Last night a movie theater full of film press packed a big digital theater in downtown San Diego to watch 20 minutes of Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf. Screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman were on hand to field questions following the screening. The screening started late because the theater was at the end of a multi-level labyrinth they call an outdoor mall. Security was tight – we weren’t allowed to take in our camera, iPhone, or even digital audio recording device. We are the first public audience to see any of the footage so it seems reasonable enough. Although I’m not sure what someone would do with blurry handheld footage of the double processed 3D footage. I assume such footage would be totally unwatchable.
They began the screening with the movie trailer which is now online. Gaiman, in a Superman’s Dead t-shirt, told the crowd to put on their “magic beowulf glasses.” Te lights went out and the trailer played in digital 3d. I won’t focus long on the trailer since it’s now public, but I will say that it was definitely much better in 3D. At one point the blood sprays off the screen at the audience, which is a cool effect.
Neil promises that Beowulf will be the biggest 3D release ever, simutanously being shown in IMAX 3D, Real D on digital screens and in normal Dolby. Avary talked about the 10 year journey from script to screen and gushed over how “It’s like somebody reached inside my brain” and put the images on screen. He jokingly explain that he wanted to make the film to make the story easier to understand for future generations of high school students.
They then showed us the entire second reel of the film, which was almost 0 minutes in length.
“The reason why we’re showing you the second reel is because it’s the only thing that exists,” explains Gaiman, who says the rest of the film is just data.Gaiman explained the set-up of Reel #1. A hole has opened and a monster named Grendel has started eating people because he hates the noise. Beowulf comes across the sea with his huge group of men to battle the monster. He strips down and says he will fight the monster with no weapons. Beowulf nearly defeats the monster and that is where Reel #2 starts.
Gaiman said thatÂ “Beowulf is the oldest story in the English language.”
Avary added: “told with the most modern technology.”
The two have a comic chemistry. Avary is always stepping over Gaiman’s words and apologizing. Gainman offers quick quips in return.
Reel 2 begins with Beowulf kicking the cut off arm of Grendel. It’s instantly impressive. The animation in Beowulf’s face, and the skin imperfections is the most realistic human facial animation to date. But you still have that weird motion capture movement. Which I’ve always found really odd since logically motionÂ capture should result in more realistic movement, right? But instead you get some very robotic movements at times. This is not to say that Beowulf isn’t a vast improvement over Final Fantasy and the Polar Express, because it is. The technology is unfortunately not there yet. However, the 3D technology is absolutely amazing.
Beowulf and crew return to be rewarded by the King. Grendel’s mother attacks the town and Beowulf is pissed that he was never told about the mother. The king looks exactly like a digital copy of Anthony Hopkins which asks the question (which was asked later) why do all the work involved in motion capture animation if you’re just going to give the actor the same look? I come from a school of thought which believes that the characters should be there only to support the story. And having a character look like an actor is not conductive of that goal. This is one of the reasons that Pixar is so successful. They hire the actors purely based o who would be a better fit for the character.
Beowulf enters the watery cave alone. This is the scene from the trailer where Ray Winstone’s character wades through the water in the dark cave.He finds a cavern full of treasures and yells “show yourself!” and “What are you!?” A tail quickly flew by the foreground. “Are you the one they call Beowulf” Finally we she the monster. The monster is basically Angelina Jolie with a long ponytail which turns into a dragon like tail. She rises up from the water and it’s very clear that Angelina Jolie is very nude (except slightly covered up). Everyone was in awe at how real and hot she looked. “What do you know of me demon!?” “Under your armor you are as much a monster as my so Grendel.” She strokes his sword in a very sexual way explaining that it’s been a long time since a man has visited her. He hand melts his sword. She offers Beowulf a deal which would make him the greatest and longest living king to ever live. The clip ends with them kissing.
Gaiman says that’s the genius of Robert Zemeckis, before taking questions from the crowd.
“What do you want to know? We will answer or we will lie!”
He confirms that the film was 100% motion capture: “They wore those suits all those dots on them, looking much like the cast from tron.”
Avary explained that the motion capture technology allowed Bob to do full takes without any cuts which translated into some incredible performances: “That’s performance capture. It’s digitally enhanced acting.”
Someone asks the question: why do the motion capture and animation if you just want the characters to look like the actors that portray them. Gainman explains that Beowulf doesn’t, which I think was a lame answer. He saw that the aging of Beowulf in the film would not be possible without this technology. He then makes a good point: “If you have John Malkovich or Anthony Hopkins, why not?” He wondered out loud how the Academy will react. Will digital versions of actors get award recognition?
Roger explained that he grew up loving Legend and Excalibur, and that Beowulf was the one story he connected with in High School. It hit him that no movie was ever made of the story and put it on his list of ideas. Then when Avary was fired from the big screen adaptation of Gainman’s Sandman “for being too honest about his intentions and ideas”, he studied the story again and asked Gaiman to co-write the film with him,
Avary compares the story of Beowulf with the game of telephone. The resulting story has more than a few plot holes which forced him to be creative to cover up. Neil and Roger wrote the script in a two week stretch in Mexico in May 1997, while drinking bad Mexican beer by a pool, passing floppy discs between them. Zemeckis read the script and for years wanted Avary to direct it, but eventually took on the task himself.
They joked that the original dragon fight was very talky and lacked much action because they wrote it with a small budget in mind. Zemeckis hired them to rewrite the film and encouraged them to “go wild”.
Gaiman also confirmed that they are aiming for a PG-13 rating despite the violence, blood and previously discussed nudity of Angelina Jolie. I’m wondering if they can pull this off. He reiterated the previous statement that they are planning to release an unrated version on DVD at some point.
Avary praises Zemeckis for having a writers mind and having the creative collaborative excitement that some directors lack.
Gaiman describes the footage: “For me it felt like wandering around in a graphic novel.”
He sad that the technology is getting better every day and this may be the bet way to do Sandman, whenever that actually happens. He praised the 3D technology as being a revolution for cinema: “This will actually be a reasonÂ to go to the cinema again.”
They then showed a teaser which showed quick cuts of all the cool moments from the reel and trailer.
I was impressed by parts of the presentation but the motion capture technology is clearly not there yet. The people still have that creepy zombie look and at times have unnatural movement. The 3D could be key to getting people to see this film in the theater. It will be interesting to see if audiences are interested enough to see this story on the big screen.