Sunday, December 25, 2011

Musing Pictures: The Adventures of Tintin

There's a moment in "Tintin" that reminds me of a moment in Hitchcock's "Rear Window". (Perhaps I should warn of spoilers here, for both films, but this would be uninteresting if you haven't seen them, so see them first.)

First, in "Rear Window", the lead character solves a mystery by comparing slides (still images, photographs, frames) with what he can currently see from his window. He sees differences, changes that would not have been apparent if not for the sequence of stills. The character is a photographer, and he is metaphorically discovering the narrative power of the motion picture.

A lot has been written about this meta-cinematic expression in Hitchcock's film. Spielberg has an uncannily similar structure in "Tintin", where the hero, having finally found three mysterious parchments, discovers that when they are overlaid, one over the other, if held to the light, they reveal the coordinates of a long-hidden treasure. This is not representative of cinema in the classical sense, but "Tintin" is not a "film" in the classical sense, either.

Digitally constructed images (which make up the entirety of "Tintin", which is, effectively, a digitally animated movie) are almost always constructed in "layers". This is partially a throwback to techniques of cell animation, in which a background was painted on one transparent sheet, a character to be animated on another sheet, and any foreground on yet another sheet. The sheets would be stacked, and a photo would be taken. Then, to animate the character, the middle sheet (with the drawing of the character) would be replaced by the next drawing in the sequence. In this way, animators did not have to re-draw complex and detailed backgrounds for every frame of the film.

Digital animators do much the same thing, often with entire teams dedicated to each "layer" or component of a digital image. There are teams to build the digital "sets", teams to create and manipulate the digital "characters" (in the case of "Tintin", these teams included actors, whose performances were digitally captured to become another "layer" in the digital picture). Finally (and this is especially critical in 3D films, it seems), the stuff that floats by in the air is filled in -- dust, dirt, sand, seeds, or what have you. By layering these elements, a filmmaker forms the world, and by shining light through it (via the projector), it becomes the image that conveys meaning in today's cinema.

For Spielberg, the use of performance capture in a digitally animated film would have represented a tremendous shift from his typical tools. This is filmmaking without a camera. The entire approach to constructing such a film must is entirely different. The moment where Tintin overlays the parchments and discovers their secret is in the original story, but perhaps this is what drew Spielberg to this particular Tintin narrative? It's a metaphor for the very process Spielberg had to employ to make the film.


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