Hergé's classic Tintin comics have many a zany visual, so how did Steven Spielberg and his team render the hero's 2D adventures in 3D for The Adventures of Tintin? To learn about this process, io9 spoke with the film's animation supervisor — Weta Digital's Jamie Beard — about bringing the boy adventurer to life.
What was the most difficult aspect of animating such an immersive film?
Jamie Beard: Getting the performances to read as the actors intended and how to make them look best against the world of Tintin. It was these two things that were always the most tricky — matching Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis' performances with the models and then matching the models in the world of Hergé.
Hergé's character designs in the comic are fairly minimalist, but the characters' designs in the film are hyper-detailed. How many character design drafts would you say you went through on average?
Oh, endless iterations! You wouldn't believe how many we went through. We've literally got hundreds and hundreds of iterations, all themselves detailing the process. On very broad brushstrokes, we started the process thinking, "We have to copy the panels." When that didn't work, we went in the other direction and copied the actors. And then we went through an interesting process where we said, "Oh, let's move the Captain's beard line up! Now let's move it down. Let's make his nose bigger, redder, add pores!"
Every aspect of the panel we pored over, and we always went back to the comic's panels. Steven was very clear that we had to honor Hergé's world. That meant having a panel of the comics representing what we were trying to do. When Tintin smiled, we'd have all the smiles that Hergé ever drew for reference. If he fired a gun, we'd have all those scenes. We were very meticulous in our research. But we're not presenting a simplistic graphic version of Tintin. We're presenting something that can really perform — like Jamie Bell or any actor could perform — and that's not something we could've done if we slavishly exactly copied Hergé artwork.
Are these designs that you'll be able to reuse for any sequels?
The design process for the film took a long time, so the Tintin and Captain Haddock characters that people are used to seeing, we'll be able to get along with that.
One of the most dynamic characters in the film is Snowy the dog. How did you go about animating him?
The propmaster and the puppetmasters had a wire-frame version of Snowy so that the actors could have eye lines. After that, it was up to the animators to bring Snowy to life. We had a great team — led by Andy Jones who worked on Avatar — create the virtual world so that the actors had stuff to respond to. We had puppet hands inside Snowy's head, we had him on wheels. We always made sure that the actors could see Snowy and that they could react. That's how we got the great performance from the actors. Afterwards, the animators went to town with Snowy's character.
Were there any particular sequences that were too crazy for The Adventures of Tintin?
We did tons of previsualization. There were a ton of gags that didn't make it into the story because they didn't drive the story forward. It's a quick film, and Steven doesn't put in anything that weighs the film down.
In The Crab with the Golden Claws — one of the books the film was based on — one of my favorite scenes is when Captain Haddock hallucinates in the desert and imagines Tintin is a giant whiskey bottle. Did you ever think about putting that scene in?
We actually did that in the very early days. We tried previsualizing it. To bring Tintin to screen the way we did, certain things didn't look right. To have Tintin's head on top of a photorealistic bottle, it's actually quite scary! It doesn't feel like the Spielberg version anymore. Steven was clear about what kind of movie he wanted to make. I know Hergé had a lot of hallucination sequences in his books, so that fell by the wayside. But we do have a great [dream-like] storytelling section of the film.
Without spoiling too much, The Adventures of Tintin has one of the most insane chase sequences I've ever seen. What was the process behind animating this single-camera, Rube Goldberg-esque chase sequence?
That was very complicated! It started with an idea phase. It involved all different parts — such as vehicles going through buildings — and we had all of these disconnected ideas that we knew we couldn't cut together into a chase sequence. But Steven really wanted to wow millions and bring together something that you've never seen before. He said, "We need this all to be one shot!" We had to amalgamate these two things together. That was a process over several weeks — of picking and choosing the most dramatic ideas — and we ended up with a 30-minute chase!
The Adventures of Tintin hits theaters December 21.