Colin Firth on A Christmas Carol

Colin Firth talks about the remarkable technology used to make A Christmas Carol, from the actor’s point of view. Plus everything he knows about Mamma Mia! 2…

As part of the promotional junket for A Christmas Carol, we sat in on a small round-table discussion with actor Colin Firth, who plays Fred in Robert Zemeckis’ new film.

Now Colin Firth, he reveals, has been asked lots of times, as part of the promotional tour for A Christmas Carol, about what Christmas is like in the Firth household, and what his best and worst memories of Christmas are. So promptly crossing those questions off our list, the discussion began…

Do you really hate Christmas?

No, I don’t! I’ve just said [at the press conference for the film] that there’s something that happens every Christmas that brings out the Scrooge in everybody! That’s fair enough. There’s always some person you don’t want to hear singing a novelty song in the now increasingly three months leading up to Christmas. Please, never let that be me!

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Christmas used to be one special day.

Now it’s become three special months! And I’m complicit in that this year! It’s only the 3rd of November, and I’m going to be switching the lights on. I have to say, though, how much of a Scrooge do you have to be to not get some thrill of pleasure from switching on the lights on Regent Street. It’s fantastic. I know it’s early, but hey, Disney need a good run! [laughs]

You’ve talked about the suit you’ve had to wear [for the performance capture work on A Christmas Carol]. It must be one of the purest forms of acting, though, doing what you’re doing?

Well, it is, and I think it’s very difficult for people to accept that or understand it. You look at it and you think technology, that looks a bit odd, a cartoon is all about voice, or at least green screen or you’re acting with things that aren’t really there. Funnily enough, it couldn’t be less like that. Yes, you’re dressed strangely and so is everybody else. But every convention of drama requires suspension of disbelief. If you’re on stage, you look out into the dark and there’s a green exit sign at the back. You’re not really up there. You’re up there, but you’re not really in the 18th century. Everyone’s dressed a bit strangely. Filming in the so-called conventional process is probably the most distracting and defying of suspension of disbelief as you can find, really, because it’s out of sequence, it’s repetition, it’s as artificial as you can possibly get. And you’re staring at a bunch of technicians most of the time.

Now, here you’re looking at Jim Carrey covered in dots, but you’re also looking at Jim Carrey running the whole scene from beginning to end. Because you don’t have to stop and you don’t have to repeat. Because basically they’ve set it up so that you are readable instead of by a lens, by sensors which are all over the room.

They’ve prepared everything, and they’ve prepared a scan of you, so that you are readable by sensors instead of celluloid or digital video. Your movements are being recorded. It’s a completely new technology. They do put dots all over you, but you’re basically animating what I think they call a virtual puppet in a database. A kind of avatar version of you. You don’t really see that happening.

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You can go into mission control if you want – it looks like Houston with a bunch of people looking at screens. And when Bob says cut, he says ‘okay, checking data!’. [Laughs]. It’s the language! You don’t walk onto the set, you walk into ‘The Volume’. It’s the area in the room where you are readable by the sensors.

I’m told if you put a pair of infrared specs on you’d see the beams. So they’re all out there and picking up your movements, like film picks up your movements. That’s just like a trick of light or celluloid as well. So it’s a new way of recording movement, but it doesn’t require a point of view. It doesn’t matter which way you turn, it doesn’t depend on light.

Nobody has to stop you and say ‘hold on, we need to adjust the lighting on this?’

That’s right! And you do repeat, but you only repeat for drama. And I remember catching myself at a certain moment. Bob actually this time used a steadicam not for anything you see in the film, but just to help him have points of view to edit with. Because otherwise the possibilities are so infinite it’s difficult for him to focus in on things.

So he decided to use a camera. Because there was this camera, I remember thinking ‘oh I was off screen then! I did my best performance and I was off camera!’.

Which is a common feeling you have, but Bob actually reminded me that no you weren’t, we got everything you’re doing.

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Could you do the film sequentially?


Or does scheduling get in the way at all?

Well, you want to take time over things in order to give them their worth. You want to get it good, you want to work on it a bit. We didn’t really have any rehearsals, so the rehearsal is right there.

And also not every set looks the same. We do have a set, and objects to interact with. So you might have to alter those a bit. And I think most of what was required for the film was already in The Volume and built.

If you have to walk up steps, you have to walk up steps. If you have to open a door, they’ll give you a handle, and a skeleton of the door. If you have to pick up a cup, you’ll have something, but it’ll probably be made of mesh. If you have to put your hands in your pockets, they’ll give you a loose light transparent thing to wear over your spandex suit with a pocket. Just so you’ve got a pocket.

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And it feels right for you?

Yes, so you never mime anything. They also go to great lengths to include you in the vision for the finished product. If anything, that’s probably the biggest challenge – how’s this all going to look? I know it’s going to be, it’s me that’s going to be animating this, it’s my performance that’s going to be up there. What are you going to do, change the shape? Are you going to give me a long nose, a short nose? You can turn someone into a god or a five-year old child … there’s me thinking maybe I can still play Romeo at 90! [laughs]  Who knows what the possibilities are!

But what they do is that they have a gallery of images of what you will eventually look like. It’s been modified slightly, as I don’t look exactly like I looked in the picture. You see the living room that you’re in, the streets of London…

So you’ve got a sense of being?

So you’re included in the conceit. They also make a costume for you that you will never wear. You can try it on, if you like, but you’re not going to wear it while you’re acting.

A full size one?

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Yes. Just so you can inhabit it. It’s kind of fantastic, really.

Did you ever put it on?

I didn’t put it on. Frankly, when it comes to Victorian costumes, I feel like I know full well what they feel like!

So what did you think of the big screen version of you in this?

I don’t quite know what to think, really. It is a bit odd, but frankly, watching myself up there is a bit odd anyway. I’m never quite what I expect to see up there. I still think I’m 25 and I’m being impersonated by someone who looks like my paternal grandmother!

Have your children seen it?

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They haven’t seen this, no.

Will you take them?

I’ll take them, yeah.

What do you think they’ll make of you?

They’ve seen the picture, they’ve seen an image of Fred. And they did immediately recognise me. But they’re used to seeing me in odd guises now!

How do you feel that, because you’ve made this, your immortality is now guaranteed? Because Disney have that kind of impact with these things. This is going to be on TV every Christmas, on DVD every Christmas. Disney specialise in dressing it up to bring it out over and over and over again.

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I suppose if you step into something that’s anything to do with Christmas, you are putting yourself in a position where you might become a perennial, for better or worse. Fred may be the one that everybody wants to slap at Christmas – we all love Scrooge!

Quickly, about Mamma Mia!. Meryl Streep has been going on about a sequel.

Let me tell you what I know. I read in an extremely reliable tabloid newspaper [laughs] that Benny Anderson had said there was no way that Abba music would be used in any sequel. I told somebody what I just told you, that I had read it in that newspaper. I have no inside information.

I have since heard that my very good friend Amanda Seyfried, my co-star in Mamma Mia!, has said that Colin Firth is, in fact, mistaken in claiming that Benny Anderson – according to that newspaper – has said that Abba will not be used in a future sequel. That’s the extent of my information, I hope that clears things up!

There aren’t enough songs anyway? Well, I thought that. When I finally went to see the show, I remember getting to the interval and going, well they’ve run out! They’ve used it all in the medley. We’ve had Dancing Queen, we’ve had Money Money Money, we’ve had Chiquitita, we’ve had Honey Honey. And then, of course, you get eight more. So never underestimate the well!

Colin Firth, thank you very much!

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Interviews at Den Of Geek