From Motion Capture to 3D: The Technology of Beowulf
by Alex Billington
November 15, 2007
The action you watch on screen in Beowulf certainly looks great, sounds great, and is truly enthralling, but it's a vastly different filmmaking experience that took years to develop into the version you see on screen. The film has some of the most talented actors and most visionary filmmakers on the planet involved, but their process is quite different from any typical film. Angelina Jolie, who is undoubtedly the most memorable character in the film, only shot for two and a half days back in 2005. Actor Ray Winstone, who plays Beowulf, admits about the filming process, "All these geniuses are standing around you smiling. You become a little bit scared, then you have to find something deep down inside you and say f*ck it. And once you get over that barrier, you really start to enjoy it. I really didn't know what to expect!" So what exactly goes into the technical process of creating Beowulf?
As all of the actors will say, one of the biggest things they notice regarding a motion capture shoot like for Beowulf is that it's very quick. Each scene and each take is shot continuously; there are no breaks, there are no resets, there is no need to wait for lights or for the camera, it's all being recorded digitally. Motion capture is the process where actors wear form-fitting outfits and dots all over their body and upwards of 40 digital cameras placed around the room record their exact movements. Thus, everything that is seen on the screen later on in glorious CGI is all mimicking the real actors' performance, right down to their facial features. The process for actors much like theater-in-the-round and entire scenes are acted out fully without interruption.
Director Robert Zemeckis, who also created 2004's Polar Express and continues to revel in the motion capture / CGI / 3D realm, elaborates on the process. "You have this wide open canvas where the actor can bring whatever he or she wants to the character because you're not under the same constraints that you'd have on a live-action film. The actors are liberated from the tyranny of a normal movie - it's not about lighting, it's not about setting up the camera, it's not about the hair and make-up or costumes. It is absolute performance and great actors, like the ones in this movie, relish that. You don't have to break up the scene to get coverage - we did wide shots and close-ups at the same time. So the actors dictate the rhythm of the scenes, which we did from beginning to end, as much as we could. It was like theater, except that it was being captured in 3D."
Crispin Glover gives one of the most impressive performances in Beowulf, similar to what Andy Serkis achieved in portraying Gollum in Lord of the Rings. His character is the deformed and sickly looking Grendel (as seen in the photo above), the "bastard child" of his mother (Jolie) and the King (Hopkins). He ranges from being 20 feet tall to 3 feet long over various scenes but is still in essence just a big, ugly monster. When Glover took on the role, he asked himself, "Was it going to feel like I was watching myself?" The answer: "It was surprising to see good acting underneath it in the final look." And thankfully good acting is never a bad thing! Even Angelina Jolie, who plays Grendel's mother, agrees, saying that she "didn't expect it to feel as real" as it did in the end.
Producer Steve Starkey explains that when shooting, they separate the performance from everything that happens on set so that they can later put the camera in wherever Zemeckis wishes in order to achieve any kind of shot or 3D visual effect. That way the actors aren't worrying about camera placement while filming, but they're rather acting as if they were actually on the set and were able to walk anywhere. Starkey goes on to explain that while everything in the movie is essentially created via computer graphics, there is some real world foundation, specifically for costumes. "What happens is that we design the movie very much like we would a traditional film and then it gets built in the 27 computers at Imageworks." Starkey continues, "We hire our costume designer, Gabriella Pescucci, to create the wardrobe and end up building every costume on the entire film. We put the actors into their wardrobe one at a time, scanned it in the computer, and that became the template. Same thing with hair and so on - even the actors' bodies got scanned into the computers as references so that they could create the final character in the computer. Everything came from a real foundation, as opposed to some abstract concept in the computer."
Beowulf is certainly an impressive feat of technical filmmaking when you consider all that went into it. So when you sit down in the theater, pop on those cheesy 3D glasses, and watch 115 minutes of beautiful CGI in 3D, you're watching 10 years of work, from the first draft of the script in 1997 to actually shooting in 2005 with the actors to two years of post-production and CGI work. Beowulf is definitely an example of a phenomenal technical achievement that throughout all of it still maintains a classic story that's told well on screen through some genuine performances. It's incredible to think that beneath all those layers of CGI and all those costumes and sets, there was an actor who still delivered their lines and brought a life-like feel to the film. This is technical filmmaking at its finest.
Beowulf arrives in conventional theaters, digital theaters, and IMAX theaters on Friday, November 16th, 2007. If you see Beowulf, you must see it in 3D. It was made for 3D and all of the performances and visuals are that much more tangible when presented in 3D. The photo below is a transitional example of a pre-vis shot on the far left to the complete shot on the far right of the same exact frame.