Inventing Yourself: The Cinema of Robert Zemeckis

Several years ago I had the good fortune to interview the animator Barry Purves about his work. He made the point that if you give a person a mask it’s only then that they’ll you the truth about themselves. This interplay between playfulness and truth certainly has a vital role in one of Robert Zemeckis’ most fascinating moviemaking achievements: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Amidst all of that film’s visual spectacle and invention, its protagonist, the sombre gumshoe Eddie Valiant, learns to laugh, play and imagine once more. Whilst Zemeckis’s movies are largely synonymous with the genres of fantasy and science fiction, a little more reflection on them suggests that these entertainments are exploring subjective experiences. Zemeckis’s films have often deployed animation and the principles of the medium as part of the cinematic world-building toolkit. These worlds are sometimes historically-informed and sometimes explicitly imagined and, in this world-building, the movies create spaces in which the plot can explore and reflect on the nature of self. To quote both Marty McFly and Doc Brown, that may sound “heavy” but it’s a significant part of the enduring popularity of the writer-director’s work. With his forthcoming new movie, Welcome to Marwen (2018), this fusion of the real and the imaginary appears to have reached an apotheosis of sorts.

The Walk (Robert Zemeckis, 2015).

The idea of selfhood, then, is key to Zemeckis’s movies: in the Back to the Future (1985-1990) trilogy, Marty McFly comes to understand how he can relate the past and future to his present self; in Cast Away (2000), Chuck Noland must redefine himself: having been ‘thrown aside’ by circumstance he must create a new sense of place and purpose. He has to bring forth his powers of invention (and, by extension, imagination) to save himself; in mind, body and soul. In contact, Ellie is part of the team that invents a cosmic quest in Contact (1997) and reaching right back to the earliest of Zemeckis’s films, Diane in Romancing the Stone (1984) has to recognize her real life connection with the invented scenarios that her novels and characters are based on. Indeed, the prologue of Romancing the Stone starts in the American desert and concludes with us seeing Diane at her typewriter in a New York apartment. This transition finds a more elaborately-realized echo in the moment of transition between cartoon and film-set at the beginning of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Zemeckis’s filmmaking in part concerns itself with visual invention and the heroes of ‘his’ films are so often creative thinkers; inventors, if you will, and in this respect his movies certainly tap into a longstanding cultural tradition in America. This celebration of invention and creativity is fundamental to the cinema of Robert Zemeckis. In these movies, characters invent a persona with which to navigate a very particular circumstance. Zemeckis’s 2015 ‘biopic’ The Walk elaborates on this notion (see right).

Whilst the following reference point is a long way from the intersection between the worlds of the Hollywood fantasy spectacular and animation, it seems worth quoting from the book The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature. In the book’s Introduction, the automaton (a form of technological entertainment showcased in the recent movie, The House With A Clock In its Walls [Eli Roth, 2018]) is considered for its metaphorical value. As such, this approach ties in neatly with the capacities of animation to express ideas metaphorically (as Paul Wells has usefully acknowledged in his book Understanding Animation [1998]). In her Introduction to The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature, Wendy Beth Hyman writes the following: “Literary fantasies of animation, poetic representations of inanimate objects coming to ‘life’, are inevitably marked by the kind of duality: exhilaration and terror, love and betrayal, ambition and frustration, magic and matter, lust and loss. And no wonder. For in many ways, the animation of material is the ur-narrative of the western imagination, a literalization of the metaphoric desire to create living art” (2011: 3). These ideas seem able to illuminate something of the interest to be had in the forthcoming Welcometo Marwen. As something of a side note, the idea of the inanimate coming to life is fundamental to Zemeckis’s horror comedy Death Becomes Her (1992), and is also part of the dramatic twist and the visual jest of the Judge Doom character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The Polar Express (Robert Zemeckis, 2004)

The dolls that serve as avatars of sorts in Welcome to Marwen seem to echo and expand on a fleeting moment in Zemeckis’s 2004 movie The Polar Express (Zemeckis’ script and direction adapting the Chris van Allsburg book) (see left). In that film, there’s a scene in which The Hero Boy finds himself in a carriage of the titular train that’s eerily overflowing with abandoned toys. One of these toys is a Scrooge marionette (anticipating Zemeckis’ spot-on subsequent adaptation of A Christmas Carol [2009]) that addresses the Boy in a mean but sagacious way. It’s an encounter that’s all part of the Boy’s railroad bildungsroman. In a number of Zemeckis’s movies, it’s avatars of the human characters that serve up the opportunity for inventive visuals embodying the larger theme at work. In relation to The Polar Express, this meshing of both story-reality and the conditions of the film’s production dovetail nicely: performance-capture technology creates an avatar of the performer as part of the visual effects and animation pipeline process and, eventually, as animators refine and evolve further the motion-captured performance characters are realized that are avatars of The Hero Boy as he undertakes his snowy quest.

Zemeckis’s films have used animated characters and performance capture characterisations (a process that Zemeckis has been so crucial to the evolution of as an essential tool in filmmaking and one capable of contributing to the crafting of expressive characters) to celebrate the visual affect of visual effects, and to tell stories in which animated characters, for all of their artifice, reverberate with a recognizable human dimension. Indeed, the digital filmmaking process of crafting ‘copies’ of performers and characters (via performance capture and animation) is a contemporary riff on a staple of Zemeckis’s movies since pretty much the beginning of his career. When I watched the trailer recently for Welcome to Marwen, it prompted me to recall Zemeckis’s second feature film Used Cars (1980), in which Jack Warden portrayed the Fuchs brothers. This playful conceit is further elaborated in Zemeckis’ Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Back to the Future Part III (1990) and, most arrestingly, in The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. Indeed, in the Back to the Future series, when Marty encounters his past and future selves / relatives it helps him understand his ‘real-time’ self, rather like Scrooge seeing his past, present and future does. In a profile of Zemeckis written for The New York Times in 2000 at the time of the release of Cast Away, Dave Kehr noted of the director’s films that “Mr. Zemeckis's last three films have all focused, quite movingly, on a single theme -- emotionally isolated characters who try to break out by inventing relationships with imaginary beings: extraterrestrial beings for Jodie Foster, the astronomer hero of 'Contact' (1997), a jealous, vengeful ghost for Michelle Pfeiffer in 'What Lies Beneath' and Wilson for Mr. Hanks” (Kehr: 2000). In his animation study Seven Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Cartoon, Norman Klein describes Who Framed Roger Rabbit as a folk tale and in doing so alludes to a sensibility that more broadly encompasses Zemeckis’s movies: a number of them are ‘wonder tale’ revisitations of historical moments; as Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future Part III demonstrate. The pleasures of visual effects recreations of specific time and place have the capacity to invest images of the past with a romance. Fascinatingly, the trailer for Welcome to Marwen offers us images of a World War Two war movie fused with a fantasy film scenario (I appreciate that the new film is a creative response to the documentary Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg, 2010) and, with its World War Two reference point, the movie also ties back to 1941, the Steven Spielberg-directed film released in 1979 that Zemeckis co-wrote with Bob Gale.

Welcome to Marwen (Robert Zemeckis, 2018).

Robert Zemeckis’s observation some years ago that all of cinema is a visual effect (even the most unadorned close up), serves as a welcome reminder as to what we’re dealing with when we think about movies. Certainly, the trailer for Welcome to Marwen appears to showcase the director’s affinity for fusing photography of the real world with images fashioned through animation (see right). From the relatively modest amount of promotional material so far made available about the new movie, it seems that in keeping with so many other Zemeckis movies Welcome to Marwen will be a film that affirms the primacy and necessity of creativity and creative thinking as boons in navigating the complications of time and space and identity. That’s heavy.


Hyman, Wendy Beth. The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature (New York: Routledge, 2011).

Kehr, Dave. “‘Cast Away’ Director Defies Categorizing,” The New York Times (2000), available at:

Klein, Norman. Seven Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Cartoon (London: Verso, 1993).

Wells, Paul. Understanding Animation (London: Routledge, 1998).


James Clarke is a Visiting Lecturer on the MA Screenwriting programme at the London Film School. He has fourteen years of experience in teaching and course leadership in Higher Education. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and is currently a Visiting Lecturer at the London Film School where he contributes to the MA Screenwriting programme. James’ books include: Bodies in Heroic Motion: The Cinema of James Cameron (Columbia University Press) and The Year of the Geek (Aurum Press). James has taught at a number of institutions, including at the University of Warwick, the University of Suffolk and the University of Sussex. James can be followed at @jasclarkewriter.