Motion-capture animation and 3D appear to be the rising stars of movie technology. Spielberg's film “The Adventures of Tintin” uses these to full advantage

Tintin fans of course would love everything about the movie — the setting, the characters, the references scattered all over. Even if you were not a Tintin fan, you would love the 3-D movie for its state-of-the-art technology. Did you watch “The Adventures of Tintin”?

That Steven Spielberg, whose movies depend so much on real-time emotions, should opt for an animation flick is a surprise. Well, when Spielberg goes in for digital cinematography, he does it in style. In “ The Adventures of Tintin” he takes up James Cameron's revolutionary motion-capture technology (aka performance capture or mo-cap) to tell the story of Tintin, the intrepid boy reporter, using Peter Jackson's company Weta to get the 3-D, photorealistic effects. Spielberg and Jackson go from comic book to cinema screen using the latest VFX technology.

In a press release some months ago, Jackson said, “We're making them look photorealistic; the fibres in their clothing, the pores on their skin and every individual hair. They look exactly like real people — real Hergé (writer-illustrator of the comics) people!”

Ground-breaking

“The Adventures of Tintin” is a groundbreaking movie that pushes the limits of 3-D technology. Spielberg takes advantage of the virtual environment to shoot awesome action scenes. The frames move seamlessly, without cuts. Within a couple of minutes you forget this is an animation movie. The 3-D is non-intrusive.

How is this done? In the motion-capture process, movement is recorded and then translated onto a digital model. It has applications in the military, in entertainment, sport, medicine and robotics. In filmmaking, using mo-cap the director records the actions of human actors, and uses that information to animate digital character models in 2D or 3D. When there is movement in faces and fingers and we see expressions, the technology becomes “performance capture.”

We didn't see Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis or Daniel Craig in the movie. We saw Tintin, Captain Haddock and villain Red Rakham. That is because mo-cap records only the movements of the actor, not his appearance. This animation data is mapped to a 3D model so that the model performs the same actions as the actor. Amazingly, camera movements are also motion-captured. Driven by a cameraman, a virtual camera in the scene dips, rises and moves around the stage when the actor is performing. The mo-cap system captures the camera, props and the actor's performance. Now the computer-generated characters, images and sets have the same perspective as the video images from the camera. A computer processes the data and displays the movements of the actor, providing the camera positions needed in terms of objects on the set. Using this camera-tracking technique, Spielberg proves virtual cinematography can do things you couldn't in live action.

Why animation?

Why did he choose animation to tell this story? Perhaps because it is set in the pre-WWII era. “It just seemed that live action would be too stylised for an audience to relate to,” Spielberg told LA Times. “You'd have to have costumes that are a little outrageous. The costumes seem to fit better when the medium chosen is digital.”

Spielberg said he loved seeing actors perform in real-time — but as digital replicas. “You get to paint with this device that puts you into a virtual world, and allows you to make your shots and block all the actors with a small hand-held device only three times as large as an Xbox game controller. So as Andy Serkis runs across the stage, there's Captain Haddock on the monitor, in full anime, running along the streets of Belgium. Not only are the actors represented in real-time, they also enter into a three-dimensional world.”

There's a problem though. The movie races like a Vettel-driven Infiniti FX50. There is no time to savour the connection between the animation and the photo-realist flourishes. There are superb Spielbergian touches like that scene in the desert but before you can fully appreciate the cinematic cuteness, it flashes past. That's when you curse technology for overtaking the creative genius of Spielberg.

Motion-capture animation and 3D appear to be the rising stars of movie technology. If you think full-length animated movies are lifeless waste of technology, you should watch “Tintin”. In this movie, Spielberg conducts a superb marriage between live-action and animation. This is one step ahead in high-tech storytelling.

Tintin trivia

* Oakley, the optical instruments firm brought out special 3D Gascan TINTIN Limited Edition glasses for the movie.

* A custom Microclear(TM) bag is included for frame storage and lens cleaning, and the bag carries film-inspired graphics.

* Just 4000 units of the limited edition 3D glasses will be available worldwide.

* The company says the HDO-3D technology ensures that the wearer will not see the ghosting that comes with ordinary 3D glasses.