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Tintin Movie – 5 Star Technical: 2 Star Entertainment






The Adventures of Tintin – Steven Spielberg and the use of 3D and Performance Capture – Essay/Review

Spielberg: at last the Directorial penny drops on the use of 3D. What David Yates made innovative use of in the final Harry Potter film, Spielberg exploits rigorously throughout his Tintin movie to make it the best animation-based film to date in the effective use of 3D: using the process to enhance dramatic effect rather than to be dominated by it. The technical approach of Yates and Spielberg might foreshadow a genuine aesthetic benefit from the 3D process.

Tintin is for me a fairly predictable brew of Spielberg’s pre-occupations: a much loved iconic children’s character; pacy black hat/white hat adventure; and technically superb action sequences which drop the jaw and tickle the ribs – great for the kids and sort of ok for the grown-ups. Both Peter Jackson and Spielberg confess to having never grown up and their nostalgia for their boyhood heroes in more innocent times is endearing. But with a hackneyed plot that might have come from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, bland characterisation and anonymous performances all round, even the usually reliable Andy Serkis, I can’t see this Tintin capturing the hearts and minds of today’s boys, or girls 50 years after Jackson and Spielberg were captivated.

That said, Tintin is fascinating, even ground-breaking technically: it is in Spielberg’s use of the 3D process combined with performance capture that the film impresses most.

What I will call respect the frame is the fundamental principle that must be observed with 3D. The novelty effects upon which much of its promotion has been based – balls or missiles ‘appearing’ to leap out of the screen and hover half-way across the auditorium – are precisely what must be rigorously resisted if the 3D process is to enhance the dramatic experience of the movie and not distort it.

To clarify what I mean: our eyes and brains have been conditioned over a century of film-viewing to ‘read’ kinetic 2-dimensional images as having ‘depth’: we have become so used to this that it is now instinctive. It is very hard, even impossible to ‘see’ a film as a 2-dimensional image. This was pretty much an extension of one of the great revolutions in Painting where the use of perspective and other techniques gave a sense of depth and thereby ‘naturalness’, in stark contrast to centuries of representing static figures and images in flat 2-dimensional form: from cave paintings to Medieval religious Art.

Our tendency to become immersed, drawn into a film, to see it as ‘real’ is one of the most absorbing and thrilling aspects of cinema-going. It is part of why we often love them rather than just enjoy them – why we laugh and cry in them. The unconscious immediacy with which we willingly give ourselves up to the enticing sense of reality films can induce in us, lies at the heart of the irreducible ‘naturalness’ of the movie image. Indeed so comprehensive and compelling can this feeling be in a film that many film directors have wanted to break this illusion of naturalness and unconscious illusion of the ‘realness’ of the images: to intentionally disturb, even shatter that illusion. There are loads of examples but Jean Luc Godard is perhaps the most striking example that comes to mind. Godard keeps reminding us – ‘you are watching a film’.

Bad screenplays, poor performances, unbelievable plots can also break the spell in a different way: their implausibility, falseness, disruptively make us conscious of watching a film rather than identifying with and feeling immersed in the fear, laughter, joy and tears of the characters whose experiences we vicariously share. When convincing characters, saying and doing things that make sense, are placed in believable, exciting or moving dramatic situations we have many, if not most of the ingredients of a good film.

Another critical component to the movie-going experience is the size of the screen and the frame it creates around what we see. Sitting in the cinema before the film starts we are only too conscious of us and it: we’re here, the screen is up there and we are irreducibly aware of the screen and the frame. This changes as soon as the film starts and crucially, unlike the theatre, the lights go down; then we are drawn into its story, its characters, its happenings; our consciousness of the frame disappears, like the tick of a clock in a room. One of the major differences between watching a film on a 30/40 foot (or even 100’ Imax) high screen and seeing it on a television set, is precisely that it is harder, though not impossible to ‘lose’ the frame – with the TV. This difference may be diminishing with larger and larger TV sets but is still there.

Watching events on TV is a bit like looking through a window: however big it is or close to it you get, you are still this side of the window and it stands between you and the events outside (‘inside’ the TV) which it none-the-less permits you to witness. Watching a film in the cinema is more like wearing rimmed spectacles. When people wear spectacles for the first time they are discouragingly conscious of the frames at the edges of their peripheral vision. Within days they simply see the world and are fully engaged in it thanks to the spectacles, but they are mostly unaware of anything between them and the reality they perceive. Even without spectacles, our visual field has limits but no discernible boundaries: there are things we cannot see but no fixed point at which this occurs. Our visual field is more like a suburb than a county boundary; more like the horizon than the Equator.

Put another way, the frame of the cinema screen is the door, the portal through which we pass when we become absorbed in a film. We may be jolted out of that immersion by a whole host of distractions and recover briefly a consciousness of being in a cinema but in a good film we will re-pass through our portal to recover our absorption and ‘re-enter’ the film. Eating popcorn noisily is therefore an aesthetic not merely social offence. The setting for this is always the same: there is the auditorium down here, and the screen ‘up there’. This is the distance our mind has to travel to become lost in the film – the hinterland of our imagination. It is the balance of this physical setting that the novelty use of 3D destroys. Images emerge from the screen and appear to occupy a space not only that we know they can’t, but more importantly, aesthetically they shouldn’t occupy.

Most 3D films today and pretty much all advertising has utilised this visual phenomenon: in effect creating the sense of 3-dimensionality, depth, by bringing the foreground image ‘out’ of the screen and ‘towards’ us. What Yates discovered and Spielberg systematically exploits, is the realisation that as I have expressed it, if you respect the frame – that is keep your foreground image on or only imperceptibly forward of the traditional interface of the screen itself, then 3-dimensionality is experienced quite unobtrusively as a very satisfying increased depth ‘behind’ not ‘in front’ of the screen. I appreciate ‘behind’ here is ambiguous but all I mean is that instead of the foremost element of the image appearing to come ‘out of the screen’, this front image stays within the frame at the screen and the visual depth of 3D takes our perception ‘behind’ and into the same imaginative space it has always occupied. One, imperfect, analogy might be the difference between say St Pauls Cathedral in a pop-up book and in a well-taken photograph. The 3-dimensionality of the pop-up St Pauls is ‘real’ but unsatisfying: the sense of depth and 3-dimensionality in the photograph is a function of the artistic skill in using the camera and can convey a sense of grandeur, spirituality etc but all is ‘within’ the picture, the page representing a limit the pop-up transcends.

In the sense I have defined therefore, Spielberg rigorously respects the frame throughout Tintin. There are virtually no out-of-screen images: but there is a satisfying sense of depth of field and 3D dimensionality throughout. It draws us into the film in the same way as 2-dimensional images – but more powerfully. Because all images and action in Tintin have an enhanced sense of depth but are constantly kept within the traditional frame they become unobtrusive just like all the familiar film techniques of shot selection, editing etc.

Because of this discreet use of 3D it is much less visually disorientating something which many people experience. It is my hunch that anyone who avoids 3D films for this reason, will find Tintin more comfortable to watch. If any of you have this problem I would love to hear whether I am right.

Tintin also further develops the motion/performance capture animation process already seen in full length animated films like Polar Express (2004),  and Beowulf (2007). This system is also used in live action films like  Avatar (2009), King Kong, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to create characters like the Na’vi, Kong, Gollum, and Dobby. This technique attaches reflective markers to the actor whose movements are recorded from all angles by many different cameras. The results are then transferred into a digitised 3D model and further developed into an unusually ‘life-like’ moving image. The motions captured have become increasingly refined to include subtle facial expressions – hence the change in terminology from ‘motion capture’ to ‘performance capture’.

I believe Spielberg’s decision to use Performance Capture (PC) animation for Tintin was based upon the aesthetic link to the graphical form of Herge’s original drawings. This has led to a pretty heated debate from purists about the inappropriateness of this transition.

That debate doesn’t interest me much. What does intrigue me is that having non-natural models ie. Cartoon characters, for the figures in Tintin gives Spielberg a perhaps unwitting, certainly unexpected benefit within the stereoscopic filming in 3D. I have argued elsewhere (see review Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2 and 3D) that one of Yates’ achievements was to have largely eradicated what I call the ‘puppetkin’ effect of 3D on human characters in live action films: distractingly obvious in films like Wim Wenders’ Pina. Having cartoon-based originals means that while his use of PC techniques allows Spielberg to create remarkably ‘life-like’ animated figures, we readily accept a certain imbalance in the proportions of the figures. True to Herge’s representations, most of the figures in Tintin have disproportionately large heads in relation to consequently slightly smaller bodies. We are used to this kind of distortion in animated films even of the old 2D variety. What is interesting here is that the brain seems to quite comfortably accept the very life-like images from PC with the familiar distortions of animation to create a kind of hybrid visual image both ‘natural’ seeming and graphically manufactured. This entirely eradicates the oddity of the ‘Puppetkin’ effect so that for the animated aesthetic context – everyone and everything seemsbalanced in terms of relative size. For reasons I am not technically qualified to account for, this also permits Spielberg to make extensive use of the close-up with his characters which the 3D process seems to hinder in live action.

When these phenomena are combined: respecting the frame gives Spielberg a wonderful sense of depth and solidity to a physical environment; and within which his natural/animated hybrid PC-generated characters seem to ‘fit’ perfectly.

The ‘form’ for Tintin is therefore very satisfying and innovatively achieved: it is thus a double disappointment that the content of the film is so trite and limited. However as a film helping to point the way to a more subtle, unobtrusive use of 3D for enhanced dramatic effect, it may still have a profound technical influence that will last well beyond its brief box office success. And it will be a ‘success’ in those terms, not because of its artistic merit but because it is an easily accessible film with a tidal wave of hype and publicity to make sure it reaches profitable shores.

As entertainment therefore Tintin is a modest, ephemeral minor pleasure: a not bad bit of fun. But as a piece of innovative film-making – it is absolutely fascinating.

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