Behind the Pixels of ‘The Adventures of Tintin's' Dazzling Digital World

As “The Adventures of Tintin,” director Steven Spielberg’s award-winning adaptation of the beloved Belgian comic book character, makes its debut on home video, Matt Aitken of Weta Digital, the film’s visual effects supervisor and a veteran of such dazzling productions as “Avatar,” “King Kong,” “District 9” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, takes PopcornBiz behind the pixels.

It's mind-boggling to think of what you were able to accomplish on this film, technically. What were some of things – aside from achieving director Steven Spielberg’s storytelling vision – that you really wanted to do with the film?
This is Weta Digital's first foray into fully animated film production, so rather than having to match our computer generated elements to film elements, which is what we do a lot of the times in our visual FX work, we had complete creative control over the look of every frame. So we wanted to maximize the benefit of that. We wanted every frame to be beautiful and to work on the design of the worlds that we created, and the designs of the characters and the look of the lighting and just make the whole thing as visually rich as it could possibly be.

How did you marry both Spielberg's and Tintin creator Hergé's very distinct artistic approaches?
Often they worked in parallel. But just looking at the takes of Hergé's source material – the panel art that he drew, which is very much in that lean, clear style where it's bold outlines, a lot of flat color, a very strong graphic style which worked incredibly well on the page. But then translating that so that it came off the page and worked in a fully 3-D, highly detailed world, and yet was still recognizable, still honored the source material – that was a very involved process and one where we went through many, many iterations of designs and trying out different approaches over many years actually. We worked on this film for six or seven years, and a lot of that early work was about getting that design work right. If you just look, for example, at the character of Tintin, the way that he's realized on the page is very simple. His head is an oval. He's got two black dots for eyes, a little curve for a nose and often his mouth is just a line or a dot. Obviously there's that signature quip of hair. Hergé was able to get a lot of expression into that on the page, but we had to translate that Tintin in this very detailed, sort of idealized world that we had created for the characters. So we went from on the one hand by starting off with a sort of CG version of the panel art. It looked too kooky. When you put the Tintin as Hergé drew him and just translated that onto the computer screen it looked almost creepy when we created it in CG, so we had to move away from that. We looked at the features of Jamie Bell, the English actor who did the performance capture work for the character of Tintin, and we tried to make Tintin look more like Jamie. Then we'd lost a little too much of the character of Tintin when we did that, so we ended up finding a sweet spot in between, but that process of exploration took many, many iterations, hundreds of different versions of the look of Tintin. At the same time, we were very mindful of the fact that we need to be supporting Steven Spielberg, and as you say, his very visual storytelling style. That was about creating an environment and a character that supported that, was detailed enough and the characters had enough range of facial expressions to create fully empathetic characters for his film.

How quickly did Spielberg adapt the way he was going to tell the story based on what you and your team were doing?
He seemed to adapt to it very quickly and embrace the technologies that we presented to him very, very wholeheartedly. I think a great illustration of that is when he went on to the performance capture stage for the first time – for the principle shoot, as we call it, which is really when all the motion capture work is being done for the characters. He was presented with what we call a virtual camera, which is really like a computer monitor screen, a flat panel display, but its location within the motion capture stage is tracked by the motion capture equipment so it's able to work as a handheld camera on the virtual world. Obviously, you've got your actors – Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis and Daniel Craig –performing the movement for the characters, and in real time we're able to take their movement, their performance and [link it to] the CG characters, the virtual characters of Tintin and Haddock and Sakharine. Spielberg was able to use that virtual camera, as we call it, as a window into the world of Tintin as the audience was going to see it. So on the one hand he's able to talk to Jamie and Andy and Daniel and sort of direct their performance as directors have been doing since the beginning of cinema on a shooting stage, interacting with the actors, but then at the same time he can turn and look at his virtual camera and see their performances translated in real time onto the digital characters on the ship, the Karaboudjan, or 1940's Europe and the Moroccan town of Bagghar. He's got a real-time view of the digital world as the audience is going to see it. So he loved that approach and he didn't let go of that virtual camera once we gave it to him.

Was there something creatively that you didn't know if you'd be able to rise to the challenge and pull off?
Across the board there were challenges. There were challenges in terms of things like the water FX and the fire FX, something that might seem quite simple. Captain Haddock falling off the longboat and creating a big splash – that was a months and months of work just to create that splash. The crane fight. There's some huge destruction FX going on there, all that stuff which was really work that we had to take to a level that we hadn't really done before. Even on productions like 'Avatar,' we felt like we were pushing the envelope in terms of our simulation work on this show. But for us, the stuff that we work hardest at, the stuff that we find most challenging and the work that we spend the most time on, is getting those performances working. Getting the performance of Tintin so that it reads well and just making sure that the characters’ performances are supporting the storytelling as much as they can. It comes down to very subtle nuances of facial expression. It can make a world of difference there. So, we actually tweaked the look of Tintin's face about halfway through our production period, when we'd really completed about half of the film. That involved going back and revisiting some of the shots that we'd already considered done in the movie at that point just to make sure that they could be what they should be.

What project are you taking your "Tintin" lessons into right now?
I'm working on mainly Peter Jackson's 'The Hobbit.' I feel like I can’t go into too much detail about 'The Hobbit' right now because we want to focus on 'Tintin,' but I will tell you that it's great being back in Middle Earth again.

"Tintin" was so wildly successful across the globe. Are you already thinking about sequel ideas?
I'd love to work on a sequel. I had a great time working on 'Tintin.' It was a fantastic project to work on. So, yeah, I'd relish the opportunity to go back into that world again.

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