Friday, July 06, 2007

Eye To Eye With Beowulf

You might recall the big heap of Beowulf images I posted here at film ick. They originally appeared online at Aint it Cool and, after they were quickly pushed into pulling them down, I hosted them for a week or so, until the legal quagmire got too deep. Until now, they were probably the best idea I had of how the film was shaping up. The billboard images from last week added a little too - including our first look at Grendel.

Just now, though, I've been reading Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman's script (excitingly, the script bears the name of the cast member it belonged to, but I won't reveal who in case they get into trouble) and I'm even more excited for the film than I already had been. And you probably already know I'm absolutely nuts for Zemeckis and Gaiman, not to mention 3D cinema.

Simply put, this script exceeded my every expectation. Not only is it a lean, vicious retelling of the story, but as it whips along it drips evocative images from every paragraph.

Be wary of spoilers as you read on...

So, here's a little from the opening to whet your appetite. We begin in Herot, the greatest mead hall in all the land as a rowdy crowd of thanes celebrate their victories. Hrothgar, "as fat a King as you are ever likely to see", is carried in on his portable throne, "draped in nothing more than haphazardly wrapped bed linen as if he just came from f*cking". He beats on his chest to be put down, and then proceeds to hand out treasures.

His first award is for Unferth his "wisest advisor, violator of virgins and boldest of brave brawlers" - but Unferth is busy at the 'p*ss pit' asking "So, if Christ Jesus and Odin got into a fight, who do you think would win?"

This raucous party, half drunken orgy, half celebratory ceremony is quickly cut short:

Suddenly THE GREAT DOOR EXPLODES as if something of tremendous force rammed into it, splintering the wooden frame and buckling the great iron hinges... but the door holds.

HROTHGAR'S eyes go from sleepily closed to wide as saucers. PEOPLE start sitting up, worried. Warriors reach for their swords and kinves and spears.

There is a pause. A BEAT OF SILENCE which goes on almost longer than we can bear and then...

There is a second EXPLOSIVE RAM to the frame of the massive door, breaking it free from its hinges and causing the wood to splinter.

For a brief moment, we see the SHADOW OF A MONSTER from behind the broken door.

Then it enters. Candles snuff out with the cold wind that accompanies it. HROTHGAR rises in his seat, terrified.

My sword! My sword!

Unferth and Aesher draw thier weapons. The horror on their faces hints to us the nature of the monster which has erupted into the mead hall. They stand frozen in astonishment.

THE GREAT FIREPIT suddenly ROARS larger and wilder than before, consuming the spit and pig in its flame. What was once a warm source of heat suddenly becomes dangerous and ominous.

We see the MONSTERS SHADOWS cast onto the heavy stone wall of the hall by the golden light of the firepit. It isn't just one shadow, it's many shadows overlapping eachother, dancing wildly together to composite a figure of massive size. The interloping shadows overtake the SHADOW OF A THANE... it lunges forward and lifts him up above it's head... there's a HORRIFYING RIPPING SOUND and the shadow thane is suddenly two shadows, a pair of legs and an upper torso.

And the destruction continues, until Hrothgar confronts the monster. It flees, still semmingly unafraid, just somehow done here. Hrothgar identifies the monster as Grendel.


GRENDEL, silhouetted by the cool light of the full moon, shambles into his lair - a cave mouth inside of which there
is a placid pool of clear water. He is dragging the bodies of TWO DEAD WARRIORS into the cavern.

Grendel drops the bodies of the dead warriors into a corner f the cave where the bones of mean, both bleached and fleshy, litter the floor. It is a strange and unnverving place.

A mask is dropped onto the floor. A mask constructed from the skulls of two baby whales and decorated with bits of human hair and bones... painted with mud. From its size we can imagine that Grendel likes to wear it.

Someone else is there...

GRENDEL'S MOTHER is sitting a little way away, in the shadows near the cave pool and swathed in a dark cloth. What we can see of her skin glitters, like gold.

Grendel's mother's VOICE is melodious and young.

Grendel? What have you done?

Grendel turns suddenly, surprised by her voice - like a boy who has been caught masturbating.

Moth-er? Where are you?

Men? Grendel, we had an agreement. Fish and wolves and bear and sometimes a sheep or two. but not men.

You like men.

These men are too fragile, Grendel. They do me little good. And you must be more crafty. Bring them to me alive, at least... with their seed intact. You see, they will hurt us if they can. They have killed so many of us, the Giant-breed, the Dragon-kind.

As you can see, Gaiman's up to his usual tricks with folklore in the greater context - Dragons alongside Giants alongside Grendel.

Months later, Grendel attacks again. Hrothgar despairs:

When I was young, I killed a dragon, in the Northern Moors. But I'm too old for dragon-slaying now. We need a hero, a Siegfried, to rid us of this curse upon our hall.

I say we trap the beast. Brute strength fails against such a brute. Let us use cunning.

These creatures know cunnng, Unferth. They are cunning.

Our people wait for deliverance, my King. Some of them pray to the Christ Jesus to lift this affliction. Other sacrifice goats or sheep to Odin or Heimdall.

They need a hero and, of course, that's where Beowulf comes in. He journeys across a tempestuous sea to find Hrothgar, and to pledge to kill Grendel.

After his first meeting with the King, they immediately spark up a banquet in Herot, knowing it will lure the monster in...

This first confrontation occurs around the fourty five minutes mark - so you know it won't be the last. But it is fought as though it is. Bloody, relentless and absolutely without restraint they set about each other with everything they have, and anything they can grab. Smashing, punching, headbutting, kicking, biting, slashing, throttling... the repeating, resounding slam of viscera on viscera again and again and again.

There is no out-and-out victor this time, but one side does far more than draw first blood and the stakes are set even higher for their future confrontations.

What we have, in essence, is a bloody, sweaty dragonslaying story but at full scale, visually and narratively. The mythology is suitably epic, the images make the saga resonate at every turn, the ideas are teased out subtly, exposing the depth of the story in ways that, perhaps, we care about far more than most of the poem's original audiences would ever have even dreamt of. This is the Beowulf that makes sense for a 21st Century audience without perverting or denying the truth of the original tale.

A few years back, Zemeckis had recruited Gaiman to write another screenplay for him, adapted from Nicholson Baker's The Fermata. Like the original book, that script full of upfront sexuality and featured a protagonist of dubious morality, to say the least. Zemeckis was looking to make a resolutely adult film, away from the all-ages fare he was best known for. He just has: Beowulf will satisfy that desire also, without a doubt.

As such, I think Beowulf might be quite a hard sell to casual audiences - a motion capture film, released widely in 3D is something we might assume to be family fare, not a lusty, grimy epic. Another marketing problem might be that the characters' outlooks are also a little alien, in some respects, though truly universal in most. I don't the numerous references to incest will help much either.

Where I have no doubt it wil succeed, however, is with critics and movie lovers. This is the bareknuckle version of The Lord of the Rings and I think people will honestly be knocked onto their behinds. On the page, it is hard, fast and perfectly under control and with Zemeckis in charge, I think we can expect a bullseye that splits the target.

On page 110 of the script, Gaiman and Avery have noted 'We are utterly convinced of it: this is where our budget is going'. They've certainly got a point - though I won't tell you just what incredible, but hellish, spectacle they have invented. But I might note on every page 'this bit won't be cheap either' - and that, I suppose, is one of the amazing assets of the performance capture technique. Fashinoning an epic battle between man and winged beast above the moors (just for example - hint hint) would take, relatively speaking, little more resource than creating a small, intimate scene in the King's chamber. In making Beowulf in this fashion, Gaiman, Avary and Zemeckis have been able to imagine whatever it was they wanted, knowing that their only limitation was the vision of Zemeckis, the cast and crew - and if you ask me, that's no kind of limitation at all.

Bewoulf opens in the US in November. Go see it.


Anonymous said...

I don't know if i am reading your post right, but it seems you assume a mo-cap and green screen battle is as cheap as a small intimate scene. I am an animator and I have worked with both key-frame and with mo-cap data. The fact that mo-cap is cheap is an urban legend, like when we were kids and people thought japanese cartoons were made by pushing a button on a computer. Raw mo-cap data is unusable and looks like crap. A good animator needs to first clean the data AND THEN animate a performance on top of that. If you look at the POTC 2 dvd you'll see what work went into Davey Jones. Even though Bill had all those funky dots on his face, the performance was created by looking at the actor's movies, not by simply using the mo-cap.


Brendon said...


What I know that I didn't let on is that the two scenes would have the same amount of protagonists.

Therefore, they'd require the same amount of animation.

Think of it this way: in a film with live action and CG, a scene with two people talking in a room would place no strain on the CG whereas a scene with one person and a 'thing' would place strain on the CG.

So, relatively speaking, the price of any given scene (with the same number of characters and elements to be animated) would be comparable. Not as per a live action film, where the cost would be variable.

Anonymous said...

As a digital visual effects systems administrator, may I say that CG of any kind is not cheap. Software more than anything is outrageously expensive. More so than the hardware in most cases.

Mo-cap hardware is still also pretty expensive. It's time consuming, and you need a team of people to take that mo-cap data and generate something usual from it for the animators.

Then you've got riggers, animators, technical directors, compositors, match-move, research and development, systems, engineering, render wranglers, data operatives, runners, vt-ops, co-ordinators, producers and everybody else in-between. All to make one person move a couple of frames. Repeat that for 90 minutes, and it all adds up in costs.

I'd imagine this really is not a cheap film to produce even for one or two "simple" scenes. The same amount of animation isn't always the case - you've got to factor in the environment (i.e. lighting) and everything else that you'd take for granted in a normal live-action shoot. It's all got to be simulated, and that's bloody hard work for a computer - even 3,000 of the blighters.

Brendon said...

Nobody said this film was cheap. I just said the relative difference in price between a scene where two people talk on a bed and another where two people fight in the air... that the prices are going to be closer than in a 'live action' film where the same happens.

So, in effect, I'm saying mo-cap ISN'T cheap. But UNIFORMLY not cheap.

Anonymous said...

I still don't think so. Still requires more effort than live action film even if it is two people sitting talking on a bed.
It's going to cost more than a live action film for the same sequence.

Brendon said...

Yes, Martyn. That's what I said.

Exactly what I said.

Anonymous said...

I'm very excited about this film now. At first, despite the wonderful art, I wasn't sure how it would sound and feel. But now I'm starting to get anxious to see this. If the film is truly like the Lord of the Rings, but more real and more like the source material with its more barbaric aesthetic I will be very impressed. In 3D? Well that's just the icing on the cake, isn't it? Sounds wonderful. Thanks for the review Brendon!

Anonymous said...

Ah. Bugger.

Do have ever have one of those weeks where you just don't know whether you're coming or going? Well, it's been like that for me. I think I'll go home now and sleep for the entire weekend.

Brendon said...

All the time, actually.

My plan is similar - but I'll wake up for Spinal Tap at the Live Earth gig.

Anonymous said...

Which one of you is Tyler Durden?

Anonymous said...

"the repeating, resounding slam of viscera on viscera again and again and again"

Wait...they're beating it each other up with their intestines!?!

Or did you mean "the visceral sound of..." something?

Brendon said...

I meant guts on guts. As a metaphor, like.