Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. Some days it really hits home just how lucky I am to be doing this job. When you wake up in Wellington, New Zealand and your itinerary includes things like “satellite conference with Steven Spielberg” and “Weta Workshop presentation with Richard Taylor” and “MoCap stage run-through with Peter Jackson” it really hits me that I’m living the geek dream.
When it comes to Tintin I’m a complete ignoramus. I know some of the iconography of the world, but being a stupid Yank I never read the books and know very little of the actual stories. The first pictures and teaser didn’t do much for me, but I quite liked the adventurous tone of the last trailer, loved the pieces I saw at Comic-Con (Read that coverage here) and flipped for the new footage show to me and a dozen other lucky souls this afternoon.
Happily enough, this visit was essentially a day-long course on how film is made. Slashfilm’s Dave Chen commented that it felt like he was living in an in-depth behind the scenes documentary and that’s apt. With Richard Taylor showing us the pre-production art process, Peter Jackson showing us how Spielberg shot it, Joe Letteri running us through the step-by-step of what the animators do and Spielberg and Jackson doing a Q&A about the overall project it was like a crash course in how to make a film.
Our day began in Park Road Post’s grand theater with Peter Jackson in person and Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy on satellite. We were shown some new footage as well as the Comic-Con reel and Jackson’s Snowy test (read my Comic-Con piece if you feel lost right now). I was the only one in the audience that had seen the Comic-Con pieces and Peter’s Snowy test started off the conversation.
It was that piece of video, with Peter Jackson dressed up in full Captain Haddock attire, that clued Spielberg in on Peter’s massive love for Tintin and it was after seeing Peter goof off as Haddock that The Beard thought he’d be an ideal partner to help bring Tintin to the big screen and so he scrapped everything involved with the project and started from scratch with Jackson.
The first bit of footage featured Tintin and Snowy walking home. Tintin is agitated… he has a clue, a word “Karaboudjan,” but has lost any sort of lead he had in solving the big mystery. He arrives to his door and there’s a man there. He asks, “Mr. Tin? Tin?” He responds in the affirmative. “Delivery for ya’,” and two men come up behind him with a giant crate. “But I didn’t order anything,” the boy says as he turns around to look at it, scratching his head. “That’s because it’s you being delivered!” the man says as he puts a rag over the boys mouth, Snowy yapping crazily.
Tintin passes out and is shoved into the crate, which is marked with the word “Karaboudjan.” The bad guys seal it up and pack it in a car as Snowy jumps up to bite the one who chloroformed Tintin and receives a boot into the house for his troubles. The baddy slams the door shut and we get a low angle single shot chasing Snowy as he races up the stairs, nudges open a door and enters into a second story room. Knocking junk off tables, the little white dog jumps up and races towards an open window, seeing the car speed off. A fire truck approaches and loyal dog takes a leap onto the top of it, barely making it, and dislodging the ladder, and sending it spilling off the front of the truck taking Snowy with it.
The pup hangs on for dear life as the ladder sticks out over the top of the bad guy’s car, Snowy’s hind legs kicking in the air in front of the windshield. Snowy drops to the hood, the bad guys swerve, throwing the dog off the car, where he’s barely missed by oncoming traffic. Not one to give up the chase, Snowy races after and sees a short cut through a tract of land filled to the brim with cows.
Snowy jumps on top of the cows, gets yet another boot by the unimpressed bovine and flies to the ground, skidding to a stop below an udder. He lifts his head into the udder and we cut to the cow’s surprised, mooing face. We don’t see Snowy, but we see a line of surprised mooing faces as he passes underneath, coming out at the other side where they’re at the shipyard, the Karaboudjan being a boat. Tintin fans already know the significance of the Karaboudjan, but the rest of us are just discovering this as we go along, okay?
That was one sequence, the next was what was described as the Sea Plane scene and it was my favorite thing I’ve seen from the movie so far. In it, Tintin, Snowy and Haddock have commandeered a sea plane, with the two pilots tied up in the back. Tintin says he’s interviewed a pilot before so he knows how to fly the plane… more or less. Naturally Haddock isn’t too fond of this statement as the boy barely gets airbound after crashing into a few waves.
What was so great about this sequence is you really do get a feeling of the chemistry between Haddock and Tintin. Tintin is fearless and determined, Haddock is a bit of comedic relief, but also shows quite a bit of bravery and all within a fairly exaggerated action scene as the poor little bi-winged sea plane is battered about by a giant and menacing storm (described by Haddock as “a wall of death!”).
It is cartoony, but the adventure spirit is so high that I was pulled into it. There’s a glee to this footage that I can’t help but imagine was fueled by Jackson and Spielberg geeking out together over this mutually beloved property. And it didn’t feel like an in-joke, something I, a non-Tintin fan, felt excluded from, which was honestly my biggest fear with this movie.
Inside the bucking plane Haddock spots a bottle of medicinal alcohol and slowly reaches for it before Tintin slaps his hand away. “No, Captain! Those are surgical spirits for medicinal purposes only!” That got a laugh from the room full of critics and journalists, but the truly ridiculous and funny part was still to come.
As the plane is being jostled, Haddock gets his hands on the bottle of alcohol and manages to open it just as the plane takes a huge dive, creating a bit of a zero G environment. The booze seeps out of the bottle and, in slow motion, Haddock’s eyes half-close as he moves to slurp up the floating glob of liquor, but Snowy beats him to it, much to his dismay. Another glob seeps out of the bottle and Snowy’s tongue laps out only to be grabbed mid-air by Haddock who drinks the rest of the floaty booze. Soon the plane rights itself and the zero G slow-motion moment is past.
Just as Haddock’s smile reaches its zenith we hear the sound of the engine struggling. The gas gauge is hovering on empty and our heroes look doomed… until Tintin has a bright idea! If Haddock can get the bottle of alcohol into the fuel tank they might burn enough to get them a few more miles. Of course the ginger detective doesn’t know that Haddock has already ingested said booze and Haddock is half-pushed out onto the plane’s exterior empty handed.
Tintin screams over the wind for Haddock to hurry up, that they’re running on fumes. A light goes on in Haddock’s eyes. “FUMES!” he screams to the heavens and straddles the nose of the plane, unscrews the cap and belches into the engine, causing it to shoot flame and stutter.
Sure, that’s incredibly ridiculous, but the tone of the action and the established reality of the world made it work. Weta’s amazing animation also gave it a weight that helps you buy into the world.
Know what else helps you buy the insanity that’s happening on the screen? John. Mother. Forking. Williams. His score, only two days old according to Spielberg and Jackson, was put over the scene and man… there’s nothing like John Williams and Steven Spielberg collaborating on a high adventure score.
So, all that combined with the design decision to undercut the uncanny valley by stylizing the world and the characters within it, not making them look like any of the established actors in their roles (Jackson even said that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are essentially twins in real life, but could never be cast as identical twins, which is one of the beauties of doing Tintin performance capture), seems to be adding up to a rather successful foray into a new filmic medium for Spielberg and Jackson.
Of course, two scenes do not make a movie, and it’s impossible to judge if the entire film is successful, but I have to say the more I see of the movie the more I’m on board. It really does feel like Spielberg is reaching back to his pulpy adventure style storytelling days here.
The footage was followed by a Q&A with Jackson and Spielberg. I’ll highlight some of interesting nuggets in bullet-point form below.
-While there was a giant learning curve for Spielberg, he found he was still just telling a story. No matter what surprises the technical side of things bring to the table, at the end of the day it’s the story, plot, narrative and characters that were his focus.
-It was Jackson’s idea to bring in Steven Moffat because he’s such a massive Dr. Who fan. Moffat delivered the first draft and worked very close to Peter and Steven, but had to go back to Who. Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish came onboard to square it away. Jackson said the main reason, besides the great talent of the writers, was that they would be able to bring a European sense to the script since it is, afterall, a European piece of pop culture. It was also important to find real Tintin fans as well (it was crucial not to have to explain the DNA of Tintin to the writer. The writer already needed that knowledge to put out the best script possible) and both Edgar and Joe Cornish fit that bill.
-Computer technology has advanced so far that if Spielberg wanted to, he could conceive, shoot, render and edit a shot today and still make the October international release date.
-Tone hasn’t ever been discussed between Spielberg and Jackson. They discovered they have a very similar sense of humor, for one, and two, Herge’s tone has driven the feeling of the movie since day one.
-Steven Spielberg, on the photoreal look of Tintin himself: “We certainly, with the photorealism in mind from the very beginning, did not want Tintin to be a balloon with two pinholes for eyes. We wanted Tintin to be able to express himself as a fully rendered character, but not with such impressionism, leaving the guesswork on how Tintin is feeling up to the audience 100%.” Spielberg credits Jamie Bell for capturing everything Herge put into the comic character and says it took them a long, long time to settle on the right look for the character in this iteration.
-Jackson says working with Spielberg on Tintin is akin to doing a crossword puzzle with a friend. “It’s not who comes up with the answers first. It’s not competitive. There’s no competition at all and no ego. There’s just a problem and that problem is ‘How do we adapt Tintin and how do we make a good movie?’ It’s creative, it’s constructive.”
-The idea of a franchise is exciting to Jackson because of all the different genres and different types of places the story goes in the books. Oh, and because he really wants to direct the next one.
-There’s very little of the Red Rackham’s Treasure represented in the first Tintin movie, but Jackson hinted at Red Rackham’s Treasure playing more than a small part of the sequel that he would direct.
-Spielberg has never once stepped foot in Wellington. He shot the performance capture in LA and has only ever directed the animators, given notes, etc, via Polycom (the satellite link-up he was using to speak with us at that moment). He said he does spend about 2 hours a day on it talking to the animators and production heads, though.
-Not only has he never been to New Zealand, he’s never even been close to it. “The only thing I did in that hemisphere before this was I sent Ron and Valerie Taylor and a little person in a cage to the Great Barrier Reef to try to make a 16 foot Great White Shark look like a 26 foot Great White Shark. And like this medium, I just sat back in Los Angeles and waited for the dailies!”
After about 40 minutes of nerd questions, Spielberg finally had enough and logged off (or we ran out of time and had to move one, but saying it that way will garner less hits in this tabloid day and age) and we moved on to Jackson’s MoCap stage (where some of Gollum and much of Kong was captured) and given a quick run-through on how production works on this kind of flick by Peter himself and visual effect maestro Joe Letteri.
This was the moment that felt the most like living in a DVD/Blu-Ray feature, not because we had an up close look at the technical side of filmmaking, but because it was Peter Jackson walking us through it.
Longtime readers of the site might remember when I ventured into the production offices of Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf. If you don’t have any earthly idea what I’m talking about, fear not. The internet has a long, long memory and you can access that memory here. Much of what I saw there was seen on the stage in Wellington, with a few notable advances.
Still the same is the virtual camera. In both cases there was a DV camera outfitted with dots that represented the actual camera in the movie universe. It could have just been a coffee cup with these dots, but having it be a camera seems to make the jump into the virtual realm easier to make for the filmmakers.
The biggest difference seemed to be that Zemeckis recorded all the performance capture as one big play over the period of about a week and then had a small virtual zone built into the editing room where he could take the camera and explore the performances as if he were the invisible man up on the live stage, yet here Spielberg shot it like a regular movie. The only difference is his blocking was much more intricate.
Using a thumb control on the top of the camera as a dolly in and out and the unused focus ring (remember this camera isn’t recording anything, it’s just a place-holder to tell the sensors that’s where the camera is pointed in the digital world) as a crane up or down, Spielberg would direct Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock and Jamie Bell as Tintin as usual and just figure out the best way to shoot the scene. He shot it very traditionally in that he didn’t just reframe and move in during a take to coverage as many motion capture filmmakers do. He shot masters and coverage just as you do with a film camera.
In other words Zemeckis was, to a degree, locked into a certain world. He could have total freedom within that world, but once the performance was captured he then figured out his shots, so he was bound by the way the actors performed. Since Spielberg was shooting this like a real movie, he wasn’t finding his shots later, but on the “set.”
The sets, by the way, were wireframe walls, doors and props (they have to be wire so the sensors can see through them at all times and know where the performers are). Lots of thought went into these props, including Haddock’s rum bottle which had a swinging weight in the center to help the actors mime drinking. It mimicked the fluid in the bottle, gave it the appropriate slosh and even acted as a reference for the animators. Not only is the roof of the giant room lined with sensor cameras tracking the dots, but on any given take there were a dozen people with digital cameras rolling on the action for further reference for the animators.
When we entered the room there were two guys in MoCap outfits. In person they had the ridiculous wetsuits covered with dots on, but on the many flat screens up around the perimeter they were Tintin and one of the Thompson twins. And not just rough previs characters… they were full approximations, about the level of a Nickelodeon animated show for toddlers.
What was most fascinating to me was just how realized the atmosphere was. For instance, the first area was Tintin’s house. If they opened the front door to the outside, the morning light flooded into the house. There was a ship set they demonstrated later that as the same thing… dark hallway, but if the door opened the warm golden light from the cabin room spilled out into the hallway.
This is what the filmmakers saw as they were working, something very close in tone and atmosphere to what would be there in the final product, not a bunch of blocky shapes just showing where chairs and doorways were.
There were technical tricks, like being able to program the virtual camera to take 5 steps for every one human step that enabled fast chase scenes, but really the impressive part was the director had the full control of about 4 departments at his fingertips allowing for a fluidity to the storytelling that wouldn’t be there if he or she had to instruct each department about the move they wanted and get them to sync up.
Next step was a stop by Weta Digital to get a walkthough of Maya, the software they use to build their digital creations, and some examples of their day to day on the digital side. This included looks at shots from pre-viz to animation captured on the day to half-rendered shots with hair and fur effects and then the finished shot.
My favorite part of this presentation was seeing an old buddy, Gino Acevedo, who is a legendary make-up man in his own right and has now taken his hands-on expertise over to the digital side. He has a process he developed for Avatar that he used again for Tintin, a way of giving those realistic skin textures. Instead of building it digitally, Gino developed a process of molding real facial textures and washing them in a special chemical bath that gives you a very thin layer of real skin. He’d attach these to transparencies (they passed a few samples around and boy did they look creepy, like Ed Gein trophies) and then scan them. From there they laid these transparent skin samples onto the surface of the digital people and voila, you have a real skin texture on a digital person.
From here we were led to one of the happiest places on Earth: Weta Workshop. Richard Taylor and Chris Guise greeted us in the Weta conference room where we were surrounded on all sides by Weta Collectibles, awards, plaques and various other coolness including a whole wall of production art done for Tintin.
Taylor’s enthusiasm is just as rich in person as it appears on the LOTR DVDs and they gleefully showed off many art pieces and illustrated how they adapted Herge’s universe for film, starting with direct panel and cover conversions and ending with what you’ll see in the finished film. Again, both Guise and Taylor were huge Tintin geeks and made it a point to bring in background character that Herge drew only once in a crowd and realize them realistically for the movie so that Tintin fans might have an added layer of enjoyment while watching the film.
Tintin is starting to come into focus for me as a brand. It seems to be a Jonny Quest, James Bond, Indiana Jones hybrid with a dash of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs thrown in for good measure. All those spices are appealing to me and the overall fun tone of the footage I’ve seen really has me excited to see what the final product looks like.