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BEAST: the Premiere, the Interview & the Animation

Note: this article contains SPOILERS. If you haven't seen the film yet, please watch it at Machiniplex.com before you read this article

BEAST is a machinima film created by Leo Lucien-Bay (aka Dr. Nemesis) which Machiniplex premiered a month or so ago. I wanted to post this article closer to the premiere, but wasn't able to. My apologies to Leo. I hope that this longer post will help to make up for being so late. Please not that the premiere chat appears at the bottom of this post (because it's so large). The audio interview appears right after the interview section and my short film on the animation in BEAST appears just after my comments for that section.

The Premiere

The premiere for BEAST was well attended with about 10 to 15 showing up on our Skype channel to discuss the film with the director. This session was a bit more lively than our first chat with Frank Fox (and Morning Run Amok) and some of this had to do with the fact that more people knew about our "premieres", but also because we (Ingrid and myself) were more comfortable technically with running the chat. There is also another factor, I believe, and that was because BEAST is a movie that presents an ambiguous moral drama with a violent climax. It was this ambiguity that forced the viewer to determine their own background story to fill in for the one that was only suggested. Of course the film is technically at a very high level for machinima (or any animated film) and we were all interested in how Leo achieved lip-sync and animation effects, but most of our discussion centered on the moral situation presented in the film. It's the first discussion I've been at for a machinima film where there was more passionate disagreement on the subject and characters of the film than the film itself. I think this is a testament to Leo's fine accomplishment with BEAST. One that has gone largely unacknowledged outside of our premiere and an intelligent and sensitive blog post by Phil Rice (overman).

BEAST is that rare film in machinima that is able to make us believe in the story, the situation and the actions of the characters completely. I mean that all of the elements that go together to suspend our disbelief in BEAST are so well considered and well executed that the viewer is immediately involved in the situation the film presents (one man has another tied up in a room and is taunting him) rather than standing outside of it. Leo succeeds in doing this by providing a very simple situation and presenting it very simply (at least the mis en scene appears simple, the technique is not) until the climax of the film when the camera, the animations, the script and the action all come together in such a violent killing that the viewer is left shocked at the finality of what has just happened. Has a murder been committed? Or is it a just execution of an unpunished murderer?

Is this the murderer? Or the victim?

Frankly, no other machinima film I've seen has provided such a realistic depiction of violence (both physical and moral), nor have I seen animation and cinematography that so perfectly match the action in the script. Phil Rice wrote of this moment (the climax of the film) as one of those "moments" in machinima that set everything that came before it apart; a kind of "next level" of artistic achievement. I agree with him and I'd go further in saying that we will come back to this film at some point in the future and not only discuss the artistic achievement, but the technical one as well. For Leo did not use a game engine, but he essentially combined a real-time engine in Autodesk's Motion Builder with a lip-sync software, Reallusion's Crazy Talk 4.0, in such a creative way that I believe it has set a new standard for machinima filmmakers; one that points to the future of non-game oriented machinima. I can't honestly imagine this film being shot in, say, Sims2 or, The Movies, and be half as effective or believable.

And it's beyond me why the European Machinima Festival passed this film over in the nominations (along with several other excellent films, I might add). Some of the other films nominated for the festival didn't have anywhere near the quality and craft that BEAST has. The nomination panel for the festival really dropped the ball here. I hope they will work harder next year to improve their critical skills. I'm glad Leo had the opportunity to show the film and answer questions. At least the festival had the wherewithal to ask him to at least present the film.

Remembering that violent night

Leo created BEAST in 5 weeks with a blitz period at the end which left him "sick", as he said in the chat and the interview Ingrid and I had with him soon after the premiere. However, the plot/situation for BEAST had been growing in his mind for some time. It wasn't until he say the brilliant Korean film, Park Chan-wook's, OLD BOY (itself an incredible tale of revenge and passion), that his imagination created a context for him to express his ideas and his feelings. The film BEAST speaks for itself. When I initially watched the film, I felt it was too short, but after watching it several times (it gets even better when you know what is coming at the end) I realized that it was the exact length it needed to be. The story Leo wrote is so simple and well executed that it is almost perfectly self contained; a work of art.

Leo's blog, Dr. of Machinima, has excellent production notes that provide more detail regarding the making of BEAST and it's connection to Old Boy. There is also a fascinating entry on the techniques he used for facial animation. The integration of Crazy Talk with Motion Builder is very creatively done (as you can see in the film). Leo's writing is smart and filled with a kind of wry humor unique to this talented director/actor. Highly recommended.

The Interview

Our chat went on for almost an hour and a half. I was disappointed with myself that I had not scheduled more time since the momentum of the chat was still very strong and I could tell Leo was enjoying himself answering questions and talking about the film. Ingrid and I managed to close out the chat and set up a short voice interview with Leo. I rushed this interview ( I had friends waiting for me) and didn't pay a lot of attention to it until I had to edit it for this article. It really is a much better interview than I thought. Our questions were good and Leo's answers were even better. We covered the basics of how BEAST was created, the technical issues around animation and lip-sync, the editing and finally Leo's feelings about the film and it's reception. I wanted to cover a bit more on the animation in the monologue that the protagonist has where he finally lets it out where he and "skiff" came in contact with each other, because the animation (particularly the face) was outstanding. I know that the final beating and killing scene is amazing film work, but I found this poor man's monologue to be a remarkable moment.

The audio interview with Leo Lucien-Bay


The Animations

Motion Builder is a professional tool that produces quality animation. Leo's work with this complicated tool has become my favorite aspect of the film. He smartly set up a situation where by having one person tied up, he only had to animate from the neck up; whereas, the other person could be animated fully, but simply. Almost static camera shots at eye level gives the viewere the sense that he/she is an observer on some private moment. And, in a sense, we are; at least that's how the script treats us since we know almost nothing of why these characters are set up the way they are, or what it is they are doing to each other. By focusing on simple body animations/facial expression through the first part of the film, the monologue scene is set up perfectly. For one, it's the first time the camera moves (a long dolly/pan shot) and it's the most animated we've seen the protagonist. Not surprising that this is the emotional climax for the protagonist, although one could argue that it's the final act of killing his enemy in revenge, but that's not how I see it because the murder will not make the protagonist feel any better.

"How much is a child's life worth?"

I decided to focus on this monologue and examine it in increasingly greater detail. I wanted to see more closely what Leo was trying to do with the animation at this particular moment. The short film I've created examines the scene. I've provided a commentary where I think it's merited. For those who may not remember, this monologue comes after several minutes of taunting and power struggles between the protagonist and "Skiff" as the tied-up-man is named (or so we are told). The protagonist almost desperately wants "Skiff" to remember how they happen to know each other. He even offers the man his freedom if he can remember. Now, of course, he knows that this man is not going to remember. It's the protagonist's way of punishing Skiff by trapping/teasing/taunting him. The entire scene has been so well planned that every moment is familiar to our protagonist. Except....for the moment where he remembers what happened. He doesn't think it will affect him remembering the murder of his family, but it does and he shoes a moment of weakness to this "Skiff". This makes the protagonist even angrier, not only with "Skiff", but with himself as he thought he had turned himself into a murderer like the man in front of him. Of course, this is my own interpretation, but I think the facts of the scene give credence to my ideas. At least it's a viable way to look at the monologue.

A short commentary on the animation in BEAST

You can download this film here (Divx, 58.8 MB) and here (QT, 34.5 MB)

This is the BEAST premiere chat archive. I've edited it slightly, but it's pretty much how the chat went down. You can read the chat here by scrolling, or download the chat in multiple formats (the pdf is recommended). Thanks to scribd.com for this feature.

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  1. Blogger Overman | November 15, 2007 at 9:07 PM |  

    Really phenomenal stuff, Ricky. I absolutely loved the video analysis of the animations, going beyond just stating that they were effective and digging into the why they were effective.

    I really look forward to more content like this, it is immensely valuable.

  2. Blogger Ricky Grove | November 15, 2007 at 10:51 PM |  

    I really like how this post turned out. Thanks for your comments, Phil. The video commentary came out of watching Mike Jones do something similar with games like Thief. I wanted to focus closely on the animations and respond in real time. I think I did about 3 takes of comments until I came up with something I liked and thought might be useful commentary.

    Hope to continue this idea in future posts. I appreciate your support, Phil.


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