Last week I was fortunate enough to visit Weta for the first time in Wellington, New Zealand, with a select group of online journos, where Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg (via polycom from LA) introduced newly rendered footage from The Adventures of Tintin (Dec. 23). The seaplane chase we glimpsed perfectly captures the excitement and slapstick of the Herge comic books, culminating with the drunken Captain Haddock crawling out the plane in a storm and burping fumes into the empty engine. Despite grumbling from performance capture haters, Tintin represents a breakthrough hybrid of caricature and photorealism, thanks to the Wizards of Weta, who've improved facial modeling, skin texturing and the all-important eyes. I participated in a Q&A, part of which follows below, and fired the first question.
Bill Desowitz: What did you learn from the experience of working in this brave new digital world?
Steven Spielberg: I've always learned that the world is not as important as the story, and that is always the case, no matter what technology, what tools we use to frame our stories and to create a tone, even to define a genre or to try and define a new genre, it's always more important to tell a story. Even though this was a very crazy learning curve for me personally -- and a very worthwhile learning curve -- I had actually a blast working on this movie, as I continue to, it always gets down to the basics. All of the dialogue always returns to story, plot, narrative, characters. And especially with the Herge books, our sensitivity in wanting to capture a kind of art form that would be closer, I think, to [his] style in being able to exonerate these characters in a way that, if Herge were with us, he could look up at the screen and say, 'Yep, that looks like Captain Haddock to me.'"
One of the things for me that I thought was important was the idea that you always kind of get a little bit daunted by [the idea of an animated film] as a filmmaker because it feels like a lot of your communication is going to be with computer analysts and you're gonna have to channel the movie through extra pairs of hands. You're always doing that with a normal film anyway, but I just thought that the really interesting thing for us is to build a pipeline in which filmmakers with no real computer skill could step in and actually shoot their movie within this virtual world. We created a way in which Steven could essentially walk onto a virtual set surrounded by these invisible but virtual environments and characters… and compose his shots as he would in a live-action film. He was able to operate the camera himself, too. In a way, even though it's technology, I think we figured out a way to give ourselves enormous freedom as filmmakers. It was like shooting a Super 8 film.
SS: It was, because in those days, I would just run around with a camera, really running back and forth getting all my coverage with a little Kodak three-turn 9mm movie camera… and this was pretty similar to that, except that I had all the x/y buttons on my right, I could crane up and down, I could dolly in, dolly out, I could basically be the focus puller, the camera operator, the dolly grip. I wound up lighting the movie with some of the artists at Weta. I did a lot of jobs that I don't normally do myself on a movie. And it gave me a chance to actually start to see the picture come together.
In a normal motion capture situation, including Avatar, which I guess is the most successful performance capture movie in history -- the most successful movie in history, period -- I was able to actually get in there, into the volume, with the actors and not only direct the actors, being four feet away, but I was able to bring a kind of conventional wisdom, which is the only way I know how to make movies, to this day. I would wind up with 75 different setups per day. Usually with a motion capture situation, you get the performance where you like it, and then you come back two months later without the actors and you start getting your shots in a much smaller volume, the size of a small boxing ring.
I didn't want to do that in this case. I wanted to try to be as immediate as the actors were being in giving their performances for the first time. I wanted to be inspired by those performances and be able to find the shots and choreograph the masters and the coverage at the same time the actors were discovering who they were. And that is a very conventional way of making a movie, but at least I found a purpose, not just directing actors, like a stage director…but I really found a creative way of making the movie in real time.
Q: Was there anything that was unexpectedly difficult or anything that made the process easier?
SS: I think the greatest thing about this medium is that it takes us in a constant state of fluidity. When I make a live-action movie and I wrap the movie, I'm left with the remnants of what inspired, what ideas I got, or what ideas the actors contributed and it all happens in three or four months. You go home with your assets and you're left with these assets. Now, they always say a movie can be made or broken in the cutting room, and I really believe that, too… If the scene didn't work, I'd rework it and recut the scene, or I'd cut the scene out of the picture totally. But it was a sort of closed system. This medium allows you to continue telling your story, refining, creating shots, close to release. I could do a shot today, I could do a shot a month from now and that shot could be performed, rendered and resolved and make it to the final cut of the movie before its release at the end of October internationally. So because it stays so fluid, it's so exciting to get an idea maybe two years after the initial performance capture production was behind us and be able to shoot a whole new series of scenes and make them fit in the movie.
PJ: I came in last night to do a sound check just to have a listen to the mix we've just shown you and I was seeing shots [fully rendered] for the very first… in the last day or two. And you never get used to this film -- it's constantly evolving all the time, which is exciting. You're used to seeing the previs at the beginning, and then suddenly that changes to the motion captured, crudely rendered, stuff and you get used to that for a while, and then suddenly you get the added detail and lighting and stuff. It's a very dynamic process.
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.