A Chat with Kenn McDonald, Kenn McDonald interview, Beowulf

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Robert Zemeckis' "Beowulf" contains some of the most stunning animation ever produced for film. We jumped at the chance to speak with Kenn McDonald, the animation supervisor responsible for everything from a gold-dipped Angelina Jolie to a writhing, shrieking man-beast named Grendel. Let's be honest, why am I still writing? I know you stopped reading at "gold-dipped Angelina Jolie."

Bullz-Eye: This is Jeff calling from Bullz-Eye.

KM: Nice to meet you.

BE: Nice to meet you too. So I understand you were at WonderCon today.

KM: Yeah, we just finished. We had a panel that we did talk to about "Beowulf." We were talking about Grendel and the dragon specifically, kind of doing the monsters. It was fun.

BE: Okay. Do you get a lot of good feedback about the originality of some of the design and the movement?

KM: Yeah I think so. That was kind of the main point of what we were talking about and I think people…we actually got some very good questions at the end of it, so it was fun. It was good.

BE: Very cool. I was very impressed seeing the movement with the originality of the design. It seemed like you guys had a lot of background to draw from and you still managed to create, I think particularly with Grendel, something that people haven't really seen before.

KM: Thanks. It was interesting. We had several talks with Bob (director Robert Zemeckis). Doug Chiang did the original designs and we actually kind of based our first pass at Grendel on something closer to Crispin. It was more recognizably Crispin Glover, and then we started moving away from that. Bob wanted something that didn't feel like…he wanted to make sure that it didn't feel like makeup, like it was appliances put on somebody's face, so we really pushed the design. We kind of took his face and we bent it; we pushed his jaw out of shape and we put the holes through the side of his face and really kind of mangled it up as much as we could. So there was still a hint of Crispin in there, but it definitely wasn't something that you could have done with makeup.

BE: Yeah, now what's that process like of maintaining, I guess, the humanity of a creature like Grendel? Because when I watched the film, especially like when he crawls back to his lair, you get this sense that he is this tormented creature and you sympathize with him; you feel bad for him. So how do you maintain that when you're still creating so much over top of what is Crispin to make him monstrous?

KM: That was kind of our big discussion points with Bob. I remember one day specifically when we were talking about it and I asked the question, "How old is Grendel?" We talked about it for a little bit and I'm pretty sure Bob had thought about this before, but we hadn't discussed it before, and we basically came up with the idea that he's like an eight-year-old kid. His reaction to the noise and everything that is happening around him causes him pain, so he's lashing out like a little kid having a temper tantrum. And then when he gets hurt, when Beowulf beats him up and tears his arm off, he doesn't understand why; he doesn't have any sense of the wrongdoing of what he's done. I think by playing him that way, in the moments when he's not a raging monster but playing him that way when he's with his mom; the first time you see him with his mom and he's got the two soldiers with him, he's just a little mama's boy. I think that set it up for the audience to be able to sympathize with him in the end when he dies. You know I'll take a little credit for that for my animation team. I think my animation team did an outstanding job of working…you know, based on Crispin's performance and really playing that up and really making Crispin's performance come through on Grendel very effectively so that people could sympathize with him.

BE: Oh certainly. Now for the animation team; how many people are we talking here?

KM: At the highest we had 60 animators.

BE: Wow!

"We kind of heterodyned, and we kind of built off of that until it got to the point where we had certain shots that were just amazingly realistic, and I'm very proud of those shots because it took a tremendous amount of work on both sides of the fence."

KM: And that does not include the motion capture integration team, that was a separate group. I know everybody talks about the motion capture and everything like that and it is a pretty amazing technology and I really do enjoy working with it, but it's definitely not an out of the box technology. There's a lot of animation that goes in after the motion capture is done, and after the performance has been extracted from the motion capture data and put onto the digital character. Even if it apes the actor's original performance exactly, there is a need for the animators to go in and push it a little bit -- enhance it, exaggerate it a little bit or it feels kind of stiff. It feels kind of dead. I think that's where other films have kind of -- that have gone with the motion capture and they've tried to emulate a real person's performance exactly. Somehow in the digital characters if you stylize the look of the film and you know that it's animated, somehow it falls a little flat. I think it really needs that slight exaggeration and an animator looking for an emphasis on the performance, finding key moments or key expressions in the performance and kind of pushing those and making those read more clearly. I think the motion capture works better that way.

BE: Sure. Yeah, and it seems like for a story like "Beowulf," that is, this epic tale, that it translates very well. That the biggest moments are even bigger, and it sounds like that's what you guys were really after as you start to go in and animate.

KM: And especially…we took it character by character. For example, Queen Wealthow, Robin Wright Penn's character, we kept that pretty subtle. Her performance on set was very subtle but it came across very well on the motion capture. The performance capture picks up those subtleties very nicely, so we kept her performance subtle. But with Beowulf, Ray played him so over the top in those big moments that you really just want to take that and run with it and really play it up and make it as strong as you possibly can.

BE: Okay. Now talk to me a little bit here about achieving that level of intimacy with the queen, with that subtle performance. I guess again you really see that humanity come through in the animation. Is that on the end of the motion capture or is that more about what the animation can do to play up that subtlety?

KM: I think with the female characters it's a little bit of both. We did get, especially on the queen, we got some very good results from the performance capture; it really was very nice. We were actually a little concerned when we were on set watching her perform because her performance was so subtle. It was a great performance. I mean she played it just right but it was so subtle we were a little concerned how much of that was going to come through. An amazing amount came through with the motion capture and we were happy with that and then the animators went in and the work that the animators did on top of the motion capture was very subtle, it was very restrained and it was very difficult. Female characters, women, are especially difficult to do. Men tend to have big jaws and lots of creases and lumps and folds and big brows and you can kind of push their faces around a little bit more and they still look good. With the female characters you have to be really careful how you move their faces around. It's very easy for them to stop looking attractive; they can get very unattractive very quickly just by subtly changing the eye shape, they just don't look quite right. So female characters are very, very difficult and we spent a lot of time on every shot with the queen and also with Angelina Jolie's character, Grendel's mother. We spent a lot of time on those shots trying to get as much as we could out of the performance without distorting their faces. One of the great things about the production is while they were motion capturing on the stage, they had several HD cameras on the set and each camera was focused on the face of one of the main characters, one of the primary actors, so the animators had very good references to look at. So based on what the performance capture was doing, plus this video reference, we had a very good place for the animators to start with, and then from there they could massage it and exaggerate it or pull it back and do whatever we needed to do.

BE: Okay. So as a little bit of a segue here how did you play up the sensuality of Angelina Jolie's character? You know, you mention how hard it is to get female characters to be attractive and yet she still manages to be this sensual seductress through the whole film. How do you capture that?

"She's (talking about Angelina Jolie) one of the most recognizable actors on the planet; very famous, incredibly well known and everybody knows what she looks like."

KM: Well, we probably spent more time per screen minute of film working on her than we did any other character. Even though she's in the film for a relatively short period of time, we knew that we had to do everything we possibly could to just make her pitch perfect. She's one of the most recognizable actors on the planet; very famous, incredibly well known and everybody knows what she looks like. So it was really a matter of just going over it over and over and over again. We took the performance capture data, the animators worked on it, we looked at it, and we looked at what was working and what was missing, looking for subtle, subtle movements in the muscles of the face. Our facial control rigs were very, very sophisticated and they were designed so that we could layer in additional muscles. We had virtual muscles for all the muscles in the face and we could actually customize the controls for each actor or actress, so we spent a lot of time just developing the digital characters' facial muscles for the animators to work with. With Angelina Jolie it was really just looking at the reference of her performance and just studying it at a minute level of detail, because she really gave a marvelous performance, and it was just about doing everything we possibly could to make sure that that was what got up on the screen.

BE: Now why the decision to not show her in her natural form? She's supposed to be this shape shifter, and we see her obviously in this beautiful form, and we catch glimpses in reflections and some point-of-view shots of her in the natural form. Why not see that?

KM: You'd have to ask Bob. I don't know. That was a story point and it was always like that. There was never any discussion like we can't do that or we don't know how to do that. It was the way it was structured in the story that in her natural form she would always…you would just catch glimpse of her; it would be hard to really see what she looked like. At the moment when she's revealed, you caught glimpses of her so you didn't quite know what she looked like. But you know she was kind of a monster and then when she's finally revealed, and the top of her head kind of breaks the water and this tail comes out. The idea we were trying to get across is that the audience is expecting to see some kind of horrific creature and instead it's Angelina Jolie. I think the way it was played, that could have been a very effective reveal, but the marketing showed so much of her in the commercials and such that I think by the time people went to see the movie they were kind of expecting her to show up. So that moment didn't have quite the same kind of impact that was intended in the film.

BE: Sure. Are there other scenes like that where you feel like they weren't quite as effective as you wanted, or maybe the marketing did interfere with what you guys were trying to do?

KM: No, not really. I think overall I thought the marketing was pretty good for the film. It's just in the case of Angelina Jolie that particular scene was designed to be kind of a surprise. Oh, we're going to see a scary monster and then it's Angelina Jolie, but everybody knew that she was going to appear.

BE: So can we talk for a little bit about the dragon and bringing Ray Winstone's performance as Beowulf into the character of the dragon? What was that process like?

KM: We did not motion capture the dragon. One thing we did do is -- they kind of put Ray at the end of shooting one day, they put Ray on a kind of a cart, he laid down on it and he did kind of an interpretation of the dragon's performance. Not so much the motion of flying or anything like that, but kind of the emotional performance of the dragon. He played out some scenes from the film kind of as the dragon giving us kind of a reference point for the dragon's performance. One of the directions we had from Bob Zemeckis was that the dragon is not a creature, it's not an animal. It's a man who changes shape to become a dragon. So his reactions should not be those of an animal just reacting to his environment, it should be a man kind of making decisions, consciously choosing which path he'll go down and which action he will take next. So we tried to get that in the dragon's performance, and that's something that we looked at -- at Ray's kind of reference as the dragon to get kind of an initial inspiration for that. And we actually kind of took some still frames of Ray's expressions when he was portraying these different emotions as the dragon and we tried to match those expressions on the dragon's face to make sure that we could kind of hit those particular emotional moments in the dragon's performance. Could we put a wicked little grin on the dragon's face when he scoops up those guys in his mouth, and Beowulf is on his back, and he turns his head and he lets those bodies go and they fly past Beowulf and then you cut back…you see the bodies fall and cut back, and the dragon's got this slight little evil grin on his face before he turns his head back away from Beowulf. So those were the little things that we took from Ray's performance when we were animating the dragon.

BE: Do you think people were confused at all by the look of the film? I know when I first saw trailers I wondered if it wasn't a real performance that you had laid animation over in some sense. Watching some of the making-of, and after seeing the film all the way through, I could recognize that that's not what it was doing, it was actually full animation. Do you think people out there are still missing that point? That it's not an overlay, that it's totally crafted in animation.

"And we actually kind of took some still frames of Ray's expressions when he was portraying these different emotions as the dragon and we tried to match those expressions on the dragon's face to make sure that we could kind of hit those particular emotional moments in the dragon's performance."

KM: I think there are some people who are still not sure what they are looking at, which to me is kind of a victory. I actually feel pretty good about that. I talked to a couple of people after the San Diego ComicCon last year where they premiered 20 minutes of the movie. They had kind of an advanced screening in 3-D for a small crowd of people. I talked to a few people who had seen that, and they told me it took five minutes or six minutes of watching this 20-minute piece of film before they really figured out what they were looking at. They thought they were watching a movie that maybe had been done in the style of "300," where the actors had been shot against green screen and comped into an environment, and then the look of the characters had been treated digitally with color or something. I think there are still people who are not sure what they are looking at. They don't know if they are looking at an animated character or if they're looking at a real actor who has been put into this environment. For us, while we weren't trying to fool people, the idea wasn't to fool people into thinking that that was really Anthony Hopkins, because it's somewhat stylized, especially in the way it's lit and rendered, it's very stylistic. It's still a measure of success that we were able to get so much detail and get the performance and get the emotion of the actors to come across that people still aren't sure whether they're looking at a real actor.

BE: Yeah, and I think that came across so well with close ups on Anthony Hopkins and on the Beowulf avatar, you know what Ray Winstone was playing, because I guess we lost that stylized point of view. When you are so close it's hard to see the stylization, you just see that character.

KM: It really is and that was kind of…it's kind of funny because that was something that kind of happened during the course of the production. As the look development guys, who came up with all of the textures and the coloring and putting all the pores and everything in the characters' faces, as they started seeing what we were doing in the animation and how much detail we were putting in the animation, they started feeling like they needed to put more detail into the look of the character for it to really kind of balance and pull off. Then as we saw the work they were doing, and how much detail they were putting into their end of it, we felt like, you know, we could put a little more detail in the animation. We kind of heterodyned, and we kind of built off of that until it got to the point where we had certain shots that were just amazingly realistic, and I'm very proud of those shots because it took a tremendous amount of work on both sides of the fence. On the animation side and also on the rendering side, the lighting and the look of the characters, getting all of that to come together to get something that looks that convincing.

BE: Absolutely. Well to sort of wrap things up here Ken, I guess I would ask if there is a certain shot or a certain sequence, that you would say you're most proud of in the film?

KM: That's a tough one. I'm really proud of the sequence with Grendel's mother. I really think that sequence just really came out very well and we were able to get a lot of the performances to feel very genuine and a lot of the subtext of the story is in there. Like you said, there are some shots of Beowulf close up that we just spent a lot of time on and we really focused on, and I'm very happy with the way those came out. Those kind of shots…it's actually the subtle shots, the quieter moments. There's a shot where he's telling the story of the fight with the sea serpents and at the end of that he gets very quiet and he talks about how the monster grabbed him and pulled him down, and we come back from the flashback to a very tight shot of him talking about how the creature grabbed him and pulled him under the water and I just think that's an incredible shot. It's amazingly authentic, amazingly genuine, and those are the kind of quiet moments that I think were the hardest in the film to pull off, and the most satisfying when they worked well.

BE: Yeah, I think you guys did a great job. There is so much emotion in shots like that and I think that's what really made the film for me, is that you've got these animated characters that are still creating that huge emotional experience for the viewer.

KM: Thanks. I mean don't get me wrong -- Grendel and the dragon were a blast. They were so much fun but I think the real satisfaction is making those quiet moments really work well.

BE: Sure. Well Ken, thank you. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

KM: Thanks very much.

BE: Alright, have a good one.

KM: You too. Bye-bye.

BE: Bye.

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