent filming the movie.

Forman, who was considered a traitor for becoming an American citizen and not returning to the Soviet-controlled area, had previously had one of his movies banned in the country (then called the Czech Socialist Republic). According to Twyla Tharp, in order to shoot in red territory, Forman had to make certain concessions. "Miloš had to sign an agreement that he would go to his hotel every night for the year that he was there and that his driver would be his best friend from the old days," Tharp told The Hollywood Reporter. "And everybody knew what would happen to his best friend if something untoward politically happened around Miloš, because Miloš was a sort of local hero and he was dangerous to the authorities."

11. A teenage Cynthia Nixon had a small but pivotal role.

At age 17, Nixon played Lorl, the maid employed by Salieri to spy on Mozart. Though she was an experienced child actor at that point, she was also trying to finish her schooling. Thus, she and her parents were cautious of the time she'd need to be abroad for filming. "When I was cast in Amadeus with Miloš Forman, which was shooting in Europe," Nixon said in 2014, "I said, 'I want to be in your film so much, but I have a request: If I don’t shoot for two days in a row, you have to send me home.' They agreed."

12. The distributor made a promotional video depicting Mozart as a modern rock star.

Since the movie wasn't financed by a major studio with lots of promotional dollars behind it, the distributor, Orion Pictures, decided to get creative. And what better way to promote a rock star in the age of MTV than with a music video featuring David Lee Roth and cuts of Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, KISS, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and Madonna dancing along to Mozart's "Symphony No. 25 in G minor"?

13. The movie was a huge hit.

The film nearly tripled its $18 million budget at the box office, which was particularly impressive considering it opened in a limited 25 theaters and didn’t have a wide release until several months later. The movie also swept the Academy Awards—of its 11 nominations, it won eight, including Best Picture and Best Director. And, just as on Broadway, Salieri won the Best Actor statuette over Mozart, with Abraham beating out Hulce.

Pod Search, a Search Engine for Podcasts, Can Help You Find Your Next Binge-Listen

Milkos/iStock via Getty Images
Milkos/iStock via Getty Images

Having too many options definitely seems like the best problem to have when it comes to picking your next top podcast obsession, but that doesn’t make it any less overwhelming. To streamline the hunt, try Pod Search—a website and mobile app that has all the information you need in order to choose a winner.

As Lifehacker reports, the user-friendly site is organized in several different ways, depending on how you’d like to operate your search. You can browse its list of about 30 categories, which range from “Storytelling” to “Crime & Law,” and each has a set of subcategories so you can get even more specific. If you trust the opinions of the general public, you can choose an already-popular podcast from the “Top Podcasts” tab. Or, if you like to be the first to recommend the next big thing to your friends, you can pick a program from the list of new podcasts.

Pod Search also has a handy tool called MyPodSearch which will pretty much do all the work of choosing the perfect podcast for you. All you have to do is check whichever categories interest you and add any additional keywords you’d like (which is optional), and MyPodSearch will deliver a list of podcasts personalized for your tastes. This is great for people who have wide-ranging interests, a proclivity for indecision, or both.

Each podcast has its own landing page with a description, audio samples, places you can listen, website and social media links for the podcast, and a list of other podcasts from the same producers. You can also create an account and bookmark podcasts for the future—so, hypothetically, you could have MyPodSearch create a personalized list for you, bookmark them all, and then have a binge-listening itinerary that’ll last you until next year.

[h/t Lifehacker]

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