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'The Adventures of Tintin': What James Cameron Showed Spielberg and Jackson

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Andrew Cooper

The "Avatar" director, who made bold advances in motion capture working with Weta's visual effects wizards, gave his colleagues a hands-on demonstration. They left convinced that computer-generated animation could do justice to the Herge comics.

Tintin, his dog Snowy and his sidekick Captain Haddock belong to a world that's a universe removed from the exotic flora and fauna of Avatar's Pandora. But thanks to Weta Digital, Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning visual effects house based in Wellington, New Zealand, there's a lot of DNA from Pandoran Na'vi blood coursing through Tintin's veins.

Back when Tintin director Steven Spielberg and producer Jackson were first deciding to make the film using motion capture and CGI animation, James Cameron offered to preview the process he had developed with Weta for shooting Avatar at Giant Studios in Los Angeles. "We did original tests on the Avatar stages while the Avatar stage was still being designed," says four-time Oscar winner Joe Letteri, who served as senior VFX supervisor on Tintin along with VFX supervisors Matt Aitken, Wayne Stables and Keith Miller. "Jim invited Steven and Peter to come and try this virtual cinematography idea out. They really liked it. We shot a test and decided to shoot the whole film that way."

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And so in 2009, Spielberg and his performers began working on the same soundstage, known as a performance capture "volume," that Avatar had employed. All the actors, including Jamie Bell as Tintin and Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock, wore performance capture suits, including head-mounted camera rigs to record details of their facial performances.

While Serkis, who played both King Kong and Gollum for Jackson, was no stranger to the process, it took some time for the others to get used to. "It's always a little bit intimidating to see yourself dressed up like Mike Nelson from Sea Hunt," says Spielberg. "They're wearing motion capture suits, they've got marks on their faces, they wear these helmets with a camera and light built in. It takes a while not to crack up while you're doing serious dialogue with a fellow actor who looks like a scuba diver."

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The actors only had basic props to work with: Tables, chairs, a boat rocked by crew members and, for some shots, a sort of cushion used to create the sense that the characters are walking on the beach. If they needed further reference points, Spielberg just pointed them to a monitor where they could see their characters interacting in Tintin's world.

The characters were carefully designed to bring Herge's original illustrations into three dimensions. "We were always walking this line," Letteri says. "It needed to look real, but you needed to look back to what you had seen on the page."

He explains: "The simplicity of Herge's drawings of Tintin made the title character the most difficult. We made a 3D model of what he would be like if he were brought off the page. [There was] not enough to base expression or character on. Then we did a 3D model of Jamie, not that we wanted Tintin to look like Jamie, but there are certain touchstones."

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On the page, for example, Tintin and the other characters have high eyebrows, but, Letteri says, "We tried that and it didn't work. It gave all the characters a permanently surprised look. So we had to bring them down."

As for Herge's backgrounds, Letteri adds: "He worked from photographs. His drawings were always based on reality, but he would add a certain stylization to them. We took that same idea and went back to the original references. The Herge estate was great; they gave us access to all the original references that he worked from. He kept his backgrounds very simple because he wanted to keep his characters in the foreground. We played with that idea to various degrees."

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While much of the technical template for making Tintin was laid down during production of Avatar, the Weta team continued to devise new proprietary software such as that used for the oceangoing sequences. "Where Herge would draw a very simple greenish blue for water, we had to have full-on waves with foam. But we kept the same color palette and tried to block everything the way he had," says Letteri. Adds Aitken, "Weta has some new tools in place to do great-looking water on a large scale."

"Motion capture's an interesting term that I think people misunderstand a lot. They regard it as being quite a mechanical operation, which it's not," says Jackson as he and Spielberg get ready to unveil its latest application. "One thing that Steven and I were determined to do was to make it as organic as possible."

THE INSPIRATION

"We had no need to cast actors and then try to replicate them in their CG form, which other films had done," says Jackson. "What the actors looked like is largely irrelevant. To some degree, Jamie [Bell] looks a little like Tintin, but he was cast for his screen presence and his acting ability."

The Challenge: In Herge's illustrations, Letteri says, Tintin's head looked like "a bowling ball with a peg for a nose and two black dots for eyes."

The Eyes: They "needed a certain amount of maturity and realism," Letteri says.

The Cheekbones: The designers added cheekbones so that the character could smile properly.

The Nose: Instead of the illustrated Tintin's peg nose, the Weta team went for something "a little
more stylized."

The Eyebrows: With their high brows, Herge's characters have a constantly surprised look, so the designers intentionally brought them down a bit.

Weta Digital Ltd.