A select group of film writers flew to New Zealand last week for an early look at the filmmaking process behind Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson's The Adventures of Tintin. Our own Bill Desowitz was one of them.
Building on their Comic-Con momentum, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson previewed more exclusive Tintin footage for select online journos last week at Jackson's Weta studio in New Zealand. And after viewing the thrilling and slapstick seaplane chase (culminating with the drunken Captain Haddock crawling out the plane in a storm and burping fumes into the empty engine), there's certainly less concern about the quality of the performance-captured animation and the movie's domestic commercial appeal.
In fact, The Adventures of Tintin (December 23) looks like the best example yet of the fledgling and controversial technique, thanks to noticeable improvements in facial modeling, skin texturing, and more believable eyes. The result is a unique hybrid of caricature and photorealism. And despite the fact that most Americans are unfamiliar with Herge's Belgian comic books, Spielberg has potentially pulled off a rousing adventure in the spirit of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Speaking from LA via polycom, Spielberg told me that in spite of this brave new digital world, "it always gets down to the basics: story, plot, narrative, characters, especially with the Herge books, [and] our sensitivity in trying to capture a kind of art form that would be closer to [his illustrative] style."
As a result of his newfound freedom to compose shots with the virtual camera, Spielberg was reminded of shooting Super 8 home movies in his youth. But unlike Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron, he chose to shoot Tintin like a conventional movie in sequence (75 set ups per day) during the month-long performance capture shoot in LA in 2009. Except Spielberg performed several new tasks, including camera operator, focus puller, and dolly grip. He's never even set foot in New Zealand, yet also collaborated on lighting with the Weta artists, thanks to polycom. He said the ultimate thrill was being up close to the actors while choreographing master shots and coverage during a shared moment of discovery.
Spielberg also started to cut together the movie much earlier, and has been able to maintain crucial objectivity all the way through. "This medium allows you to continue telling your story, refining and creating shots close to release," he added in a Q&A. "I could do a shot today or a month from now and that shot could be performed, rendered, resolved, and make it to the final cut of the movie before its release at the end of October internationally."
So what does this potentially mean for Tintin's Oscar chances as an animated feature? Despite stricter Academy rules for performance capture and traditionalists decrying the technique's lack of creative merit, Tintin clearly pushes boundaries with a new kind of artistic layering of animated expression.
"It all depends on how you define animation, but to me the tools and techniques [of visual effects and animation] are all the same," suggested Joe Letteri, Weta's Oscar-winning senior visual effects supervisor for both Tintin and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (August 5). "Performance capture is not a mechanical process; it's still an artistic process. If the point is to bring characters to life, you've got some of the best actors in the world. So why not engage with them? Why not collaborate with them? With a face as pliable as Captain Haddock's and a performer like Andy [Serkis] driving it, there are times when you want to go over the top and hopefully get away with it because it's a fun movie.
"When you saw comics as a kid or 2D-animated cartoons, they always looked real, but the promise of what Pixar started with Toy Story was to bring it into a realistic world. We're following in that same vein, but we can really get real now because the way Herge drew his characters and the way he worked from reference and his imagination really fits in nicely with the aesthetic of visual effects."