Reviews, Views and Adventures in Content Creation

Monday, December 12, 2011

Are We Expecting Too Much? Motion Capture and the “The Adventures of TinTin”

I recently had the opportunity to see The Adventures ofTinTin, the Steven Spielberg  3D motion capture film based on Hergé’s iconic European comic books of the mid-20th Century (here's the main TinTin Site).   The film is visually spectacular - a real showcase for state-of-art-graphics technology.   Whereas Hugo combines live actors and CGI technology, TinTin is entirely a computer graphics creation.

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Simply put, The Adventures of TinTin is the story of a boy/young man detective (his age is unspecified) and his trusty canine sidekick, Snowy on an international  adventure in search of a lost pirate's treasure.  It's a comic book come to life as never before - on sea, in the air - and on land - including some truly wild stunts that would have been almost unthinkable in a conventional film. 

Working with Peter Jacksons WETA Digital, which provided animation and special effects, Spielberg doesn't attempt to create photorealistic human actors.  The motion picture version of the TinTin character is a representation of the comic book version (early in the film, a street artist creates a caricature of the reimagined TinTin that brings the two interpretations together).  Like most cartoons, foreheads might be large, noses might be big - proportions aren't quite "right."  This isnt a cartoon, though.  This occupies a special territory somewhere between real and imagined. 

As I watched TinTin, I found myself wondering how much more of an experience this film would have been with live actors.   Though the motion capture technology used here really allows for an effective "performance," I felt a curious emotional detachment from the characters and experiences on screen.

Is such a comparison fair?  After all, TinTin is clearly a comic book character.  This is "The Adventures of TinTin," not the coming of age of TinTin.  As an adventure, it's succeeds probably beyond any previous comic book adaption.  Even in this success, though, there's a unsettling awareness that something's missing.

The advancing nature of the technology, in my opinion, is creating a subtle expectation of humanity.  With the creation of characters like TinTin, with his full range of emotions and human-like movement, we're beginning to instinctually expect these creatures to be more human, with all of the imperfections and inconsistencies that entails.   Though TinTin's performance is motion captured (from actor Jamie Bell), even the most sensitive motion capture can't recreate the distinctive human texture that makes a live performance wholly unique.  As biological creatures, humans are never perfect.  Even so-called beautiful people simply inhabit imperfections that happen to be considered attractive.  Humans are not symetrical.  We arent believeable, were simply the real thing.  TinTin is engaging, but he cant quite generate empathy, even in him most harrowing moments.

I highly recommend seeing both The Adventures of TinTin and Martin Scorceses Hugo back-to-back to gain a real perspectives on both the wonder and (current) limitations of CGI and motion capture technology.  Both are cinematic masterpieces and enjoy the most effective 3D yet.   Compare the performance of Asa Butterfield as Hugo and the motion-capture interpretation of Jamie Bell's performance as TinTin.

Let me know what you think. 


  1. I was under the impression that even the actors in Hugo were somewhat CGI'd. Not so?

  2. Nope - all the actors are human - TinTin is fully digital, however.