How Tintin got real

Publicity stills from  from <i>The Adventures of Tintin</i>.
Publicity stills from from <i>The Adventures of Tintin</i>.

The boy reporter's journey from cartoon panel to big screen is complete. Adam Dudding goes behind the scenes at Weta Workshop to find out how they did it. 

The moment when Chris Guise learnt how Belgians get dog poo off their shoes was a thrilling one.

Guise, an artist with Wellington's Weta Workshop, was in Antwerp on a fact-finding tour for Steven Spielberg's new Tintin movie, filling his camera and brain with the streets and flea markets and docks and castles that populated Herge's cartoon tales of the indomitable spiky-haired boy reporter.


"I saw these little metal plates in doors, at the bottom," says Guise. "And I thought, 'What the hell is this?"'

A Belgian colleague explained: "That's for scraping dog poop off your shoes." Aha! It was precisely the kind of detail Guise had come to discover. He made a note, took a photo and kept moving.

Guise's seven-day European adventure was just one symptom of the mania that gripped hundreds of artists, animators, designers and computer operators for years as they created the motion-capture blockbuster, which is released later this month in Europe and will reach New Zealand and American cinemas around Christmas.


As Herge's crisp line drawings were painstakingly translated into a quasi-real universe, the experts obsessed over the movement of eyebrows and water, over the authenticity of plus-fours and sailing ships, over the colour of clouds and noses and curtains.

Now Guise has gone and written a big, generous, picture-filled book tracing Weta Workshop's relatively small – yet fascinating – role in that journey of obsession, as well as the subsequent heavy lifting done by the Workshop's more populous cousin, Weta Digital.

Guise was Weta Workshop's "lead conceptual designer" for the Tintin project, heading a team of up to eight artists from 2006 on as they created 2500 conceptual "paintings" to explore what would happen as Herge's drawings became more three-dimensional and "real".

A Herge original.
A Herge original.

Weta Digital took the baton from Workshop for all the later steps, building on the kind of work done for computer-heavy blockbusters such as King Kong and Avatar.

First Digital's "previs" (previsualisation) team mapped out the film's complex action sequences in relatively crude 3D animations which let Spielberg block out movements and camera angles. Next, real actors – notably Jamie Bell as Tintin and Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock – played out their roles in a "mocap" (motion capture) studio in Los Angeles while wearing bodysuits covered in dots. Finally the actors' facial and bodily actions were translated – via phenomenal computer processing power and teams of tweaking computer artists at Weta Digital – into the finished movie, complete with a purely computer-generated dog called Snowy.

On Wednesday, Chris Guise showed me around Weta Workshop in the Wellington suburb of Miramar – or rather, he showed me around the reception area, boardroom and meeting room. Everywhere else is off-limits due to industry paranoia and confidentiality clauses (it's not just about Tintin – the Workshop is also working on The Hobbit and other projects).

<i>The Art of The Adventures of Tintin</i>, by Chris Guise, HarperCollins, $60.
<i>The Art of The Adventures of Tintin</i>, by Chris Guise, HarperCollins, $60.

There's still a bit to see. The boardroom is lined with glass cabinets stuffed with hundreds of Lord of the Rings models; there's a full-size Middle Earth suit of armour in the corner; and on the table there's a bronze head of Snowy chewing a bone.

Out in reception there's a bronze dragon and a minotaur, and a full-colour tableau of a Christopher Reeves-era Superman, half-dead in a scene from the 1978 movie. It's like a cooler version of Steve Carell's house in The 40 Year Old Virgin.

Guise, 38, is a winningly enthusiastic, self-described film geek who, before joining the Workshop 15 years ago, had worked at Kmart, presented on local radio and drawn caricatures in shopping malls. He says inside the Workshop's top-secret workspaces there's much more movie art and craft, including an alien's head from Predator and a full-size Terminator, all intended to inspire the Workshop's 150-odd staff.

What Guise can show me, though, is a sheaf of the Tintin paintings that his team produced, many of which are reproduced in his book. (Trivia freaks note: Weta Workshop's internal code name for the Tintin project, was "Tidy Lunchbox". No one seems to know why.)

Anyway, the paintings are fabulous – especially if, like me, you've been fond of Tintin since you were five and get a kick from seeing the familiar drawings turned into painterly confections complete with rich sunsets and moody lighting. They resemble fine art but in fact the images were created almost entirely on computers using Photoshop and electronic tablet and stylus.

Weta co-founder Richard Taylor says the conceptual designers are required to come in on Monday morning and "turn it on like a tap – sit down at your desk and conceptualise something new, something unique... that will surprise and delight in a design world that is very, very dense with other ideas".

So the results are ephemeral – sketches produced in a couple of days or even a few hours, to capture a passing idea that will be shared at the next creative meeting. While every Tintin image was then considered and some were picked up by Spielberg and developed by the Digital team, many others weren't. It's been two years since Guise's team did these paintings and he still doesn't know exactly which ideas made it through to the end.

"That's the funny thing about the film industry," says Guise. "You can work on something for a very long time and nobody sees any of the things that come out of that." Part of the motivation for the book was to nail down some of that work before it slipped away.

This is Guise's first book, and he wanted to avoid the failings of other "art-of" books he's read.

"So many times they start out with a picture that looks very close to the final image in the film, then show the final image and say `that's how it happened'." He wanted to show more steps and more of the dead-ends.

The early paintings by his team had several functions. Some were simple reworkings of Herge frames – experiments in mood and lighting. Others were experimental renditions of an environment such as Tintin's apartment, adding the kind of clutter and detail missing from Herge's minimalistic frames. In others still, a conceptual artist would sketch an action sequence or sight gag, in the hope that director Spielberg (or producer Peter Jackson) would work it into the final shooting script.

The paintings are masterpieces of cobbling: a composition from a Herge frame, a water ripple snapped with a digital camera down at a local beach, an eye from the artist's own face, photographed and pasted into a drawing.

Guise also shows the beautiful stuff subsequently done by Weta Digital and gives credit "to those guys as artists because they have a fine skill in art, from the person working on Snowy's fur through to the person working on clouds".

Whether you're a fan of hyper-real animation or not, it's hard not to be impressed at the sheer doggedness of the entire process.

The film is based on the plots of three Tintin books – The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure – but Herge created an entire world, says Guise, so the filmmakers used them all, taking a face in a crowd from one, a car from another, a blue tin jug or a wooden artefact from a third.

"Every time we heard there was going to be an extra included in a scene, we'd go back to the books and try to find that extra somewhere in a book."

Even Herge's colour palette has been exhaustively analysed. "A very distinctive thing that Herge did was the green of the sea," says Guise. So the sea is green in the movie too, albeit overlaid with digitally rendered shadows and highlight.

Great care had to be taken, too, with body shapes. Herge drew characters with distinctively skinny legs, big heads and chunky, short bodies. Those dimensions have been preserved in the movie and it took ages to get it right.

When Guise first discovered that dogshit scraper in Antwerp, his excitement was tempered with some distress. He had already finished his street scenes in New Zealand before travelling and he knew it was too late to get back into the files to improve them with all he had learnt.

But it turned out OK in the end. He handed his photo – plus the ones of cobbles and trees and gravel and dirt and whatnot – to the Weta Digital team for consideration, and he's heard the snaps were "quite useful". And when he finally gets to see the movie – in a crew screening some time in November – he'll be looking pretty carefully at the bottom of the front doors to see if they got them right.

The Art of The Adventures of Tintin, by Chris Guise (HarperCollins, $60). In bookstores or from

Chris will be signing copies of his book at the Auckland Weta Cave in SkyCity Sunday 16 October, 11am-1pm.

Sunday Star Times