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Beowulf turns into a beast

13/11/2007. Contributed by Jessica Martin

Buy Beowulf in the USA - or Buy Beowulf in the UK

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Robert Zemeckis's latest motion-capture animated film, Beowulf, which opened first at the domestic ($28.1 million) and international ($17.3 million) weekend box office and is poised to have a strong showing over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, might just be the most ambitious computer-generated animated film ever produced. Driven by the director's vision and by visual effects technology, it was the artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks who brought the characters and worlds to life on screen in both 2D and 3D formats. SFcrowsnest goes behind the scenes at Beowulf, and no, we didn't get to meet Angelina Jolie (sob).

"As a leader in visual effects and character animation, we are thrilled that audiences came out in droves to experience Robert Zemeckis's Beowulf," Tim Sarnoff, President at Sony Pictures Imageworks, told SFcrowsnest.com. "We are in the business of innovation and we were delighted to again work with Robert Zemeckis to raise the bar of what is possible in visual effects and animation."

Inspired by the 9th century English epic poem, Beowulf's cast includes Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman and Angelina Jolie.

To bring Zemeckis's vision to the screen, Imageworks animators started by drawing data from their own Imagemotion capture system using performances by the film's actors who donned motion capture suits. The actors' motion sensors were then photographed with 240 high definition infrared cameras. A team of 40 tracking artists then spent months matching whose-elbow-dots-are-whose, resulting in a 3D digital map of each of the actors' movements for the entire film.

These skeletons were then married to the already designed characters in the computer, who move with the actors' original motion. But that's where the technology steps aside and the artistry begins. "Motion capture is not just a matter of putting the data through the computer and getting the animation automatically," said Imageworks SFX supervisor Jerome Chen. "There's a significant amount of artistic decision that has to be made. The timing and intent of the scene has already been sketched out by the actor, and it's the animator's job to make sure that it comes across onscreen as intended."

Giant steps have been taken by Imageworks, even in the short three years since they worked with Zemeckis on his 2004 Christmas spectacle, The Polar Express, to bring more realism to the facial expressions of the characters - both for humans and creatures alike. One hundred and twenty-one reflective dots were applied to the actors' faces during production, photographed simultaneously with the body by the Imagemotion system, to capture as much of the actors' expressions as possible.

One might wonder, with all of the effort involved, between motion capture, texturing and animating - why go to all the trouble to produce a film based on motion captured performances by actors, instead of just filming real people in costume and inserting them into a computer-generated background, as has so been done in many recent fantasy films?

"Robert Zemeckis wanted to take full advantage of the creative freedom of CG, and the tools Imageworks has created, to portray Beowulf's world as he envisioned it," Chen explained to SFcrowsnest.com. "Using this method of production means the characters and the environments they're in can all be cut from the same texture. It gives continuity to the look of the film that you can't get by combining live action with CG backgrounds. The audience is never taken out of the experience and never wonders where they are. They are in the world of Beowulf."

Crucial to bringing the audience into the characters' emotional world is, of course, their realistic eye movement, captured by another Imageworks innovative technique called Electro-Ocularography. "It's adapted from sports medicine, where electrodes are used to measure the electrical output from muscles in the face of the actors as they move," says Chen. "We use it to help the animators see how much the eyes move," capturing the "saccades" humans do - the little searches and glancing about which naturally occur while listening or sitting still.

Another subtlety of the animators' work is that done by artists who create the countless textures - be they on skin, cloth, hair or items in the background. "All of those textures that you see, on stones, on trees - even razor bumps we put on the men's skin -- are all painted by someone," explains Chen. "The realism that the audience experiences comes from the incredible amount of detail that we add into each scene."

All of those details are made yet more visible to those experiencing the film in 3D, which was intended from the get-go. Zemeckis and Imageworks take full advantage of the 3D experience, bringing the whole world into the audience's lap - literally.

For past 3D films produced by the digital production studio, Imageworks Stereographer and 3D Digital Effects Supervisor Rob Engle and his team would produce the right-hand "eye's" image after the left eye image was completed. But for Beowulf, the 3D artists began working almost simultaneously to create the complete stereo picture viewers enjoy in such formats as IMAX 3D, REAL D and Dolby 3D at cinemas around the country.

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