Academy Award-winning director Robert Zemeckis reinvents the oldest tale in the English language with modern movie technology.
Beowulf is an adaptation of the oldest surviving epic poem in the English language, a tale set in 6th Century Denmark. Although the film contains many of the characters and themes from the 3,000 line long work - the struggle between good and evil, the nature of valour and glory, and an exploration of inner conflicts - Robert Zemeckis has brought this work up-to-date and arguably set a new benchmark in film, with a combination of incredible talent and new performance-capture technology.
"When I read the script and it got to the part where he is 6'6", with an eight pack, around about 20 years of age and he is a warrior, I thought there was probably another Ray Winstone somewhere in the world", joked Winstone, best known for his roles in The Departed and Sexy Beast, who leads a stellar cast as Beowulf.
Joining him is Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins as the cursed King Hrothgar, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman and Oscar winner Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother.
Penned by New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Roger Avary, Beowulf represents the culmination of ten years' work by the authors.
Responding to questions about whether the film is the one he and Avary imagined and began writing in 1997, Gaiman explained, "Not only was this beyond what was technically possible or beyond what we could imagine, Angelina Jolie was still in school, so we weren't yet up to that point either [laughs]... It was astonishing, and it feels like it is the start of something new, a whole new way of telling stories, a whole new critical vocabulary."
Realising that the performance-capture technology he had developed for The Polar Express would encompass the larger-than-life characters of Gaiman and Avary's script, Robert Zemeckis embarked on a journey that would push the technology even further.
Using a myriad of digital sensors attached to their faces and bodies, via figure-hugging Lycra suits, each actor's performance was captured by an array of over 200 cameras. The takes, or 'beats', of their performances could then be edited, blended, mixed and matched to create a medium that is not cartoon-like but inherently linked with the creative expressions of the actors and Zemeckis' direction.
Employing this technology in this fashion has helped bridge the uncanny valley - the unnerving emotional response humans have to non-human entities. A problem that is becoming far more apparent in animated films and videogames as the technology to simulate the real world improves in leaps and bounds. With the characters so closely matching the appearance of the actors, the 'leap' across the valley is aided by the skill of their performance and the knowledge of how they look in real life. This raises interesting questions for filmmakers.
"What we're doing here is just another tool in the filmmakers' armoury. I don't think it displaces anything, anymore than it displaces black & white. It's something we can use, but what I think is interesting, is in the two years leading up to this, between the performances being done and people knowing that Beowulf is coming out, I've had people coming up to me and say 'Why are you doing it like this? Why doesn't Bob just put the actors in front of a camera and shoot them, and put a CGI dragon in?'", said Neil Gaiman. "Nobody comes up to ask who has actually seen it, why did you do it like that? Because it's obvious you couldn't have done it any other way. It's a unique experience and it is its own thing, it is not a traditional live action film, it is not an animated film, it is the first of a new kind of thing."
Essentially the performance-capture technology that has been employed has removed appearance, age, colour and even gender from the casting equation.
Speaking about the look of his character and this new technology, Ray Winstone said, "This opens doors for all actors I guess in a way, I don't know whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, there are parts that you're too old to play, such as this for me physically, that you can play now, and maybe parts that you wasn't capable of playing at a certain age, that you can play now. I can play Marilyn Monroe [laughs]..."
Beowulf is currently showing in cinemas. Check out the Beowulf trailer, available for download from PlayStation Store.