Beowulf: Cutting Edge Filmmaking

Last night I watched the new Robert Zemeckis movie, BEOWULF, on DVD. I found it absolutely fascinating.

First of all, I am an English major, so I’m no stranger to the original work. I believe I read it in high school as well as college – so I’m familiar with the themes. Neil Gaiman wrote the screenplay, and he did a fantastic job of bringing out what I would call the “quiet themes” of the original epic poem. The tale is a simple one, “big hero slays monsters”, and I remember learning in my classes that if Beowulf has a weakness, it is his greed and his pride. Gaiman’s screenplay did a tremendous job of giving the original epic poem great depth of story, and the dialogue was amazing.

Also, the look of this film blew me away – it is truely cutting edge. The entire film is done with motion capture and CGI. I would have LOVED to see this film on Blu-Ray, but alas, I have not invested in that (glorious) piece of equipment yet. I understand it was also shown in 3-D at IMAX, but I missed it (Man, I suck! I miss all the good stuff.)

This film, as I understand, had sort of mixed reviews (69% on the TomatoMeter). I had no complaints about the story or, really, anything about the film – I thoroughly enjoyed it. The talent alone involved in the project was impressive. Zemeckis directing, screenplay by Gaiman, and the actors included Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover, and John Malkovich.

But let’s talk about the highlight of the Beowulf DVD – the “making of” featurette. If you want to get a glimpse into astonishingly high-tech moviemaking, watch this DVD feature. The film, as I mentioned, was done entirely with motion capture of the actor’s performances. So literally, they had Winstone, Hopkins, and the others in motion capture suits (which look like polka dot deep dive suits) and even motion capture dots on their face! And they would act out scenes in a bare bones set – remember the play “Our Town”? It’s like that, only with fluorescent colors and dots. And Zemeckis comments that the efficiency of the process is staggering – what normally would be a 1 day shoot for a live action film, they were able to complete in 1 hour.

Also, here is a great snippet I pulled from the Beowulf Wikipedia article:

Animation supervisor Kenn MacDonald explained that Zemeckis used motion capture because “Even though it feels like live action, there were a lot of shots where Bob cut loose. Amazing shots. Impossible with live action actors. This method of filmmaking gives him freedom and complete control. He doesn’t have to worry about lighting. The actors don’t have to hit marks. They don’t have to know where the camera is. It’s pure performance.” A 25 x 35-foot stage was built, and it used 244 Vicon MX40 cameras. Actors on set wore seventy-eight body markers, and transparent costumes. The cameras recorded realtime footage of the performances, shots which Zemeckis reviewed. The director then used a virtual camera to choose camera angles from the footage which was edited together.

I can’t say enough about how fascinating I found this filmmaking process. This was easily one of the most enjoyable and interesting “Making Of” featurettes I’ve watched on DVD.

So rent this DVD if you haven’t already, its definitely worth it – and in my opinion, the film is much better than what most people have given it credit for.

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