Quint has your first look inside the offices of Robert Zemeckis' BEOWULF!!!
Published at: Feb. 7, 2006, 7:19 p.m. CST by staff
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here taking a break from the Santa Barbara Film Festival for the day to tell you about a small detour I took on my way up here from LA.
I was drawn to Ventura on my way up the 101 to Santa Barbara where I was ambushed by a crazed individual with a wicked gleam in his eye. I recognized this madman as none other than Roger Avary. He held me hostage at a '50s themed diner for a whole meal and then leaned in close as The Platters began TWILIGHT TIME and said, "I have something to show you."
Images of SILENT HILL ran through my head. I had talked to this happy lunatic before about the video game adaptation and after having seen the trailer for Christophe Gans' flick it has shot up into my top 2 or 3 most anticipated films of '06. Avary had looked further into the future than I had, though.
In 2007 Robert Zemeckis is releasing his next film, an adaptation of BEOWULF that was scripted by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman. The cast includes Crispin Glover as the monstrous Grendel (the first time Glover has reteamed with Zemeckis since all that bad blood surrounding BACK TO THE FUTURE 2), Ray Winstone as Beowulf, Angelina Jolie as the demonic mother of Grendel, Anthony Hopkins as the King being tormented by Grendel. Also in the cast is Brendan Gleeson, Alison Lohman, John Malkovich and Robin Wright Penn.
There has been some concerned discussion about this film online since it was announced. People are worried it will be watered down or kiddie friendly because of Zemeckis choosing to make this story using the process he calls Performance Capture, which he used recently on the kid's book turned holiday family film POLAR EXPRESS. I'd be lying if I said I was a little disappointed that he wasn't filming it live-action as I've always wanted to see this story done balls to the wall in flesh and blood on the big screen.
When we walked into the unassuming Beowulf offices the first thing I saw was an L shaped set-up going along two walls with a flat panel big screen TV on each wall, connected to at least 10 computers manned by around 6 people. The rest of the office walls were covered with posters for BACK TO THE FUTURE and its sequels, and various other Zemeckis films. There was a sweet-ass BACK TO THE FUTURE pinball machine in the meeting room down the hall from this set-up. I didn't play it, but I really, really, really wanted to.
I was introduced to Christopher Browne, the post production coordinator, who led Avary and myself to a back room where the "Beowulf Bible" was sitting on the conference table. It was bound in thick, brown weathered leather with the title BEOWULF imprinted on the cover and was about as thick as a big city phone book. Within this tome was the movie told in 8X10-ish sized color stills, concept art and computer tests.
I was looking at Ray Winstone as Beowulf, one of the first pics, and was marveling at his costume and Viking beard. I was assuming it was a lighting study or costume design test, a model for the animators. Browne then told me that what I was looking at wasn't a still, but a computer generated image, a test shot of what the final product will look like. I looked closer and I didn't believe him. I'm not exaggerating when I say this still was photoreal.
Browne told me about how Zemeckis took the criticisms of POLAR EXPRESS to heart, specifically the "dead eye syndrome." The animation work on POLAR EXPRESS was pretty phenomenal, but even the biggest fans of that movie can't deny there was this doll-like feeling to the characters, that there wasn't anything behind their eyes, making it really really creepy to watch these otherwise living beings with no spark of soul or humanity in their eyes.
So for Beowulf they used this process called OEG (electro oculography) which maps the actor's eye movements, down to eye-lid flutters. They place three sensors on the skin around the actor's eyes that pick up electrical pulses given off by the eye muscles and surrounding nerves.
They showed me a side-by-side comparison of Ray Winstone before this new technology gave him human eyes and after. The difference in realism is astonishing. The "after" shot looked photoreal and the before shot looked like a top of the line computer game character. The secret to realism with these CG creations is all in the eyes, commonly referred to as the windows to the soul. Weta Digital got that with Gollum and King Kong and Lucas with Yoda in Episode 3.
I saw Hopkins as the King, Gleeson as a Viking (of course he's a Viking) and an example of how you can take away or add on years to an actor using a still of Robin Wright Penn. One pic had her subtly wrinkled, aged in her 50s and another was the same exact pose, shot, lighting, everything but had her looking like she did in her PRINCESS BRIDE days. I would have believed either as a real photograph.
Then there is Angelina Jolie as the demon mother. Good God. If you've ever thought Jolie was attractive at all you will explode when you see her in this. The stills they showed me had her naked with this T-1000 like liquid gold covering parts of her body. There were 3 photos with varying degrees of skin shown, the last just barely covered what the skimpiest of bikini bottoms would cover. Her face is absolute evil seductress, as pretty as she's ever appeared on film before. Va-va-voom!
And Grendel. Everybody wants to hear about Crispin Glover as Grendel. When I flipped the page to the monster I immediately bent down, nose near the plastic to take a close look at him. In my mind I had Grendel pictured as this long taloned, large beast... muscular, cool looking, viscous, but sleek, you know?
What I saw was much more disturbing.
In the concept art, Grendel seems to stand about 15 feet tall and is almost completely hairless. His arms and legs are long, ending in arthritic looking knuckled hands and feet. He looks bent and awkward, his body covered in tumorous lumps. His skin is gangrene green and covered in sores and splotches. His teeth are crooked, broken and protruding from his maw. He looks a little like what I pictured the Slow Mutants in Stephen King's Dark Tower series to be.
The thing about the design of Grendel I loved the most was that his gut is misshapen and protruding unnaturally, almost like a starving Ethiopian. The skin on the gut is just translucent enough so you can see the intestines underneath. Yeah, it's really damn disgusting.
My favorite piece of production art involving Grendel was his shadow massive on a wall with some terrified men with swords running about. The shadow showed an action... Grendel had his arms up in a Y shape. Both hands had something gripped in them, but it wasn't until taking a closer look at the left hand that you can make out what it is. You can see legs hanging down. He had just ripped a man in half. I desperately wanted to steal this out of the office, but I was under too much scrutiny. Sorry.
Grendel looks absolutely nothing like Crispin Glover, at least in the stills I saw... well, he did look creepy and Glover is creepy, but it didn't look like Crispin in make-up or a suit. Actually, if he shared a resemblance to any cast member I'd say there was a slight Anthony Hopkins look to his face. According to Avary, he and Neil Gaiman went to the original epic poem and did as literal a translation as possible, with the only liberties filling in holes in the story, either gaps in time or something left unexplained.
In this instance, they realized that Grendel was the son of the demon and The King, which would be the reason he's tormenting his father, as well as dragging living men off to his mother.
I also saw much artwork on Beowulf's dragon son, environment tests that ranged from snow-capped mountains to walled cities to Jolie's skeleton-littered cave-like den. All of this was concept art. It looked good, but I can't really get a feel for how it'll look in the film itself. For instance, much of it looked painted (think Frazetta brush strokes) and with the technology at Zemeckis' disposal he could very well translate that directly and make a moving painting or it could just be like regular concept art used for reference, colors, lighting, etc.
After I flipped through the whole book, I was led back out to the room with the L-shaped monitor and computer set-up I told you about earlier. In this room, we had layout artists: Trevor Tuttle, Matthew Ward, Harald Kraut and Jason McDade as well as integration artists Chad Lichty and John Meehan, all plugging away on their computers.
This is the stuff that blew me away, so pay attention...
I had always heard about how this kind of filmmaking gave an immense amount of freedom to the director, but I never realized how much.
Let's start with capturing the performance... There were no cameras involved, with the exception of those that read the data from the mo-cap signals attached to the performer. They captured audio and their movements only. Since there is no camera that means there was no set-up, no framing, no stopping to get a different angle. The performers, I was told, treated it much like a play. They ran through whole scenes without stopping, their movements and voices being recorded.
So, after the story has been acted out what happens is the smart tech people take the mo-cap information and lay over a sort of rudimentary animation. This is what I saw. It was about on par with a decent PS2 cut-scene. Full environments, full color, fully costumed characters with the faces of those playing the roles. Nowhere near final, but you can see the whole scene.
They then set up what I guess would be called a virtual studio with this information. On the ceiling was a contraption that consisted of 3 long vertical bars that were crossed with two short horizontal bars (almost like a number sign - #). There are sensors on those bars.
Underneath this contraption, on the floor, was a digital video camera with the lens-cap permanently attached. This lens cap had been whited out and the word "Zemeckavision" was written across it. The camera isn't important, it's actually doing nothing. All the info comes from a 3 inch big sensor attached to front of the camera. I was told they had previously used a coffee cup instead of a camera, but just mentally using a camera made things easier.
What happens here is the computer geniuses set up a sequence with the aforementioned rudimentary animation and Zemeckis picks up the video camera, which is being tracked by the sensors above. Those sensors tell the computers where the camera is within this virtual set and on the two widescreen monitor son the walls you see what the camera would see in this virtual set.
Essentially, Zemeckis is floating around this virtual set. He's able to move around until he finds the perfect angle and then they'll run the scene, recording the angle of the camera. It's almost like Matrix-time. The world is frozen, each character in the scene is frozen in their starting point and you can move around them, in the environment and see them from whatever angle you want. When you're ready they hit play on the world and everything unfolds, but from whatever point of view you've chosen.
Pretty cool, eh? I can see how addictive this must be to someone who wants to control every aspect of filmmaking. You can literally walk around a set and pick whatever angle you want from the very best performance your actors gave, all without having to relight and place the camera again.
I was also told that they can program a dolly move, map it out through the scene where you just stand in one place and tilt up or down or pan as the dolly rolls through the scene.
Essentially they have all this raw material that Zemeckis shapes scene by scene, shot by shot and slowly assembles a rough cut of the movie. That is gathered together and then moment by moment it's animated using, to its full extent, all the motion capture information, including the OEG information and the result is what we'll see in the theaters next year.
The first scene that they showed me this technology with was set in a barroom, with Beowulf arguing with a group of men, one that stuttered very badly. The rest of the group makes fun of him. There's also a barmaid (with ample cleavage), scrubbing down a table that gets a few cat-calls.
I asked if I could hold the camera and give it a shot. They obliged me and I walked throughout the frozen scene, going for close-ups on random characters, trying dutch angles, zooming into the cleavage... I might be a perv, but it did get a laugh. Then they ran the scene with me whipping awkwardly from character to character. They didn't record it, but it was really neat to get to play in the sandbox a bit.
The next scene (Slight spoiler here if you don't know the tale) they showed me was a sequence that happens immediately after Beowulf cuts Grendel's arm off and nails it to a board that is hung up within the King's building. The scene has Anthony Hopkins up on a platform giving a speech, the beast's arm hung up above and behind him. Beowulf and his men stand in front of the King's platform. Hopkins says something like, "This place for me has been a hall of sadness... but today the monster's rule has ended!" He gives his thanks to Beowulf and offers him many women as a token of his gratitude.
After they showed me this sequence, they asked me if I wanted to have a go at actually directing this scene. How could I not accept?
They set it up to record my camera movements. I took off my glasses and put my eye up to the eye-piece (the info on the widescreen monitors was seen there as well) and tried to pick an interesting angle. I decided to place the camera low, looking up at Hopkins with Grendel's arm in the background screen left. I told them I was ready, but they wouldn't let me continue unless I called, "Action!" I think they were just trying to make me sound like a moron, you know... have a laugh at the geek, but I played along.
The scene unfolded and I moved the camera over only when Hopkins leaned down to put his hand on Beowulf's shoulder, which resulted in Grendel's arm being framed between Beowulf and The King. It was a happy accident, but one that looked really good.
Of course they were just entertaining a visitor, so I don't harbor any expectations that my framing will make it into the film, but it really was a rush. And hey... it exists on that hard drive somewhere. I was also told that Steven Spielberg had come in the Monday before and set-up a shot in the film, so whether it makes it or not, I got to play with the same toys as some of my childhood heroes.
As of my visit they were only just beginning their work, with absolutely nothing final that moved. As great as the stills were, the real test is when they make them move. The stills are impressive, but to trick the eye with a moving character is a lot more difficult.
I also talked to them about a rumor I heard about a possible dual release that would see the PG-13 version go wide and an NC-17 IMAX version go limited. They're still in talks and this is a very delicate proposal as far as the MPAA goes. They haven't approved of this before, worried that impressionable youths will go to see the NC-17 by accident, I guess. No matter what, they're definitely considering an unrated cut for the DVD.
So, that's what's going on with BEOWULF right now. I'm a pretty old fashioned guy. I still prefer film over the best of HD technology, I still like well-done practical effects over CG, I think matte paintings look better than digital backgrounds. I don't think this kind of filmmaking should be the norm, but I think it opens the doors to some amazing advancements in filmmaking. If they get to a point where this really gets to be photoreal, then just the deaging or aging technology is amazing.
This might be the future, either in full or in part. It might just be a new form of animation, a new way to tell a story. I have no real way of telling until I see at least a few minutes of finished animation cut together. What I can say is seeing the rough designs and tools that are being used to tell this story has me drooling in anticipation of seeing the final product. The passion of everyone involved, from Roger Avary to the tech guys who showed me all the toys, is contagious and strong enough to seep into the film itself.
A heartfelt thanks to Roger Avary for setting this whole thing up. Thanks also to Christopher Browne for leading me though everything, Matt Markwalder for keeping the line of communication open between Roger and myself, to the tech guys for letting me get a glimpse at the cool shit they get to do every day and, of course, to Robert Zemeckis for approving my visit and letting you AICN readers get the first look inside this project.
I hope you guys enjoyed this first look into Robert Zemeckis' BEOWULF. I'm hoping to trick some concept art out of the production in the coming weeks, but it's been hard going so far. I won't give up the good fight, though. Hopefully I'll have something to show you soon. 'Til then this is Quint heading off to more flicks at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, bidding you a fond farewell and adieu.