'Beowulf' ushers in hybrid filmmaking technique

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It might be based on an ancient saga, but Robert Zemeckis' "Beowulf" is ushering in a very modern era of filmmaking.

The ambitious motion-capture animated film from Paramount/Warner Bros., which hits 3,155 theaters today in 2-D and 3-D, takes the technique of motion capture to its cinematic extreme, combining live action and animation, visual effects and realism to create a hybrid style that results in a greater level of realism in facial expression and movement.

Although motion capture isn't new -- it's the same technique the Zemeckis used in 2004's "The Polar Express" -- this film moves the process into the mainstream and broadens its scope. "In 'Polar Express,' we had four main characters," says Jerome Chen, senior visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, the digital production studio for both "Polar Express" and "Beowulf." "With 'Beowulf,' we had eight major characters, another 15 secondary characters that had a lot of screen time and 70 to 100 other supporting characters who were visible onscreen. The characters go through several different costume changes and 40 years. On top of that, we had the Grendel creature, the dragon and significantly more visual effects work."

What this means for the future of filmmaking is clear for a handful of digerati involved in the technology. "My belief is that it will create another art form," visual effects supervisor/second unit director Rob Legato says. He ought to know: He's working with director James Cameron on two films that make extensive use of performance capture -- Fox's planned 2009 releases "Avatar" and "Battle Angel" -- as virtual cinematography system creator and visual effects pipeline engineer. "Performance capture won't replace anything," he adds. "Just like there's 2-D and 3-D animation, there will be another version that will be performance capture-based, which shows something more akin to how live people move in a computerized world."

Visual effects supervisor Karen Goulekas, who recently completed the prehistoric epic "10,000 B.C." for Warner Bros., likes what's she's seen so far. "If motion capture can get you closer to the movements of real actors and allows you to do transformations and modification, it's all good," she says.

Perhaps nobody better understands the challenge facing Zemeckis and Sony Imageworks than the creatives at Weta Digital, the studio that used motion capture to create Gollum for New Line's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and is now working with Cameron on "Avatar." "Gollum was on the cusp of a decision about how much would be done with keyframe animation and how much with (motion capture)," Weta Digital senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri says. "There were reasons to do both. But working with (actor) Andy Serkis was the best thing that could have happened. He performed the character from the inside, playing it different ways, and gave Gollum a focus that would have been difficult to achieve otherwise."

Improvements in technology helped to make "Beowulf" possible: Computers are incrementally faster, the motion-capture system used more than 250 4-megapixel Vicon cameras (the "Polar Express" set used 72 1-megapixel cameras), and Imageworks built a much larger "capture" area (25 feet by 25 feet).

But ratcheting up to multiple characters, Letteri says, is an exponential increase in difficulty. "You always build on what you've learned, but there's still a lot to do to make sure the performance holds together," he says.

In "Beowulf," actor Ray Winstone plays Beowulf, and Crispin Glover gives life to the monster Grendel. Chen describes some of the painstaking detail that went into making the characters believable. "When we painted skin texture on the Beowulf character, we realized we should start putting scars on his face," he says. "Then we realized we were missing pores. The eyes didn't feel wet enough, then we added eyelashes. As we're doing the CG lighting, we felt something was missing. It was the peach fuzz on his face to catch the light."

Is it photo-realism? "No," Chen says. "This is what the brain wants to see before you can connect to the gritty world of Beowulf." Letteri agrees.

"Photo-real is something you get for free in a live-action movie," he says. "Photo-real isn't the Holy Grail. Believability is."

"'Beowulf' marks a sea change," Chen says. "It won't be the only way, and it won't replace the traditional way, but it's another way to make movies, and other directors are taking note."

More coverage:
NEW VISION: 'Beowulf' takes format to next level
REALITY BYTES: New hybrid filmmaking
SCREEN TEST: Biggest 3-D release ever
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