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The Adventures of Tintin: Mo-Cap Expert Jamie Beard Talks Animating Tintin

A movie literally decades in the making, The Adventures of Tintin began its trip to the big screen in 1983, when Steven Spielberg first reached out to Belgian comics artist Hergé about acquiring the film rights to his most famous creation, the intrepid journalist/adventurer Tintin. But for a variety of reasons, the project kept falling by the wayside, that is, until Spielberg teamed up with Peter Jackson in the wake of the New Zealand director's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Together, the duo decided that doing full justice to Hergé's comics meant eschewing a conventional live action adaptation in favor of the animation process known as motion capture, whereby live actors perform the characters on set and then computer animators translate their work onto digital models. Jamie Beard, a veteran employee of Jackson's New Zealand-based effects house Weta Digital, served as animation supervisor on The Adventures of Tintin and played a significant role in overseeing the design of the film's world and its characters. He spoke with us about bringing the motion capture Tintin (played by Jamie Bell) to life and why he sometimes made the actors walk on futon mattresses on set.

TWoP: How long did it take for you to settle on the final character design for the motion-capture version of Tintin?
Jamie Beard: We went through a huge amount of drafts, hundreds and hundreds of iterations. I'm not exaggerating. We always had the comics on hand as reference. We would literally copy every one of Tintin's smiles and frowns from the page and make panel sheets in the computer. We started out by copying him exactly, making a hole with two dots and a little nose. But we realized very quickly that it would not work -- it looked really weird. If you saw it, you'd think it was the ugliest thing you'd ever seen. So we went the other way and tried to emulate Jamie Bell's face, but that didn't work because we were sending mixed signals. It was like we were trying to emulate the world of Tintin but the character himself was an exact replica of reality. So we had to find some kind of middle ground; we needed to represent the actors' performances and also create the comics' world. It all came down to the final product, which honors Hergé's style while not slavishly copying the medium of the comics and that's something Steven always wanted. He knew that people either don't know Tintin that well or if they do, they really love him. We needed a way to introduce him to both camps: the American audience that maybe hasn't seen him before and the European audience that loves Tintin and are dying to see what he looks like in this new medium. We're really proud that audiences in France and Belgium in particular have responded well to it.

TWoP: How did you capture the comics' blend of realism and elaborate action sequences onscreen?
Beard: Our style of motion capture suits Hergé. In the comics, you have these very realistic scenarios -- hitting lampposts and such -- but you also have over-the-top elements like when Thomson and Thompson are flying a plane and go in a loop-de-loop and one of them falls out. When the other finishes the loop, he catches the one that's fallen. So that's not at all realistic. But at the same time, Hergé would reference reality throughout his books in the style of the environment and character poses. When Tintin points a gun, Hergé referenced the stance someone takes when they fire a pistol and we replicated that in our film as well. But Steven also really wanted to do elaborate action sequences and the medium enabled him to do it. In the beginning, he required a certain learning curve about the motion capture technology, but by the end he realized its full potential and directed us in that way. If we showed him something really cool that he had never seen before, he'd pick up on it instantly and try to use it in the film. He was like "Wow, you can do anything. You can forge any sort of sequence, yet it can still be realistic and thrilling."

TWoP: As the animation supervisor, were you on set every day?
Beard: I was. I gave all the actors beat sheets and I made little booklets with references from the comics so they knew who their characters were. I also made sure that when they were moving around the set, they were aware of where different objects -- like Snowy -- were. Aside from the technical duties of making the virtual environment ready, my biggest concern on set was making sure that we'd get a good performance on the day, because it's a very technical environment and the actors can forget that they're supposed to be in a hot marketplace in another part of the world. And I'd often help prompt the actors; say we're doing a desert scene, I'd put futon mattresses on the floor of the studio for them to walk on. Because as the animation director, I needed to see that they're really struggling when they're walking. I had to make sure that we got the real performance for the animators, so Steven can concentrate wholly on the actors and the story.

TWoP: Was there a canine actor playing Snowy or is he completely animated?
Beard: He's completely animated, but we did have a puppet Snowy on set. It's very important on set to have an eyeline for the actors when Snowy walks across the frame. You don't want them to imagine it. We'd try to help make the actors feel like what's happening is really there. If they're supposed to bump into Snowy, we'd have him there ready to bump into.

TWoP: Andy Serkis, who plays Tintin's sidekick Captain Haddock, is the cast member with the most experience doing this kind of performance. Was he an on-set guide for the rest of the actors that were less familiar with the process?
Beard: Andy's great and he knows the process inside out, but I don't think he had to actively tell anyone anything. The other actors just saw him perform and followed suit. Jamie was brilliant at it and it was all quite new for him. It's always quite daunting for an actor going onto a motion capture set because it doesn't look like a normal film set. It's quite technical, with a lot of people blocking eyelines and getting in the way. Andy's an extremely intense actor who can really shut off everything around him and that's why he's so good at what he does and the other actors just followed his lead.

TWoP: Who was responsible for the designing that striking opening credits sequence, which follows a standalone three-minute Tintin adventure?
Beard: One of my senior animators, Dennis Yoo, had come up with a lot of ideas for the credits sequence about the things Tintin could do. I knew I wanted to concentrate on colors and keep his identity a secret during the credits. We showed the style to Steven and he loved it. The next thing we needed to do tell a story that reflected every single Tintin story in a nutshell and that ran across the books so that people would really warm up to the material. It would educated people in three minutes as to what Tintin was.

TWoP: Despite successes like Avatar and The Polar Express, motion capture still has a certain negative stigma around it. Are you concerned that will affect this film's chances with American audiences?
Beard: If there is a stigma attached to the medium, I think that's a preconceived idea about what people have seen in the past. But I think that if it's a great story, people will go and see it. And from the feedback we've gotten in Europe, they love this movie. It's doing really well. And that's a thrill for us, because we've worked on it for so long -- I've worked on it for 5 years. They really see how much work and attention to detail we've put into it.

TWoP: How closely did Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson collaborate on the designing the characters and the world?
Beard: They are so collaborative both of them. Steven directed this one and he was obviously making most of the day-to-day decisions. But when there's a big decision about the design of something or someone, they would always call each other and talk about it. They really value each other's input, particularly as they're both fans of the books. It was wonderful working with two titanic directors like that and seeing them get along so well and add so much to each other's work. I don't think anything will be a problem with Peter directing the second one -- it will be a joy to work on. In terms of that sequel, we've already designed certain aspects and that stuff will be used again. But right now my job is about education, informing people about all the animators that worked on this film. Tintin 2 is further down the track.

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