Recently, I analyzed the latest domestic trailer for Steven Spielberg/Peter Jackson’s upcoming motion-capture 3D epic The Adventures of Tintin and spoke about the problems in the states of needing a shorter title and playing up the Hollywood epic-ness to convince people to see an otherwise unknown, Belgian comic adaptation. Interestingly, while many early reviews for the film are positive, it has also received its first negative backlash. Except this isn’t simple critics who dislike the film. This is hardcore fans of the Hergé original feeling like Spielberg’s adaptation destroys all that the comic strip stood for. Serious stuff.
It’s a little ironic I’m talking so much about Tintin considering I’ve never read the comic and I fall into the crowd of people who had no idea what it was before hearing about this massively expensive neo-Avatar directed by Spielberg and Jackson. As a film, I expect it to be entertaining and successful at the box office, but it’s also one of those films that, for me at least, is really fun to talk about from a production standpoint. This, especially our current discussion, is about a clash between art form and the demands of the industry. It happens a lot in film, but this is one of those exciting examples to delve into a little further.
Check out the original article first because for the most part I’ll simply be expanding on some of the criticisms it features and providing somewhat of a Hollywood view. After all, the article is an English news outlet talking about European upset to a beloved adaptation that is “particularly Hollywoodized Hergé, focusing on action instead of the Belgian’s trademark humour.” On the one hand, I’d like to spread these ideas around and get them more focus, but I’d also like to respond as someone who looks forward to Tintin because it has all the elements of Hollywood cinema that I found entertaining.
When I think of American comic series, be it serials dating back decades like Batman or Superman or Spiderman, or more recent graphic novels like Sin City or Kick-Ass, I usually think of them for story or character as opposed to artistic style. Sin City is an exception here, as highly noir as it is, but I brought it up to use as comparison later. Batman comics use to be printed tricolor, and the style of drawing has changed a lot over the years with the technological improvements. Hence, when I think of making a film about one of these characters, live-action is the way to go. Animated films do well also, of course, but I’m talking about the major releases. Could you imagine The Dark Knight or The Avengers as motion-capture CGI? or better yet, as “cartoon” animated films? These stories work because they are designed to exist within multiple mediums. Batman is a comic character named Bruce Wayne, but he’s also Michael Keaton and Adam West and Christian Bale. He’s an action figure, an awesome painting on my wall, and the authoritative voice of Kevin Conroy. He’s all these things, so when I see him in one artistic medium, be it old or new, I accept it.
Tintin is not this. Tintin is the way its drawn. In fact, the way Tintin is drawn is so distinctive and iconic that the style was given its own name: clear line, or ligne claire. Every adaptation of Tintin to date, from short-run television cartoons to straight-to-television/DVD films, have been animated in this same style, hand drawn. Part of the charm of the comic series was how simple it was: Tintin’s face is just about three dots and a circle for the nose. It almost seems amateurish, like practice coloring for kindergardeners, but it is extremely endearing and…I was going to say lifelike, but that’s not true. In fact, that word is the issue here.
The people interviewed in the article complain that the motion capture lifelifeness of Weta Digital’s work does damage to the simple artistic style of Hergé’s original comics. To start, there is an irony here in that Spielberg has said many times they decided to make the film using motion capture, as oppose to your classic “hand-drawn” animated film or computer animated (as in Pixar), because they felt that style was most true to Hergé. It would seem there are differing opinions in what would be most true and respectful, however.
To the credit of those interviewed, I will say that motion capture is probably not as similar in style as doing it in cartoon animation would have been, but there are several caveats here. To start, would it be possible to please self-labeled “Tintinologists” in the first place? Maybe, if you made a Tintin movie that looks like it came from the 1990s, but this is where you have a marketing issue come up. AL Kennedy, a Tintin fan and critic who is reviewing the film for BBC Two, admits “people get freaked out if people change anything they came into contact with as a kid,” but he also goes on to mention that the film does seem a bit blurry compared to the clean line style of Hergé.
I’ll defend on several fronts. To start, the blurriness can only be improved so much. I don’t know the format the critics saw the film, but the difference in blurriness between a 2D screening versus IMAX 3D (which it was made to be shown in) would be noticeable. Beyond this, film itself has a blurry edge. Even with a film made completely in computers, it was still shot and cut at 24 frames per second (the standard for film) because that’s what most theater projectors are capable of. As a side note, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is currently shooting at 40 fps, and will be an experiment in whether audiences take to the enhanced look. One would think that seeing a film with a higher frame rate, which increases the sharpness and clarity of motion, would make it a better, livelier viewing experience, but you would be surprised that many people (for now) are taken aback by the quality. Increasing frame rate isn’t the same as moving from standard to high definition. Format affects the number of pixels per inch, which increases quality, but frame rate determines the smoothness of motion.
It’s one of the oddities of cinema. The human eye perceives around ten to twelve frames per second individually, so when you’re shown 24 it blurs them together into a fluid motion. If you show too many frames on a device designed for 24 (i.e. modern theater projectors), however, it blurs all together and nothing can be made out. So increasing the frame rate digitally increases the smoothness of motion, but filmmakers must also keep in mind technological limits to what can be projected for us to see clearly. In other words, Tintin will be a little blurry because it was shot that way and projected at 24 frames per second. The Hobbit will look strange if projected at 24 frames despite being shot at 40. If it is projected at 40 it will run smoothly and play realistically without that strangeness. I would imagine that Jackson and Spielberg would be quick to jump on the higher frame rate wagon for sequels (well, Jackson already has, so it’s guaranteed should he direct the second Tintin).
The second response to their objection to the film would be that “hand-drawn” style animation just doesn’t sell. They can complain about Tintin being Hollywoodized but saying as much isn’t a critique. Yes, it is very much a Hollywood film, but that’s because it has to market to profit on its large budget. Cartoonish films don’t do this. Shooting Tintin as motion capture is both an opportunity to bring a beloved childhood classic to the silver screen as well as advance film technology similarly to Avatar. Here’s a comparison: Spielberg was considered to direct the first Harry Potter film. He wanted to do it as an animation, but Warner Bros recognized that the story wouldn’t sell as well this way because it had the potential to market to a wider age range, so they went live action. Tintin wouldn’t sell as well as a cartoon, but Spielberg also recognized that live action wouldn’t work because of the nature of the source material. Enter motion capture.
It’s tricky because it does get to a point where there’s just no pleasing critics. Beyond that, most of the people complaining about The Adventures of Tintin and in some cases comparing it to rape (a bit extreme, perhaps) also recognize that there’s not much stopping this from being a major blockbuster in foreign markets (domestically is another question, which we’ve discussed before). It’s too bad Hergé is unable to see Spielberg’s adaptation considering he personally requested Spielberg to bring his creations “to life,” from page to screen. Tintinologists may be disappointed with what they see, but I think that technologically, logistically, and entertainment-wise most people will be quite satisfied with their ticket price. After all, we’ve argued over adaptations before and reached the conclusion that the point of adapting between mediums isn’t to copy and paste but to re-imagine within the limits of one artistic medium to another. That’s what Tintin does, whether you like the end result or not.
The Adventures of Tintin opens in regular, 3D, and IMAX 3D theaters 21 December 2011.