Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

 I approached the movie, The Adventures of Tintin, with a lot of interest. I've read the Tintin books, translated into English. I first encountered Tintin when I found a copy of the Golden Press edition of Explorers On the Moon on a bookstore remainder table in 1969, right after the Apollo 11 moon landing. I find the books fun, with good stories and clear line art that has a lot of appeal to me. Over the years I bought all that became available. The fact that Tintin originated in Belgium and had a history going back to the 1920s I didn't know until later. Apparently Steven Spielberg also became a fan at some point. He's been planning a Tintin movie since the 1980s.

The movie, despite the English accents (and Scottish burr for Captain Haddock) is set in Belgium. According to Cinefex magazine, the decision was made to place The Adventures Of Tintin in 1949. Careful attention was paid to the period and its look, but there is also some artistic license used. Tintin's sports car, a TR3, is an anachronism, but done with full knowledge that it's anachronistic. It just felt like the right car for Tintin.

The character of Tintin is played by Jeremy Bell, and Haddock by Andy Serkis. Serkis is making a career out of being an animated character, also portraying Gollum and King Kong. Snowy, Tintin's dog, is played in part by a wire frame, a stuffed dog and the animator's skill. Snowy is based in part on living terriers, but unlike the humans, remains a cartoon.

Motion capture animation is improving considerably. Look at films made just a few years ago and you can see how much better the technology has become. One of the problems with motion capture was with the eyes, but unlike the flat look of older films, in The Adventures of Tintin the eyes are totally alive.

I was also fascinated in the Cinefex article to read about problems with Tintin's hair. A program called Barbershop was used to create realistic looking hair, but work on Tintin's actual hairstyle was a complicated business. Anyone familiar with the cartoon Tintin knows he's shown with a tuft of hair in front, and except for some ginger color, no real indication of a style. What looks simple in an animated movie usually takes a lot of forethought. The viewer takes it for granted but it is a triumph of the animator's art.

There are small touches that are inside jokes for the knowledgeable. The newspaper Tintin is holding in this frame while talking with clownish detectives Thompson and Thomson is named after the Belgian magazine that first published Tintin cartoon strip serials.

The movie is based in part on three of the books, The Crab With the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham's Treasure. But the Tintin books have a lot of exposition, people talking and explaining the story. The movie, catering to today's short attention spans and expectation of adrenaline-driven visuals, is full of wild action, even slapstick. I got lost in the Cinefex article trying to understand the technology and cameras used to create those visuals, but understand they were first used on James Cameron's Avatar, a benchmark in motion capture. A difference in the two films is that Avatar mixed the animation in with live actors, and The Adventures of Tintin is wholly animated. Before reading the article I had guessed the film was a mixture of both live backgrounds and animation, especially in the scenes set on the water, but once again, it's all animation, so skillfully done it looks real.

Filmmakers face fan expectations when recreating a world familiar to readers of a certain literary character or franchise, such as the Tintin series. I understand what they had to do to make a movie look more realistic, and that's remove the cartoon from the characters while still exaggerating them, with unusual noses, for instance. Fans of Tintin love the look of the artwork. The books are designed for young readers, after all. The movie is designed to appeal to a broad range of viewers, most of whom, I'd guess, had never seen the Tintin books.

The filmmakers had to come to some accommodation between the needs of the movie and the needs of the fans, and for me at least they meet in the middle. My wife and I loved the action sequences, more so for the action than the technical facts of the animation. Once I got used to seeing the cartoon characters in a more human form I let myself go and joined in the story. I'm not dogmatic about it, and I was especially happy that early on the filmmakers decided they weren't going to do what was done with the movie version of Dick Tracy, use live actors with appliances stuck to their faces.

According to reviews I've read, some fans of the original can't accept this movie version, but I think it succeeded in bridging the gap between a cartoon and reality by using modern techniques of motion capture animation at its most amazing. I'll probably watch The Adventures of Tintin again to look for things I missed the first time around.

Copyright © 2012 The New Yorker

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