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'300,' 'Beowulf' showcase the future of film

Category: 300 News
Article Date: December 7, 2007 | Publication: The Detroit News | Author: Tom Long
Source: The Detroit News

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The two most significant films of 2007 will not be nominated for best picture, best actor or best actress Oscars.

They did not deal with the war on terror or any other controversial subjects of the moment. They did not feature great dialogue, great comedy or really anything great, dramatically speaking.

They were both violent, although that has nothing to do with their significance. And both films take place centuries ago, which is odd, because their significance is all about the future.

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The two most significant films of 2007 were "300" and "Beowulf," two unlikely sword-and-sandal epics that could have been scripted in 1962.

But they could only have been made in 2007. And each has a lot to say about what we'll be watching at movie theaters in 2017.

Far and away the more successful financially, and even artistically, was "300," a muscle-bulging tale of a small group of warriors who do battle with a huge army. Made for about $60 million, less than the average film these days, it took in $210 million.

Why is it significant? Because "300" had virtually no real sets. It had real actors -- the lead is played by Gerard Butler, by the way -- working against blue screens, interacting with computer animation that was filled in later. The technique had been used before, but never so successfully and so cost-effectively.

There's much to moan about here: A lack of tactile sensation, an inevitable disconnect with the real world and an unavoidable temptation to go for the overblown. But "300" has paved the way for filmmakers to completely create realities on screen without having to build them here on earth. In 10 years its influence will be felt everywhere.

"Beowulf" hasn't been near as successful, but then it was even more risky. A (very) modern re-interpretation of the legend about a great hero who slays a monster, "Beowulf" cost about $150 million to make and after two weeks it's made less than $60 million.

But "Beowulf" has been a huge lesson in what can and can't be done onscreen. Its use of improved 3-D effects should have theater owners across America excited. Its use of human modeling for computer graphics should make studio heads wary.

The biggest challenge to theater owners these days is home entertainment. Thus the movies are always trying to create a sense of spectacle that can't be duplicated at home. The eye-popping 3-D effects of "Beowulf" are precisely that spectacle.

The argument essentially is this: Imagine if they'd done that crazy stuff with a truly good concept instead of some musty legend of yore. Imagine a "Spider-Man 4" with those kinds of effects. People would have been lining up for blocks.

And they will be. As long as the next big 3-D movie isn't based on a legend most moviegoers have never heard of. And as long as the characters in the film don't suffer from the stiff, zombieosis that so far has infected every character built on computer modeling.

This technique has human actors -- the lead in "Beowulf" was Ray Winstone, transformed 20 pounds lighter and 20 years younger -- perform the parts while wearing sensors, which send their movements and expressions to the computer, which uses them as a model for the character.

It's a great idea, and you can see the potential for eventually just storing actors' movements in a hard drive and pouring them into any film situation. It's how Tom Hanks will be able to headline a film in the 22nd Century.

But as of now, the technique can't quite re-create humans. It's close, but just far enough away from perfection to still feel alienating.

Still, this is the inevitable future of films. And while there are all sorts of critical arguments against it, there are just as many fiscal arguments for it.

Smart studios may eventually buy an actor's "essence" for a onetime price. Imagine the environmental positives if you don't have to build sets, transport crew members, actually fly airplanes, drive cars or even make costumes. Think of the savings on catering -- all a studio will have to feed is a crew of six geeks sitting in front of computers.

Meet the new Hollywood, waiting just around the corner. Give the Oscars to whomever you want; "300" and "Beowulf" were the movies that mattered the most this year.

 


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