I was lucky enough to get a seat in the packed house last night for a viewing of the first ever released footage from the upcoming Beowulf film, directed by Robert Zemeckis (or "Z", as Roger Avary calls him), and is written and produced by Neil Gaiman and Avary. The film is 100% CGI, and they used motion capture for all of the performances in the film. So close your eyes and picture Anthony Hopkins wearing a mocap suit with white balls all over it, and it's like you're on set!

Gaiman and Avary came down (to thunderous applause) to introduce the footage. Avary started to explain a bit but Gaiman thought this was something that would be best viewed without any setup at all. We then saw a short "taster" of material from the film set to a power rock soundtrack. Oh, and everything we saw was in REAL D (a 3D format), so we had to wear big giant clunky glasses, making us all look a bit like the late, great Roy Orbison. Pretty hot.

So, how many of you out there saw The Polar Express in 3D? Well, the 3D is that good, or in some cases much better. It's not extremely overdone, like everything seems fairly flat and 2D and then suddenly AHH! -- Grendel in your face. It's much more understated and subtle, more of an immersive aspect than a gimmick. After awhile you (thankfully) forget you're wearing the glasses, and it just becomes another part of the movie.

Now ... how did the CGI look? Well, in short it looked pretty darned amazing. In some cases. When you see the CGI Anthony Hopkins in some scenes ... it's hard to tell that he's animated and not real. That's how good it is, when the animation in the film is at it's best. However, some of the characters suffer from the same Uncanny Valley effect that gives artificial characters a sort of dead, zombie-like expression. It's leaps and bounds above any human CGI rendering that I've ever seen, but they still haven't managed to fully get there yet.

The same thing goes for Angelina Jolie in the film, and for her legions of fans out there, you'll be happy to know that she's pretty much naked throughout the film. At least, she was in the 20 minutes we saw. There was some strategically placed mud and silt on her body, but at the party afterwards, there were a lot of appreciative "Wow, Jolie looked HOT!" conversations going on. The CGI captures her face and pursed lips perfectly, although at times she just seemed a tad off. Likewise John Malkovich, while not naked, looked just like John Malkovich, and it's amazing to see how far this technology has come in a few very short years.

So, after the teaser, Gaiman and Avary came and set up the 20 minutes worth of footage we saw, which was the entire second reel of the film. Avary said "This sort of CGI wasn't even remotely possible a few years ago. When I first saw it, it was like someone had reached into my brain and pulled out the most realized version of this film." Gaiman explained the first reel, which we didn't see because it literally hasn't been rendered yet. In the unseen footage, and for those of you familiar with the story, Beowulf (Ray Winstone) comes from across the sea seeking fame and glory. King Hrothgar (Hopkins) has a bit of a problem on his hands, since the creature Grendel (Crispin Glover) has been killing people because he can't stand the noise they make. According to Gaiman, "Bad things are happening and they need a hero." So when reel two opens, Beowulf has been battling Grendel, and we see the very tail end of the that fight.

What we saw was poor Grendel (spoiler alert: if you don't want to know the story, turn back. However, many of you were probably subjected, like me, to reading this in school, so you probably already know the story.) returning to his mother to die. Grendel's Mother (Angelina Jolie) isn't really the sort of person to take this lying down, and she begins exacting her revenge in a pretty bloody manner, leading to a direct confrontation with Beowulf. As I mentioned earlier, the characters are extremely impressive, for the most part, but the backgrounds and settings are incredibly well-detailed and vivid. Beowulf encounters Grendel's Mother (naked and with a serpentine tail .. and high heels!) in a sort of treasure chamber that she has near an underground pool, and the amount of detail you can see in the scene is staggering.

Likewise, there's a moment where the camera flies over King Hrothgar's village and castle, and it's eerily realistic. Plus they don't jazz it up with a cheesy score, and you can hear ambient wind rushing by as the view plummets to ground level. Zemeckis obviously came away from The Polar Express with a better feeling for how to direct animated films like this, and while this is obviously an entirely different type of movie, it feels leaps and bounds above in terms of maturity and filmmaking.

After the footage, Gaiman and Avary came down for an informal little Q&A. Some of the highlights:
  • Gaiman on the motion capture: "They began filming the motion capture about two years ago, in a room in LA."
  • Avary: "What was important to us was that the technology not get in the way of the performance."
  • Gaiman: "This is digitally enhanced acting."
  • Gaiman, on the biggest obstacle: "The biggest problem we had was that when we first meet Beowulf, and for two thirds of the film, he is young. Then, 50 years go by until we see him again. We had to figure out the aging and make it feel real."
  • Avary, on why he wanted to make this story: "I grew up watching films like Excalibur, Legend, and even Fritz Lang's Siegfried's Death. I loved those movies, and when I read Beowulf, I didn't see it as a boring story, I saw it as a monster movie."
  • Gaiman, on how he came to work with Avary: "Well, Roger had been hired to do a studio version of Sandman, and when he told the studio that he wanted everything in the Dreaming to look like Jan Svankmajer, they fired him. As a result, I've been friends with him ever since."
  • Gaiman, on how they wrote the film: "Well, we went to Mexico to write this, and I don't know why." Avary, "Yeah, we would get margaritas and lay by the pool and write ..." Gaiman: "We never got margaritas! It was beer. Cheap Mexican beer."
  • Gaiman on the advantages of making the film CGI: "We had a really big talking dragon fight, because we thought it would be much more expensive to show all the action. We basically had a big dragon 'chat', really. However, Zemeckis told us to make it as big as we wanted, because it would cost the same, so now we have a big dragon fight."
    Avary: "Yeah, if you're a guy in sitting in a chair, or a dragon destroying the world, it costs the same to animate."
  • On the rating of the film: Gaiman, "We think it will be PG-13, and Bob (Zemeckis) is thinking about releasing an unrated version on DVD at some point." Avary, "It will definitely be PG-13."
  • Gaiman, on the language in the film, which was toned down to help get the PG-13 rating: "Well, I met Ray Winstone who came up to me and said (doing a very passable Ray Winstone impression here) 'I've just read this, and I love all the swearing!' I had to tell him we'd just been busy cutting it all out."
  • Gaiman, on if he will collaborate with Avary again: "Yes, we're actually working on an adaptation of Charles Burns' Black Hole graphic novel, and that will be for Paramount."
They then showed us the trailer, which utilizes footage from the 20 minutes we'd seen, and is set to another thrashing soundtrack. It wasn't too different from the "taster" footage we saw at the beginning, but man ... it sure makes me want to see this film. If you're reading this and are at Comic-Con, they'll be showing the footage again today (Thursday) at 5 and 6, somewhere in the massive Convention Center. In the meantime, you can watch the trailer here.

Once the screening was done (and we were told we get to keep our Beowulf-branded 3D glasses, which aren't to be used in the sun), we headed to a swanky party and a bar in downtown San Diego. Sadly, Angelina Jolie wasn't there, but I was able to sneak a few photos, including a very blurry Neil Gaiman, which you can view in one of our new Cinematical galleries.

Beowulf looks like it will be pretty exciting for the fanboy and fangirl set, as it's filled with violence, nudity, and monsters, so what's not to love? If only I'd been able to watch this in junior high instead of reading the book. To Avary's credit, when I read it I only saw a boring English assignment. It's impressive that they've managed to pull this together and make it dynamic. Beowulf will be in theaters this November.