How 'Beowulf' rose above standard animation

Techniques pioneered in The Polar Express are used to create a hybrid of live action and animation for adaptation of epic poem.

2 min read
Dusty Old English poem Beowulf, long required reading in schools, went Hollywood on Friday in a bit of high-tech animated movie trickery that its makers are loath to call "animation."

The story, about a hero who battles demons and a dragon around the 6th century A.D., has been transformed into a film by Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) using up-to-the-minute digital technology and drawing on techniques he helped pioneer in 2004 film The Polar Express.

Real actors dress in tight-fitting suits covered in dots that are tracked by cameras and computers. Their movements are then transferred to digitally animated characters. But don't call Beowulf an animated film.

"We were physically doing all of these things," Angelina Jolie told reporters. "Every single gesture is ours ... even where our eyeballs move is exactly where we look."

The film's makers see Beowulf, which also features 3D technology, as a hybrid of animation and live action because the technology allows human movement to shine through the veneer of computer-built artwork.

Crispin Glover becomes the hideous and tortured monster Grendel and Ray Winstone transforms to strapping blonde Viking Beowulf. Jolie plays Grendel's mother, a conniving demon who seduces Beowulf and King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins).

The actors said they were able to see the nuances of their performances through the imagery, and Glover said he was surprised to recognize himself on screen.

"You can feel the presence of the actors that are there, and if they weren't actually performing it, it would feel more like a standard animation," Glover said.

Old English, new tech
Originally, screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary saw Beowulf as a low-budget, live action thriller when they wrote the script a decade ago with Avary set to direct. But when Zemeckis read their screenplay, he saw it differently.

Fresh from making Polar Express, which was based on a children's holiday story, Zemeckis convinced Avary and Gaiman the new technology would enable them to make a film in which the look, feel, and supercharged action would be limitless.

"Suddenly we are in a universe in which Bob (Zemeckis) is telling us to go to town," Gaiman said. "There was something very intriguing about taking the oldest single story in the English language and retelling it with the newest technology."

Avary said that by turning Beowulf over to Zemeckis, "it was an opportunity to reach the widest possible audience. The whole point of (the poem) Beowulf is to tell the story around the fire. Our fire is now movie theaters."

The movie Beowulf does not entirely conform to the poem. Avary, who won an Oscar with Quentin Tarantino for co-writing 1994's Pulp Fiction, said he knew the original poem's two-act structure was too spare for modern-day movie audiences. So, the writers added details and explanations of characters' actions and the reason behind the rise of the dragon Beowulf slays.

"We're actually very faithful to what happened," said Gaiman. "We're just implying that maybe there was other stuff that happened as well."