Raising the Animation Bar with Tintin
Despite being a lightning rod among traditionalists with a disdain for performance capture, The Adventures of Tintin (opening today) is the best example yet of the controversial technique. Indeed, Weta Digital has made noteworthy improvements since Avatar, primarily with the virtual camera in allowing Steven Spielberg to shoot Tintin like a live-action movie. However, on the animation side, the wizards of Weta made better use of more accurate and better detailed facial animation, fur grooming and lighting design to achieve a unique hybrid of caricature and photorealism in keeping with the Hergé look. 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," suggests Joe Letteri, Weta's four-time Oscar-winning senior visual effects supervisor for both Tintin and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. "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."
Tintin, like Apes, also benefitted from a new fur system that allowed the wizards of Weta to edit and groom the hair individually instead of procedurally. On the rendering side, they used a technique called dual scattering that allowed them to calculate how light bounces inside the hair volume. They applied that to all the apes as well as the characters in Tintin. And it was especially useful for Tintin's ginger hair and the terrier's curly white fur, which was tough to groom without turning to mush. In fact, Snowy proved the most technically challenging because Hergé drew him so cartoony. Unlike a real dog, his eyes are too close together, his lips are too shallow, his nose rides higher than his muzzle, and his ears are constantly making a box shape. "So we were constantly experimenting with how far we could push and pull this so that it behaves like a real dog when he barks, but still looks like Snowy when you see him in one of his classic poses next to Tintin," Letteri continues.
"At every stage, it was about honoring the comic book style of Hergé," says Weta's animation supervisor Jamie Beard. "And Hergé was an armchair traveler from National Geographic and other things, and actually adapted them very slightly. So if he took a photo for a particular location, he'd also blend in elements that he thought were important. He'd add cars and sets and even the characters themselves from people he knew. And that's a very similar style to Weta, where we basically research things fastidiously, but then alter and create a very stylized version of a world. Unlike Avatar, where Jim Cameron wanted you to feel like you were on this planet, you can't go to Tintin's world: it's a caricature, it's stylized and that's why it's an animated film. That look is self-contained."
But it's the improvement in lighting where Tintin shined the most.