Beowulf: Reimagining 2D IN 3D

Although the digital process plays a major role in generating the mythic epic actioner “Beowulf,” director Bob Zemeckis notes that traditional filmmaking still informs the art and provides its structure. “There’s cinematic feel to it because I do move the camera the way I would in a normal two-dimensional movie. We actually operate every final camera with human hands, director of photographer Robert Presley’s the camera operator. When we finally get the shot down the way we wanted it, we’d hook a remote camera head system to the computers and he actually moves the digital cameras with his hands,” Zemeckis notes.

Realistic Look

That cinematic sensibility ultimately lends a realistic look to the film, as Zemeckis explains: “If you watch a lot of the cartoons that are made today, the cameras are just hooked to the characters; where the character moves, ZIP, the camera is right there. It doesn’t have any sort of elegance to it. It’s just like a click. I call it click and drag camera. Whereas, when you see a movie, the audience isn’t aware of it but the camera is always slightly behind the subject, it always moves a little bit and is somewhat late. It follows the actor, which makes you feel comfortable because you are not ahead of the action. That can make a viewer feel jittery and nervous.”

Audience as Voyeur

“Ideally, the audience feels like a voyeur enjoying the scene as it plays out and those few frames of lag puts the audience in that comfort zone. That’s another reason we need a person to operate that camera. If it was all computerized, there would be no reason for it to be late, it’s a computer program that can hit within a millisecond. With the human hand-eye coordination, you get that little bit of lag, that slight imperfection that reads as real.”

New Lexicon

“I learned on ‘Beowulf’ that they come from a different discipline and have a different terminology, so we all had to get on the same page. I use a lot of slang that comes from making movies for 25 years. I’d say something like, ‘We’ll slide the camera over’ or ‘Drop it down,’ or ‘We’ll hinge it to the right,’ stuff like that. And they would look at me blankly. So we brought them all out to the parking lot one day during lunch and basically gave them a lesson in 2-D camera operation, and what we call different shots, all the slang terms. We showed them techniques that we might take for granted, like if we’re doing a dolly shot to the right, you have to also pan back to the left to keep the subject in the frame. Ultimately, we spoke the same language,” Zemeckis says.

Innovative Changes

Traditional filmmaking disciplines, like costumes and production design, while not utilized the same way as they would be in a conventional film, also called for some innovative changes. According to producer Starkey, “when I first started doing films of this nature, I quickly recognized that my foundation was in traditional filmmaking. Whether it be costumes or production design, I felt much more comfortable doing that in the real world and then bringing it into the computer rather than inventing it in the computer.”

“So, what happens is that we design the movie very much like we would a traditional film and then it gets built in the computer at Imageworks. The complicated aspect on ‘Polar Express’ was figuring out, well, how do we then take that information and bring it back to the stage for our performers So we did the research and development and set up an elaborate system that now seems like an everyday thing.

Costume Design

“The same thing happens with costume design. We hire our costume designer, Gabriella Pescucci, to create the wardrobe and end up building every costume on the entire film. We put the actors into their wardrobe one at a time, scanned it in the computer, and that became the template. Same thing with hair and so on–even the actors’ bodies got scanned into the computers as references so that they could create the final character in the computer. Everything came from a real foundation, as opposed to some abstract concept in the computer.”

The only break with reality came with the mythic, demonic creatures that terrorize and entice the hapless humans. “To build a creature that doesn’t exist in this world, like, for example, Grendel, we had to start from scratch, by building a miniature sculpture. That sculpture got scanned into the computer and became the basis of the creature. Same thing with the dragon–we started with the closest physical likeness that exists and began from there,” Starkey explains.

Blend of Reality and Fantasy

Says Zemeckis: “The film’s blend of reality and fantasy that’s peculiarly appropriate for a story like ‘Beowulf.’ It’s kind of an interesting hybrid. It’s very photo-real, but it’s not completely real. And I think what that does is allow us to be able to tell stories that are kind of real but not completely real, and it gives them ultimately the correct palette to tell stories that are bigger than life, stories that are mythic. And it’s interesting, when you think about doing a movie like ‘Beowulf’ the conventional, photo-realistic way, there’s a beat where you think, ‘you know, I’m not sure. Actors running around, you know, with plastic swords that are supposed to be steel and you know, I don’t know.’ ‘There’s something about the taste of the modern filmgoer and I think it has to do with the fact that we’re so surrounded by digital images. You know, whether they’re coming from television or the computer or video games. As filmmakers, we have a new visual palette in which to tell these stories. And I think that we’re getting close to what we’re doing here on ‘Beowulf.'”


That palette, to some degree, is reflected in the lighting. “We have three lighting schemes for the movie, based on what light would have looked like in the 4th century,” says Zemeckis. “There’s sun but it would be Danish sun in the winter, which is fairly cool and diffused. Then there’s fire. And you’ve got gold, the reflection of light off gold. That’s our color palette and we lit everything like that. The great thing you can do in computers is that you can use fire as your key light, as your fill light. So we were able to establish a look in the computer that we could never achieve with electric light.”


The computer and traditional film worlds merged with a technology called EOG, developed specially for ‘Beowulf’ by Jerome Chen and his visual effects team at Imageworks. The human eye, with its unique form and movement and distinctive ability to convey emotion, has always been a favorite of filmmakers and a challenge to animators and motion capture technicians. That was not the case on ‘Beowulf.’ ‘One of the most serious limitations on ‘Polar Express,’ was that we couldn’t capture the eye performance simultaneously with the face. And the reason was because we couldn’t put dots on the eyes and track their movement. On ‘Beowulf,’ Jerome and his team came up with an EOG device that allowed us to actually track muscle pulses being given off by the eye and the eyelids while simultaneously capturing the facial performance and the body performance,” Starkey explains. Ultimately, all the dots, suits, the EOG, every bit of technology is meant to disappear, as Beowulf’s world appears seamlessly on screen and audiences follow the hero’s cautionary journey.

Commitment to 3D

The overwhelmingly positive response to the 3D release of “The Polar Express,” the first performance capture film, convinced the filmmakers that all subsequent projects should be presented in the process. “After releasing ‘Polar Express’ in 3D, and receiving such a positive reaction to the theatrical experience, we have been committed to presenting all of our movies in 3D,’ says producer Starkey. “Our performance capture films are made entirely in 3D so they can be presented in the 3D format with very little difficultly.”

What is most striking about the 3D experience, Starkey continues, is that “due to the nature of the 3D experience, the audience members feel they are fully immersed in the scene they are watching and are stimulated by the scale and depth of the image. The movie appears to be in the immediate space surrounding the viewer.”

At Imageworks, a dedicated 3D stereoscopic team, led by stereographer and digital effects supervisor Rob Engle and senior visual effects producer Buzz Hays, optimized every single frame of the film to create the best 3D presentation.

Different Presentations

“Beowulf” will roll out in the largest 3D release of any film ever, including IMAX 3D, Real D and Dolby 3D Digital Cinema on more than 700 screens nationwide. As with ‘Polar Express,’ however, audiences who experience ‘Beowulf’ in 2-D will not be disappointed. “Having seen ‘Polar Express’ in both formats, I felt that the 2D experience was as exciting as any film I’d seen in recent years, and I feel that ‘Beowulf’ will be equally spectacular.”

Movie for Everybody

Regardless of what format the audience sees the movie, “In the end, I hope it’s a movie for everybody. It’s got a very sophisticated, human story with great action and a lot of themes that resonate, I believe, with what’s going on in the world around us,” says Zemeckis, “because the quest for glory and power and gold, the timeless battle between good and evil–all that is around us and has never gone away.”