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EXCLUSIVE: Frankie Liu Talks the Special Effects of Beowulf

By Brian Gallagher — February 27th, 2008

The CGI superviser of the film talks about creating this film's distinct look

Frankie Liu is just one of the talented CGI technicians that helped create the revolutionary look for Beowulf, which was recently released on DVD and HD DVD on February 26. I had a chance to speak with this talented artist about this groundbreaking film, and here's what he had to say.

Your technical title for the film was Look Development Supervisor. Can you describe that, and what that all entails?

Frankie Liu: Yeah. The Look Development Supervisor is responsible for all the shading and visual development creation of assets. So, sort of in between the modeling and the animation phase, but before the lighting phase. The Look Development department basically takes all the models and works in conjunction with the texturing department and the shading R&D group to essentially texture, set all the shading material property, and sort of maintain the visual standards that then get pushed out to the lighters, so that they can go ahead and actually light the sequences for the film.

So were you on set when they were actually filming the motion-capture?

Frankie Liu: We come post-motion-capture, but we come sort of in paralell with the modeling, the creation of the assets.

The visuals on this movie are nothing short of astonishing. How would you compare working on this to some of the other films you've worked on like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone?

Frankie Liu: Well, I guess, first off, this is my first animated-hybrid feature, and the largest difference is the amount of work that needs to be created to get a film like this complete. Something like Narnia or Potter or Spider-Man, you have sort of a more finite set of things to create, with several, maybe a dozen characters that you have to create. For something like Beowulf, you're talking about dozens of characters, with multiple sets of costumes, that can equate to hundreds of characters. On top of that, you have principle creatures and multiple environments and hundreds of props. Just the scale of it is unlike anything else that I've undertaken before. That's kind of the largest difference (Laughs). Then on top of that, there's sort of the stylistic, photo-real aspect to Beowulf. We don't have to match film photography of any sort, but we are sort of striving for a very familiar form of realism, so those are the differences.

I read that (Robert) Zemeckis said that the original poem never really appealed to him. Was the original poem something you had to read in school or anything like that?

Frankie Liu: When I was growing up, we read sort of an abridged version of Beowulf, not the complete story. I remember when I was reasonably young, having to read it. When I was at that age, I wasn't really into anything (Laughs) in the literature realm at all. When I read the script again, I really found interest in it again.

With this motion-capture process, you can take an actor like Ray Winstone, who doesn't physically resemble the character he ends up being in the film. This seems like quite a revolutionary process. Do you think this will be more mainstream, or sort of mainstream in the years to come?

Frankie Liu: I don't know about mainstream, because I think we still enjoy seeing actors and their performances. I don't know if it would be mainstream, but it definitely lends itself to another sort of form of art, or another form of filmmaking. I think it would be very similar to when actors lend their voices to animated characters. This is just another way to see another side of performances.

I was actually quite shocked that this wasn't up for any of the visual effects Oscars. Were you surprised as well that this wasn't recognized by the Academy?

Frankie Liu: Yes and no. I think we were all hoping that we would be honored and acknowledged in some sort of way, but at the same time, it's also a very new form of filmmaking, and with that in mind, it's kind of hard to know what to do with it, I think. Is it a visual effect? You know, that's a debatable subject. Some think it is, but on the other hand, it's more in the animated category. The lines are really blurred with what we do now. I think it'd be wonderful if we received some sort of acknowledgment and praise for our efforts, because definitely a lot of people worked very hard on this film, but I think it's still gonna be a little bit before we figure out what this ultimately means for the movie industry.

I saw that for some of the other awards, it was nominated in the Best Animated Feature category. It's kind of animation, it's kind of not. It almost seems that there isn't any category at all for something like this.

Frankie Liu: For as many categories that you can say it doesn't fit, it sort of does. You can definitely make cases that there are animated characters, traditional key-framed animated characters. Then you can argue that it's a visual effects type of film, because even the traditional visual effects films have large portions of them where they're completely synthetic. Yeah, I don't know necessarily where we fit in yet.

Is that sort of the ultimate complement, that there isn't really a category for a film like this?

Frankie Liu: I think it's nice that you're part of something new and special. I think that's what part of what Bob and Jerome and a lot of the key principal players are really trying to promote, and really trying to grab onto. I think it is exciting to be a part of something very different.

Can you tell us anything about WonderCon?

Frankie Liu: We're here to speak to the nature of creature design on Beowulf, and the speakers are Kenn McDonald, Cory Turner, Firat Enderoglu , myself, and the moderator is David Coen. We're just going to hopefully share some of the stuff we did for motion-capture for Grendel, and how we go about creating the dragon creatures, and hopefully it's a lot of fun.

Is there anything that you have coming up that you might be starting to work on that you can tell us about?

Frankie Liu: There's nothing that I can speak to right now. For the time being, I'm kind of taking a little break, but I am sort of working on some new R&D work for the studio, so hopefully we're going to get that ramped up for this next season of films, and hopefully there will be some new and great stuff.

Finally, since this wasn't up for one of the Oscars, do you have a favorite for the visual effects Oscar?

Frankie Liu: You know, I really like Transformers. I think ILM, year after year they do great work, and in recent years I think they've really outdone themselves with the slew of difficult factors that are out there like shortened schedules, compressed budgets, things like that. Knowing some of the artists that have worked on there, and attending some of the talks, I think they worked really hard and did a really nice job bringing some great visuals and a very entertaining film, so I'm kind of rooting for them.

(For the record, I was informed after the interview that Beowulf was one of the top 12 films originally selected by the Academy for the visual effects award, but it didn't make it past that round. Just one of the unjust happenings at the Oscars.)

You can watch all the stunning visuals in Beowulf, which is available on DVD and HD DVD now.