BEVERLY HILLS, California — The first time most people come across “Beowulf,” they want nothing to do with it. Generations of students have been assigned the 1,300-year-old epic poem as mandatory reading, unleashing groans nearly as epic as the story itself.
Flash-forward to 2007, however, and this unlikely source material has yielded arguably the most cutting-edge blockbuster of the year.
“My first exposure to ’Beowulf’ was in Miss Berghardt’s English class, where we were all obliged to recitation of various parts of it,” sighed John Malkovich, remembering that he didn’t enjoy the assignment.
“It’s definitely a new version of the CliffsNotes,” teased Alison Lohman, one of the stars in the CGI adventure tale. “[The movie] is easy and more accessible than the poem, which is Old English. But still, it’s a great story — and a very old one.”
The technology being used for the film, however, is far from ancient. Building on the breakthroughs he enjoyed with 2004’s “The Polar Express,” director Robert Zemeckis dusted off the epic he despised in high school and transformed it into a bloody, sexy, action-packed script for stars Malkovich, Lohman, Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie. Soon, he was attaching sensors to their Lycra-clad bodies, “capturing” their performances on empty soundstages and pouring the results into enough supercomputers to power Rhode Island for a week.
“It was a black suit, and there are dots all over that,” Crispin Glover remembered of his time on the green-screen set. “You have 240 cameras that surround you. It’s a very interesting process.”
“Without ’Polar Express,’ we wouldn’t be making this,” insisted Ray Winstone, cast as the titular king whose demon dalliance brings a half-century of darkness to his village. “With every scene you shoot, the technology gets better. … [Zemeckis’ technique] gets rid of all the scenery and the props and all the stuff that gets in the way. You’ve got no castle, you’ve got no dragon — you are the dragon! You now just perform, and your imagination runs away with itself. You’ve got to embrace that.”
“[Zemeckis’ team had me] on wires, and there was quite a bit of movement,” added Glover, who was transformed into the nightmarish monster Grendel for the flick. “Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich and Anthony Hopkins, for the most part, [retain] features that are relatively recognizable. … But this was shot over two years ago now. I didn’t know until just a few months ago, when I saw portions of my performance, if my nuances would come through [in the monster]. I was very pleased to see that yes, the nuance was there. I can feel the embodiment of myself.”
As evidenced by the anguished, sympathetic eyes Glover lends to his monster, when you’re taking in this innovative process, an odd awareness emerges. Watching Madame Tussauds-like representations of the famed stars, you catch personal features of theirs you’ve never picked up on before. Holding up a microscope to the actor’s every move, the process highlights everything from the darting glances of Malkovich to every naked crevice on Angelina Jolie’s, um, tail.
“It’s all computer data,” explained Malkovich, saying that the process then frees up a director to tinker with those features any way he likes. “Ray doesn’t look anything like Beowulf in real life. … His look was based on portraits of Jesus, which were combined with the way Ray looks. So it’s both like him and isn’t. Anthony [Hopkins’ character] weighs 300 more pounds than he weighs in real life. It’s really exciting to not be limited by what you actually, physically look like.”
As if all that weren’t enough, “Beowulf” also makes headlines as a film most moviegoers will see in “Real D,” a revolutionary 3-D process. Miles away from the paper-sunglasses days of something like “Jaws 3-D,” the new technology creates an immersive experience that constantly brings depth to what you’re watching. High-profile upcoming films such as James Cameron’s “Avatar,” Peter Jackson’s “Tintin” trilogy and DreamWorks’ “Monsters vs. Aliens” are being developed in Real D.
“I haven’t seen [’Beowulf’] in the big IMAX yet,” Winstone said. “But I’ve seen it in 3-D, and it just blew me away.”
They say that everything old becomes new again. For Robert Zemeckis and the cast of “Beowulf,” that notion yielded a grade-school lesson worth learning.
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