My cinematographer friend Scott Ward (hire him — he’s excellent!) likes to stress the importance of getting The Look right. Once you have decided on The Look of your film, your job gets easier, or at least possible, because you have a Plan to guide you through the multiverse of creative decisions awaiting you. One of the reasons Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies is so useful is he clarifies and expands on this with examples from his own career, and he shows that The Look is not a static thing imposed flatly over the script, but a dynamic, evolving process. A simple example would be his film THE HILL, which starts on a wide-angle lens, progresses to a very wide-angle lens, and finishes on a very very wide-angle lens. The distortion and confrontational quality created by the actors thrusting their faces out of the screen is progressively amped up. Likewise/contrariwise, TWELVE ANGRY MEN starts wide-ish and moves slowly to longer and longer lenses, flattening perspective so the walls press with the claustrophobia of a Fu Manchu death-trap as the film goes on.
So big, global decisions about The Look are helpful — Lumet would never have to worry about what lens to use after making that call — but they’re also important. It’s very hard, possibly impossible, for a film to recover after going with the wrong Look. Which brings us to THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN (or TAOTTSOTU).
It was obvious to me from the first screen-grabs posted, and progressively more obvious with each trailer released, that the Look of this film was rotten. This is to some extent a subjective opinion, but I’ve noted that those defending the visuals tend to say things like “What’s wrong with making it look like the comic strip?” So I win, because the film doesn’t look anything like the comic strip, as Spielberg is good enough to make clear by opening with a beautifully graphic title sequence which DOES look like the comic strip. It’s so stylised and simple that everyone involved probably thought “There’s no way we could make the whole film look like this.” And yet, as Scott says, “You get rewarded for bravery, always.” If Spielberg and Peter Jackson and WETA had gone with an actual Hergé visual surface, 2D in 3D, it would have been gorgeous, just as the titles are (for another suave Spielberg credits sequence, see CATCH ME IF YOU CAN).
Instead we get these grotesque, over-textured walking waxworks, blinding us with microscopic detail just because they can, brought to us by the horror of mo-cap. Now, the mo-cap characters in LORD OF THE RINGS or RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES need to have pores and individual hairs and so on, because they’re interacting with flesh-and-blood actors and have to match. But if you’re creating your own world entirely in the computer, the most boring, cowardly choice is to make it look exactly like the world outside your window. Plus these porous, shambling, dead-eyed fleshwads are disgusting to the eye, as any cartoon character would be if he sprang from the page and shrugged on a suit of protoplasm.
Mo-cap at its worst (ie Zemeckis) combines all the limitations of live-action (the bodies are constrained by anatomy & physics) with the limitations of animation (the micro-body language and facial language can never be as subtle and expressive as a real person) — whereas in the right hands, it could combine the best of both. But this would require the involvement of talented animators to manipulate the mo-cap info, bringing in cartoon exaggeration as required. Up until the big action set-pieces, TINTIN suffers from horrible animation: when characters fall over, they abruptly transform from weighty, clodhopping corpuses to inertia-less balloon animals, floating to the ground at a constant speed, obeying the laws of neither actual gravity nor its Loony Toon equivalent.
Happily, in the big action set-pieces, actual animation of reasonable quality dominates, and the film starts to work. As always with Spielberg, the visual gags are ingenious and clearly presented, and the form allows him to get away with all sorts of business that would be too silly in an INDIANA JONES (and which indeed were too silly in the last INDIANA JONES). The wild chase through a fictional North African city actually suggests a valid use for mo-cap, and calls to mind the motorbike-and-sidecar antics of Wallace and Gromit and THE ARISTOCATS, as well as 1941 and Spielberg’s admiration for the hairy chases in Miyazaki’s CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO.
Of course, Miyazaki’s master criminal is a much more colourful character than Hergé’s, and TINTIN suffers from a bland lead, leaving Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock (with a non-canonical Scots accent) to bring on the fun. The screenwriters (including the Scottish Steven Moffat) seems far more interested in Haddock than in the film’s nominal hero, which is understandable but problematic: Tintin is relegated to the position of bystander in the action climax, which is really an anti-climax coming so soon after the bigger and wilder bike chase. And this is followed by a ten-minute set-up for the next film, surely something the writers should have fought against given Spielberg’s post-SCHINDLER’S tendency to allow his films to drivel on and on through multiple endings.
TOP MO-CAP FACTS
1) Andy Serkis gets a lot of work in motion capture because his body is covered with evenly-spaced moles, making the technicians’ job easier. These moles are removed by CGI on those few occasions when Serkis acts in a non mo-cap role.
2) Robert Zemeckis’s fascination with the mo-cap process is explained by the fact that he experienced his first sexual awakening while gazing upon the animatronic Lincoln at Disneyland. Since then he has contrived to fill his films with marble-eyed, plastic-faced mannequins, and when Michael Douglas and Tom Hanks couldn’t give him what he wanted, he turned to CG.
3) A special feature on Peter Jackson’s KING KONG allows you to “turn off” the mo-cap and see Andy Serkis in a leotard for the whole movie. It also turns Jack Black into a sock puppet. Some scenes actually play better that way.
4) Cheapjack exploiteer Charles Band pioneered an extreme-low budget version of motion capture by smashing some old computer monitors and gluing the spilled pixels onto Brad Dourif. It still looked better than THE POLAR EXPRESS.
BACK TO TINTIN
So the news isn’t all bad. Some of the writing is deft and funny (although I was surprised Tintin had to be told that Marlinspike Hall belonged to the Haddock family, then discovered this fact in the library, then went there and noticed a coat of arms and realized in amazement that (gasp!) Marlinspike Hall belonged to the Haddock family. Exactly the kind of thing that can but shouldn’t happen when you have three writers.
Asides from the ever-mo-cap-ready Mr. Serkis, none of the actors really make an impression through their layers of digital wadding, and the intriguing Daniel Craig is particularly dull as the sinister Sakharine, with a sub-Dick Dastardly reading that’s a stock villain devoid of any individuality. I did realize how well thought-out the character is in graphic terms, though. Consider:
Older-than-adult as contrasted to Tintin’s younger-than.
Where Tintin has a pure white dog, Sakharine has a shit-brown hawk.
There Tintin has a peak of hair on the crown of his head, Sakharine has one on his chin. He’s nitniT, the inverse Tintin.
The film’s Look is very slightly redeemed by nice colour co-ordination, with a frequent recourse to cerulean blue which recalls the strip. The lightness of tone gets John Williams working in a less bombastic mode than usual, which is nice just as a change, and Spielberg creates some beautiful scene changes exploiting the particular nature of the animated image, it fluidity and flexibility, in a way I haven’t seen much of since the terrific overture of Disney’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.
Maybe best of all is the 3D, which isn’t vulgar or needlessly intrusive, allowing itself to barely register at times, but popping out at moments of drama or for little dramatic flourishes — one shot, where a torch beam sweeps into the audience and illuminates a cloud of silvery dust motes, drew appreciative gasps from Fiona and I. Maybe this is just like the Victorian audiences who stared in autistic fascination at the blowing foliage in the background of Lumiere home movies, a novelty which will pass and which has comparatively little to do with cinema’s real power or charm. But it seemed powerful and charming to us.