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.
"Tintin has a lot more interiors than Avatar," Letteri suggests, but when you're shooting in these cramped spaces like the ship's corridor, you've got practical lights everywhere, Mostly when you're working with CG [in live action], you're not photographing the digital lights, you're just getting the influence of the lights on the characters. Lights, if they do appear in camera, are on the set anyway. Now, we have to actually shoot the lights -- the lighting instruments were there, so we had to design them and make sure they actually did the right thing on camera. And that starts to not only affect lighting design but set design because the art department builds sets and you have to move them around.
"Now in the real world, that can be done organically. As you're framing a set, you can be figuring out where the lights go and the two can go together. But for us it was more of an iterative process. And Steven was directly involved because he had his own ideas about how he wanted to light this. We started off thinking: Hergé draws everything in very simple and bright-looking, broad colors, so we're going to light everything kind of brightly, but then Steven had the idea that we're going to so this more film noir with deep shadows, so that was a big exploration for us to see what worked and didn't work, especially with 3-D. You want to avoid the whole screen turning black because you lose your depth perception. But, of course, that's what film noir is all about."
They looked at a lot of classic Hitchcock films as well as Spielberg's classical canon (such as Raiders and A.I.) to determine what the lighting style would be, but only as a starting point because Spielberg didn't want to retrace his stylistic footsteps.
But Letteri says that when playing with the lighting in context of the performances, it altered the dramatic emphasis. "For example, the way you might perceive a smile, and the way the light falls on the cheeks and the folds of the skin, just by moving the light a little bit, you change the perception of what that smile looks like because you get a different sense of the lines that you're creating with the shadows. But at the same time, you've got to make sure you've got the light doing what you want to say with the eyes. So it's kind of a puzzle."
We're definitely on the crest of a new virtual production revolution in which animation and VFX converge, and Tintin is the latest example.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.