The monster Grendel, performed by actor Crispin Glover and 'enhanced' with motion capture digital 3D animation.
Director Robert Zemeckis and crew have paid a great deal of attention to the volume of, and movement through the computer-generated space and have created, IMHO, the best 3D movie ever commercially released.
Expanding on methods developed for the film "Monster House," the production phase of these films is closer to theater than to filmmaking. There are no sets to dress or locations to get to; no lighting changes, camera reloads, rigging, makeup & hair, props, special effects or indeed most of the usual accoutrements of filming. Instead, there is a period of motion-capture preparation during which the actors are "suited up" with close-fitting spandex to which are attached numerous reference points. Their faces also have a plethora of such points. Then, once prepared, the director and actors can focus almost exclusively on the performances without all the usual interruptions associated with traditional filmmaking.
As the actors perform, a 360-degree field of approximately 200 tracking "cameras" sends the coordinates generated by their movements to a bank of computers, thus creating a "dot cloud." At this point in the "filming" process, there are no images, only acted motions and recorded dialog.
In order to actually see something move, a computer-generated, polygonal mesh (the outer skin of the actor, if you will), and a bone structure that represents the skeleton are needed. These meshes can be made from scratch in a computer by pushing, pulling, sculpting and otherwise deforming simple objects such as spheres, planes and cylinders. However, by laser-scanning real people and real objects, much more realistic skin meshes can be to created in a fraction of the time. This is obviously the case in "Beowulf" as the meshes, with one notable exception, are readily recognizable.
Once the skin and an appropriate skeleton have been created and merged, the "dot cloud" is used to animate them. Now there is a real-time, repeatable performance by the virtual actors that becomes the basis for everything else. All the sets, props, lighting, makeup & hair, special effects and whatever else is required by the story can be computer-generated and added wherever is best. Unlike traditional film, this provides unparalled freedom to "fix it in post." Need to move that bed over 6-inches?No problem! Want the walls a darker green? No problem! Don't like the distance between the two actors? No problem! Just adjust the position of the dot clouds! And unlike traditional techniques, there is no animator pulling the strings of a virtual puppet, but rather the original performance of the original actor is driving the movements in perfect lip synch with the original dialog.
Now the fun can really begin because, once all these elements exist in the virtual space of the computer, it's time to actually shoot the movie!
Instead of the tedious programming, that was done in many previous films, "Monster House" and "Beowulf" used actual physical devices to control the cameras' viewpoints. Much like the geared Worral head of traditional filmmaking, one of these devices has dual wheels that control the tilt and pan of the virtual cameras in the computer. Turn the wheel and the camera looks up. Turn it the other way and the camera looks down. Yet another device enables handheld camera movement. Joysticks allow dollying and zooming in combination with any of the other moves. Using these controls helps the shots retain a more human feel than can be obtained by programming. And the ability to make shot changes in real time is invaluable.
Playing the performance over and over - it is exactly the same each time, the director and cameraman can try many different angles until they have the best camera positions for maximum 3D and storytelling impact. These camera moves are recorded with and integrated into the rest of the computer generated reality. Because there are no physical cameras, the filmmaker's viewpoint is freed from the limitations of tripods and dollies and steadicams and SkyCams and cables and rigging and helicopters and weight and inertia. These virtual cameras can fly through space twisting, turning and performing impossible feats of vision. They can as easily spend minutes underwater as fly on the back of a dragon. And the incredible added advantage in 3D is that there are no limitations to interocular spacing. The virtual lenses can be moved closer or further apart to constantly provide the best possible stereo viewpoint for that moment in the film.
For me, "Beowulf" IMAX 3D is the present high water mark in a long line of increasingly more sophisticated computer-generated realities. The ultimate goal is to generate virtual actors that are indistinguishable from real people. While unable to claim that title, "Beowulf" is well along the road and combined with the consistently excellent quality of the 3D visualization, is a benchmark film. I highly recommend experiencing it at your earliest convenience.
William Meredith, CFO
Stone Circle Productions, Inc.
New York, NY
--NYSS Member submitted post