IGN: IGN heads to the Weta studios in Wellington to get a look behind the scenes of the anticipated Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson collaboration.
Located in the middle of suburban Wellington, Peter Jackson’s Park Road Post Production studios and Weta offices couldn’t be more unassuming. Quietly surrounded by homes, parks, corner stores and friendly locals, it’s easy to see why PJ has chosen to keep away from the hectic Hollywood scene. Filmmaking here feels like being at home, so when you realise that this quiet little suburban area has produced the most technically-inspired and big-scale films in the history of cinema, you have to wonder why this approach to filmmaking isn’t taken more often. Even while everyone at the studio is waist-deep in post production on the Steven Spielberg-directed The Adventures of Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn, there’s not a single sign of stress on display.
Couple this with the beautiful footage we were shown from the upcoming film – which seems to be absolutely nailing the tone of the source material, and it’s safe to say that The Adventures of Tintin probably couldn’t be in better hands than those of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. These filmmaking legends clearly love this character and his adventures.
Upon arriving at the Park Road Post Production studio, our group was ushered into a deceptively large theatre/screening room and handed pairs of 3D glasses. Waiting for us in front of the screen was none other than Peter Jackson himself, with Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg joining the conversation via satellite.
Jackson and Spielberg began by telling us about how this momentous collaboration originally started. Having held the movie rights since 1983, Spielberg had always intended to adapt Tintin to the big screen in one form or another. With the idea of making it into it a live-action film with computer-generated elements, Spielberg approached Jackson while he was making King Kong to see what a digital Snowy (Tintin’s canine companion) might look like if created by Weta Digital.
Rather than whipping up a quick test video, Jackson (who admitted to having learned to read using Hergé’s Tintin books) decided it would be more fun to dress up like Captain Haddock and film a mock-audition tape, taking advantage of the SS Venture ship built for Kong. As Jackson gave a deliberately awful yet extremely humorous Haddock impersonation, the CG Snowy would run around in the background, leaping and hopping, trying to get the attention of the cameraman. While Spielberg joked that Jackson’s performance convinced him not to go the live-action route, he was impressed by the Snowy animation and it was clear to him that PJ had a real love of the property, and that he’d be the perfect “partner in crime” to bring Tintin to life.
Jackson and Spielberg then screened a never-before-seen clip from Tintin, known for now as the ‘Snowy chase to the docks’. The clip (around 50% complete at this stage) began with Tintin and Snowy walking home trying to figure out the relevance of a clue, the word ‘Karaboudjan’. A delivery man waits for him at his door. “But I didn’t order anything,” Tintin says as he goes to look at the box. “That’s because it’s you that’s getting delivered!” The man chloroforms our hero and dumps him into the box. The camera swings down to the box to show the word ‘Karaboudjan’ written across it. The swiftness of this encounter, playing out in one shot, and with John Williams’ score (heard here for the first time) swelling over the scene was unmistakably Spielberg in style. The spirit of Raiders of the Lost Ark is definitely in this film.
The scene continued, following Snowy, who is locked inside the flat as the car transporting Tintin pulls away. He jumps out the second-story window onto a passing fire truck. He eventually lands on the car and is knocked off into traffic, cars passing just over his head. While the scene was certainly intense, the tone was kept light with the inclusion of humorous moments, such as Snowy’s detour through a cow paddock that involves the pooch tumbling face-first into a cow’s udders. Snowy eventually makes it into the compound where Tintin has been taken. The scene was fun and vibrant, and while some particular sequences were still in an unfinished pre-viz form, the finished shots exuded a tremendous level of polish, making The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn one of the best looking animated films yet.
The next scene, entitled ‘Sea Plane’, involved Tintin and Captain Haddock trying to fly a plane through a thunderstorm. “You do know what yer doin’, don’t ya Tintin?” asks Haddock. “More or less; I interviewed a pilot once!” he replies. Fans of the books will know that Haddock enjoys a drink or seven, and as Tintin is sitting at the plane’s controls, he notices a bottle sticking out of his bag. As he reaches over for it, Tintin shouts that they’re surgical spirits for medicinal purposes only. Once Tintin’s head is turned however, Haddock immediately opens the bottle up, and a big glob of liquid spills out of it, floating in mid-air. As Haddock leans with his lips pursed, Snowy jumps up and slurps the alcohol floating before him. Agitated, Haddock lets some more go and this time gets the alcohol he so desperately craves. Unfortunately for him, the plane’s engines start to splutter and Tintin decides their only option is for Haddock to climb out onto the front of the plane and pour the surgical spirits into the fuel tank.
After being pressured by Tintin, Haddock proceeds to climb outside, even though he and Snowy have completely finished the bottle, a fact that Tintin only realises when Haddock is on top of the plane. This scene is a clear example of why the decision to make the film using performance capture over live-action was a wise one. The scene balances realism and cartoon wackiness with ease, as Tintin tells Haddock “we’re running on fumes!” at which point Haddock has a moment of inspiration and leans over the fuel tank, letting rip an incredible burp, blasting the engines back into life. You can’t get away with that kind of thing on a live action film, at least not successfully. Here, however, it is funny and charming.
The feeling I came away with after viewing these scenes was relief. Personally, I had been slightly worried by the way the teaser and first trailer for the film seemed to shy away from showing facial animations and characters talking. That fear was completely put to rest within seconds of the footage starting up. The facial capture was created with the same technology as Avatar, and this film has that same level of detail and quality; top-notch, in other words. After this we were shown the sizzle-reel of footage shown at Comic-Con, and were shuffled off down the road to the next part of our visit: The Motion-Capture stage.
The MoCap stage consists of a large warehouse with infrared sensors all over the ceiling, and wireframe shapes (such as tables and doorframes) in place of sets and props. For the purposes of a demonstration, two performers in bodysuits covered in markers for the sensors were on standby to show us how it all worked. The gist of it is that Tintin isn’t filmed with a camera in the usual way that a film is made. Basically, the infrared sensors turn this warehouse into a 3D volume that records anything with markers on it. Screens on the side of the stage show an early pre-viz version of what the scene will (sort of) look like. While we see two men in bodysuits standing on wireframes in the real world, on the screens they are picked up as Tintin and Haddock standing inside Tintin’s flat. Opening the doorframe and stepping through it is represented on screen as Tintin and Haddock walking outside onto a Belgian street.
The most impressive and mind-blowing aspect of making a film in this way, is that there doesn’t even need to be a camera on set to record these scenes (though Jackson prefers to have one). The 3D volume in its entirety is captured as digital information, and the shots can be created at a much later date simply by walking around in the volume with a marker that represents the position of your camera.
Think of it like recording a match in Halo 3; you capture all of the information then edit the angles later on. Recording a film like this even allows Spielberg to capture his own shots from the United States (he admitted to having never actually been to the Southern Hemisphere in his life), which goes to show how revolutionary this technology is. While I’d seen this process before on behind-the-scenes DVD documentaries, seeing it in practice is another story altogether. You really get an idea of how it all works when Peter Jackson and his Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri are right there, explaining it, step by step.
From here, Letteri took us over to Weta Digital where we got to see the different versions of characters that the digital artists created in order to find the right look for each one. Captain Haddock in particular went through many models before the team settled on the right one. It was fascinating to see all the stages a digital character goes through before ending up on the final version. Things such as facial hair placement and skin texture are heavily scrutinised in order to get every detail perfect. Gino Acevedo, who brings his expertise in make-up to the digital team was also there to tell us about how he achieved Haddock’s blotchy-looking skin (he used his father-in-law as a reference).
After this presentation, we were whisked over to Park Road again for an earful of sound mixing and Foley work. Because the film was shot entirely on stages and in virtual environments, every sound effect has been recorded from scratch. We were taken to a fairly small room with dirt and props lying around, and a bathtub up against the wall. This is where all of the sound effects, from walking on the ground, to getting out of a chair, are recorded. This was the room that was used to record the sounds for King Kong, which is incredible considering how small and tucked-away it is. We then moved into the sound mixing and editing studio, where we were shown just how much more alive a film becomes with Foley work added into it. The team that create and edit these sounds truly are brilliant.
Our last bit of behind-the-scenes insight on the film came from Richard Taylor and Chris Guise at the Weta Workshop. Here the guys took us through a great number of artworks they created to give Jackson and Spielberg an idea of how it would look to see realistic direct-translations of panels and covers from the Tintin comics. The level of detail was stunning, and it is great to know that the thousands of images created by the team will see the light of day in the eventual The Adventures of Tintin artbook.
The last stop of our journey was over at the Weta Cave gift shop and museum (a.k.a. Geek Heaven) to check out all of the amazing merchandise, props and artwork created by the Weta Workshop. As a long-time fan of Jackson and Weta, I was delighted to see and get my hands on such cool stuff as a life-style Uruk-hai warrior, replica District 9 rifles, and the deformed baby from Braindead. It was the perfect way to end a whirlwind tour of all the Weta offices.