November 27, 2007

Watching Beowulf I got the impression that something complicated and groundbreaking was happening on a technical level - as you do with Robert Zemeckis movies - but unlike Forrest Gump or Death Becomes Her (a movie so fantastic that when I catch it on cable I am transfixed for the duration), it wasn't adding to my enjoyment very much. From an animation perspective I am sure I witnessed breakthroughs, but maybe shooting for photorealistic humans is still beyond our reach. Shrek and Donkey are more real than some of the humans in Beowulf. This is the kind of movie that gets an Oscar, but in a category they present in an earlier, untelevised ceremony.

The problem, of course, is the eyes. When I describe the Beowulf characters I'll adopt my best Quint from Jaws impression: "Then you see those dead eyes... like a doll's eyes." There might be some algorithm to describe the movement and reflections of the human eye but it hasn't been developed yet. Maybe they need to figure out a way to attach tiny ping pong balls to the actors' irises, so they can be scanned as well as their other body movements.

It's not universal, though - some digital performances transmit better than others. Brendan Gleeson's mannerisms could almost be replicated. Maybe he just has a minimalist style. They seem to have completely replaced or modified Ray Winstone's appearance, which is impressive (no offense to Winstone), but his eyes displayed only the occasional spark. John Malkovich and Robin Wright Penn, though, apparently can't be duplicated by computer very well at all, maybe to their credit. Their characters (should we call them avatars?) almost seemed like blind people - their eyes didn't seem to be looking at anything.

It's also interesting how something standard like the "graceful moving shot ending in an extreme close up," is affected by this. The intensity of such a shot is lost if you're ending on the dead eyes of a character that might as well be a puppet.

Designers of CGI shots would also do well to stop including those impossible virtuoso camera moves where our perspective swoops through a keyhole, up to the ceiling, out a window, through the branches of a tree, past a flying bird, along the way intricately threading our view between the tiny grooves of a passing butterfly's wings or tiny droplets of rainwater or whatever. Gorgeous, yes - but it's a trick that's #2 on the Showy CGI Hit Parade, right behind Doll Eyes Syndrome.

There are great parts in Beowulf, some thrilling moments, but not enough to recommend it for a visit to the theater (and I even saw it in 3D!). Something worth MY ticket, though: Zemeckis has remembered that for a monster to be TRULY monstrous, TRULY horrible, it would not be a sleek and beautiful thing (like the dragon of the finale), but something misshapen and deformed and awful. Grendel is a disgusting mess, and you won't know whether to feel terror or pity. I haven't been so repulsed by a creature since the various mutations of The Thing or the doomed alien baby in Alien: Resurrection. I laughed when I learned that Crispin Glover did the voice, because, how perfect is THAT casting, but I stopped laughing when I heard what an amazing job he did conveying the creature's confused rage and pain.

I went back to my old tattered high school copy to confirm (and am still confirming), but as I recall there's not much story in "Beowulf," just the recounting of his strange encounters. Naturally a screenwriter would want to provide a neatened framework and motivations for a feature - but what Gaiman and Avery chose to impose was half-baked. If there's a story to be added it might be about the nature of stories themselves, not the "sins of the fathers" thing they came up with. Every time someone mentioned the "new Roman God Christ" I got excited about the possibilities... but no.

(Some obligatory Gaiman grumbling: No surprise that yet another movie with lots of trappings but not much substance would come from him, the man fans have seemingly appointed President of All Fantasy. For my part I give him only the Special Award for Most Wildly Overrated Genre Giant, also affectionately known as the "Burton."

I now stand back for the rotten lettuce-heads to fly.)

One final note regarding the all-important cinematic issue... of NUDITY. If characters are required to be nude for full scenes, I mean not just flashes of putting on clothing but their nakedness is for some reason part of the story, it seems to me you have to go for it - or leave it out. I assume it's a detail from the book that Beowulf felt the need to face the beast without armor. However, the effort to maintain modesty via carefully-placed knees, swords, candlesticks, etc. during the battle came across like an extended bit from an Austin Powers movie. Conversely, I give them more credit for hiding Angelina Jolie's charms with magical golden body paint - disappointing, but a plausible part of her demonry.

This is not a plea to reveal the Beo-wiener; but for all the other licenses they took with the story, I think it could have been just as honorable to face Grendel in boxer-briefs.

Posted by Chris at 1:29 PM

I have yet to see it, but I do plan to take it in...hopefully in 3-D. I was most fixated on your Death Becomes Her comment. I also feel the need to stop and watch whenever it comes on (which over the past few months has been extremely frequent). The performances, the effects, the wackiness. Love it all. In fact, I plan to add it to my all time faves list. Quite a recommendation...don't you think? Hope you're well! klugula

Posted by: klugula at November 27, 2007 4:29 PM

I like the "Burton" award.

I know what you mean about the eyes...I'm not sure they'll ever overcome this problem. I think it's less about the limitations of the craft or software, and more a human instinct to recognize life in (human) eyes. We are perhaps biologically able to feel an emotional reaction based on faces, eyes, etc. When we don't feel that, we don't recognize the person as a person. VS Ramachandrun talks about head-trauma patients who lose the ability to have an emotional reaction when looking at someone familiar - their mother perhaps - and so become convinced that person is "an imposter". Interesting stuff. All CGI people are imposters...

I agree too, regarding the virtuoso camera shots. I figure if it's not possible with a camera, you should avoid it. CGI films are best when they have a more conservative style of film-making, that is, they have studied live-action films and have a similar feel. The completely free potential of the CGI camera doesn't mean it should be completely free. It should be restrained the way a real camera is, it should have rules and limitations imposed upon it, like a real camera does.

Posted by: simon at December 2, 2007 11:57 AM

Hello Mr McCaleb.
I am watching you even as you read these words;

well thats not exactly true.

I am conscious of you!
Does that make you shudder with fear? It should.
You see, I am a dark and mysterious person from your past(though relatively light-complected I am capable of terrible deeds!!!)

You should fear me and the mysterious enigma that I represent.

At a later time I will unveil my secret identity. Until then you can call me Mr Mysterious!! and you can write to me at
Oh Damn...

Posted by: Mr Mysterious at December 2, 2007 11:42 PM
November 15, 2007
Favorite WGA picket signs

"Do you want to know what the island is?" - A "LOST" writer.

"John 3:16 - Somebody wrote that."

"You'll be a rich dick either way, why not be fair?"

"I write for that show you like"

"Don't worry, I.A.T.S.E. will fix the blank pages for you in post"

"I couldn't come up with a good slogan because I'm on strike"

"A.M.P.T.P. I Really Hate You Right Now" - Sarah Silverman's sign

Posted by Chris at 12:17 PM
November 8, 2007
We write, they wrong

A fantastic overview and editorial with liberal linkage from Kung Fu Monkey:

To show my support for my WGA friends, I, TOO, SHALL NOT WRITE ON THIS DAY!

Posted by Chris at 3:04 PM
November 7, 2007
Two thoughts on the B-I-B-L-E

When my screenwriting group got a little tired of screenwriting, we started a Bible study group, mainly to be able to say that we had actually read it since it figures so greatly in our lives. Everyone else has a fancy Oxford edition, I have my friendly student edition from college. We are reading in order and just finished Joshua last night.

Having only finished the Pentateuch + 1, I have these thoughts on the Word:

1. Of the zealot warriors who seem to run everything today and who claim that they use the Bible as their guide, I will never again say that they are monumentally hypocritical. It turns out they ARE using the Bible as their guide - the Old Testament. I've just finished a Clive Barker novel and it's got nothing on these books.

I always assumed when God's Chosen People came upon the Promised Land, it was a glorious, perfect valley, empty and waiting for them. Not so, it turns out the Promised Land was already greatly inhabited with plenty of tribes. But luckily, because these many many inhabitants didn't believe correctly, and let's face it were pretty inconveniently situated in someone else's Promised Land, they did not count and could therefore be safely wiped out - down to every man woman child, horse and donkey. (Their treasure was OK to keep, though.)

It's good to be the Chosen!

2. When I was in grammar school we would sometimes be picked to read a Bible verse over the school PA. (I'm not sure how you got picked, but I'm sure it was an honor reserved for only the greatest student leadership material.) I wish I'd picked the following verse for my school reading: Leviticus 15:19-23.

Posted by Chris at 3:46 PM