Paramount (2007), Paramount Home Entertainment (February 26, 2008), 2 discs, 114 mins plus supplements, 2.35:1 ratio, Dolby Digital, Not Rated, Retail: $39.99
The oldest story in English literature is given the mo-cap experience, all presented on a wonderful (but sadly dead) hi-def format.
The Sweatbox Review:
I’m mainly here to talk about the differences between the DVD and HD DVD versions of Beowulf, but I need to get something out of the way first. I have to admit that I’m still reeling from reading Ben’s review of the Beowulf: Director’s Cut DVD. Did he really call the movie “awful?” This caught me off-guard, since normally Ben and I tend to agree to the point of ridiculousness. We have the same favorite movie (Superman: The Movie), our impressions of people and films nearly always coincide (our twin reviews of Return to Neverland reveal as much), and when corresponding we often remark that suggestions we make to one another have already been implemented. So, reading Ben savage Beowulf finally made it clear that we are not twins separated at birth after all. You see, Ben seems to hate Zemeckis’ motion capture efforts (at least when applied to realistic visuals). He admitted to appreciating many aspects of Beowulf, but ultimately felt it just couldn’t work with the means used to create it, while I remain thrilled with watching the advancing new technology.
I therefore feel moved to offer a rare thing at Animated Views: a rebuttal. We normally try to let a single review speak for the site, but it was hard to let this one go, seeing as how I had been charged with taking a look at the film on HD DVD. How could I cut and paste Ben’s views into my piece, when I felt so differently? With his permission, and with all due respect, I would like to present my own opinion of the film, focusing on the visuals and the technology behind them. Suffice it to say I also enjoyed the story a great deal, but I want to most attend to where Ben and I differ in our appreciation.
I was thrilled with the look of Beowulf from beginning to end. The art direction of wonder artist Doug Chiang (Star Wars: Episode 1) is beautiful, the vocal performances are top rate, and the motion capture-fuelled animation (yes, I’m going to use that word) if often startling. I certainly do see what Ben is talking about when he berates the technology’s shortcomings, but I do feel the criticism is too severe. Perhaps my expectations were radically different. I never really expected Beowulf to look absolutely real, nor did I feel it necessary for it to look real, so I was quite impressed during the film’s best moments. The illusion is certainly not perfect, however, and I’m happy to admit that; but it did not come close to ruining my love of the film.
I particularly noticed problems in portraying hands, one of the most complex parts of the body, as even the simple act of grabbing a cup was sometimes made to look almost literally ham-fisted. Clothing is another issue, as it sometimes looked too painted-on, particularly the ladies’ dresses. In fact, the ladies in generally appeared too flat, almost as if the artists were afraid of adding too many imperfections for fear of detracting from their beauty. I initially agreed with Ben’s assessment of seeing too little blinking, but watching the film a second time with the picture-in-picture mode activated revealed to me that the blinking did in fact often follow the performance of the actors; it’s just that people are not always blinking constantly. John Malkovich, for example, doesn’t blink at all while channelling strong emotions.
The “uncanny valley” effect, i.e. the tendency of people to reject almost-but-not-quite photorealistic CGI characters, has been largely attributed to the lack of attention to the eyes. I thought that Beowulf made a huge stride forward in this regard. As revealed in the HD DVD’s special features (barely touched on in the DVD edition), electro-oculography was used in the making of Beowulf, a technique where electrodes planted around the eyes actually measure electrical activity of the ocular muscles, allowing the actions of the eyes (and eyelids, I think) to be captured. The result is often striking.
Now, having said that, it is obvious that not all characters got the same attention. Secondary or background characters move more stiffly and have less expression (but isn’t that also often true of traditional animation?). And not all body movements come off well. Something is certainly lost when capturing human movement in a computer. I noticed that no markers were used on people’s necks, for example, and rotation movements are not captured as well as translatory ones. Subtleties of movement are often lost, often made worse when the CGI character’s clothing does not move as it should over top the body. So, I do concede that there is still some of the “puppet” effect to seeing these CGI humans move, but I do feel that we are seeing improvements from film to film. The danger of using motion capture is that the animators are almost discouraged from improvising— otherwise, why bother with mo-cap, right? (This may explain why the look of Final Fantasy still holds up so well, as it was truly animated by animators.) There does need to be some more tweaking done to the performances in order to really make a motion capture film like this work for all viewers.
I do think it is important here to make a distinction concerning different types of viewers. I for one have never found CGI human characters “creepy.” I understand the “uncanny valley” phenomenon, but don’t seem to have the emotional reaction to it that some do. And I’m not alone, judging by all the positive reviews that The Polar Express and Beowulf received. Not everyone succumbs to being creeped out if things look a little “off.” We just accept it as the cartoon it is, and try to enjoy the story. This comes down to personal preference, or maybe an interpretation of the artistic intent. Was Beowulf supposed to look photorealistic, or like stylized photorealism? And does it even matter, or can I just enjoy the show? It’s a movie, after all.
One area where I think director Zemeckis may have stumbled a bit was in selecting actors known for subtle performances. I suppose that this may have presented an enticing challenge for the “performance capture” technology, but it does have its limitations. Malkovich is a fine, intense actor, but he does tend to deadpan his deliveries, while Anthony Hopkins tends to use small facial motions that are riveting in live action but don’t translate so well with motion capture. Crispin Glover’s Grendel, on the other hand, is a tour de force of physical performance, making it one of the more powerful performances in the film despite the character being so physically deformed.
It is Grendel, perhaps, who makes the most obvious case for using motion capture in a film like this, given that the huge and horrible Grendel could never be created so convincingly using practical effects. But it is Beowulf himself that benefits the most, for one can always make a monster one way or another, but how do you find a six-foot-six-inch blond male with an incredible six-pack for abs who can do his own stunts and give a compelling performance? I mean, as much as we all loved Arnie in Conan The Barbarian, neither he nor his accent fit my own idea of the character. In Beowulf, a talented but chubby character actor of average height is able to become a ferocious warrior. Now THAT is a great special effect! (Although, as Ben says, Sean Bean may have worked well in live action too. But is Bean really that tall and powerful looking? Beowulf is mythical, and one has to admit that the CGI Beowulf is an impressive-looking man.)
The graphics in general come off very well in the film, showing off an impressive amount of well-researched detail. Water and fire effects are very good, and the various monsters of the air and sea look great. Occasionally, the attempts of wowie-zowie 3-D effects are a little too obvious, but not too bad, all things considered. (The movie was shown on IMAX screens in 3-D.) In terms of special effects, I might only suggest that blood, often seen being sprayed about in this film, looked too globular, as if being spouted in a non-gravity environment.
Even if one doesn’t buy into the motion (sorry, “performance”) capture technology, there is still a great story, well told, here. If one can enjoy a traditionally animated film like The Last Unicorn or Watership Down (not to mention various good quality television cartoons), with sub-Disney animation but enjoyable stories, then I see no reason that one cannot enjoy Beowulf. Don’t we always say that it’s not the method that counts, it’s the story? The same argument that was once made in favor of continuing production of traditionally animated films should not be forgotten when assessing non-traditional animated efforts.
Looking At The HD DVD
While the case of this DVD appears to be like any other, a peek at the back reveals something very nice. This is a two-disc set, allowing the film plenty of room to breathe on the first disc, while most of the special features reside on the second. While an HD DVD should have been able to handle everything on one disc (just look at the loaded HD DVD for Batman Begins, which was a longer movie by far), it is nice to see Paramount doing its best to present a reference-quality experience.
Ben did say that the DVD had some great video and audio on it, and you can further amp up your expectations for the HD DVD version (and likely a Blu-ray version down the road). This film looks absolutely sweet on high definition, with perfect, detailed video, and a very active surround audio mix. In terms of the picture, there are simply no problems to be spotted. The mixture of golds, browns, and blues is captured exquisitely, showing off the very fine production design by Chiang and the other artists. Black details, often a sore spot with me even in hi-def transfers, are very good— and the details in the backgrounds, dragon scales, and assorted props and costumes are equally impressive. No compression artifacts or edge enhancement can be seen. The audio, though only Dolby Digital Plus rather than a lossless codec, is still sure to please all but the pickiest audiophiles (who will complain, just knowing that this is a compressed track). This audio is powerful. The sweeping music and swirling sound effects provide plenty of thrilling moments, and the bass support is formidable.
The HD DVD offers up one major treat in the bonuses department: a picture-in-picture feature called In The Volume, referencing the performance capture stage on which the actors performed. For most of the movie, you can view footage from the “per-cap” stage, synched up with the final film. (See the image above.) This is illuminating to say the least; but presenting the two views on disc is, of course, a double-edged sword. Those that were impressed with the film will find this very interesting, though I fear that detractors will simply use this as an opportunity to find more flaws in the final product. Myself, I was impressed by just how much of each performance the system caught, sometimes surprised by how little difference there was between actor and synthespian. I do concede, however, that those who wish to find deficiencies will have ample ammunition too. In addition to the stage footage, the PiP box also shows off some early CGI footage. Fair warning, though— Angelina Jolie appears NOWHERE in any of the special features (except when someone mentions her by name once or twice). The PiP window, for example, simply blinks out of existence when her character is onscreen. Bummer.
Disc One also carries some Web-Enabled Features, but I’ve never been able to get my Internet hook-up to work with my HD DVD player, so I can’t tell you anything about them. Apparently, this offers more featurettes, biographies, and trailers.
Disc Two has all the same features that appeared on the Director’s Cut DVD, but here everything is presented in high definition. There are added bonuses, too. A Hero’s Journey, the very good “making of” featurette, gets an upgrade. On HD DVD, it has a pop-up factoid track, as well as branching featurettes covering nine aspects of the production in greater detail, and adding another twenty minutes to the “making of” runtime. These same branching featurettes are offered separately in the section The Journey Continues. Most illuminating for me was the more in-depth look at the first use of electro-oculography, which was used for actor-CGI puppet eye synchronization. You also get to see the actors in costume for the only time, when they were scanned into the computer. Other featurettes cover The Volume, T-Pose, Sets, Props, Grendel’s Attack, Blocking, Crew Antics, and Stunts. Seeing all of these certainly enhanced my appreciation for the effort made to produce this film, and for how it was all done, filling in many of the blanks from the original “making of” featurette.
The HD DVD also contains five additional deleted scenes (though none are extraordinary), and A Conversation With Robert Zemeckis (10 minutes), where he answers questions from film students at the University Of Southern California. Mainly, his comments concern the use of performance capture, particularly in reference to Beowulf.
Unless you have an innate dislike for motion capture films (and if you do, then fair enough), you may find Beowulf to be a thrilling and at times extraordinary film. Screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery wrote a screenplay that is surprisingly cohesive, even if it may turn off scholars of the classic story. The action in the film is dramatic and bold, and the technical qualities of this HD DVD are superb. If that weren’t enough, Paramount even added worthwhile HD-exclusive bonus content, which makes the special features much better rounded and informative. If you are one of the few who has a HD DVD player, then this is definitely the version of the film to get. If not, you may wish to wait for the inevitable Blu-ray edition.