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On The Performance Capture Stage
It took two intensive years of research, development, design, pre-production, screenwriting and casting, but at last the time came for the actors, filmmakers and over 200 crew to converge at the performance capture soundstages of Playa Vista, CA-based Giant Studios --- and enter the world of Herge. Here is where the major alchemy would take place, as the soulful, emotional performances of Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig and the entire cast were recorded in the moment, and transmogrified into faithful renderings of Herge's ink-and-watercolor stories.

Once on the stage, Spielberg was constantly innovating, matching the performance capture technology to his storytelling instincts, and encouraging his team to think up novel solutions to the most vexing visual problems. He and Jackson ended up driving a mini-revolution in the field with a revolutionary system - dubbed the virtual camera -- that would allow the director a more traditional relationship with the actors and in-the-moment command of the film, all while "seeing" an animated 3D world.

"I didn't want to divest myself of those instinctive moments that occur on traditional sets, so we came up with a new way to make it more seamless," says Spielberg.

Entirely unlike a traditional soundstage set, the performance capture process unfolds on what's called a Volume—a clean, white-and-grey stage featuring up to 100 cameras mounted in a grid on the ceiling, able to capture 360-degree coverage and render that data into three-dimensional space. On the Volume, all the actors (and also the wire-framed props and set dressings) wear reflective dots that are picked up by the camera in less than a 60th of a second, and interpreted into a 3D virtual moving picture.

In addition, another eight HD video cameras captured the raw performances as they unfolded. This was later used as reference for the animators to make sure every grimace, smile, shiver and nuance of emotion, from fear to friendship, came through as the actors' performances were morphed into digital creations.

Operating the virtual camera using a device slightly larger than a video game controller with a monitor attached, Spielberg was able to walk through the Volume, watch the actors' avatars interacting within the film's universe on the virtual camera's monitor, and compose the shots he wanted in real time. The actors, too, could see themselves in the movie's world on monitors positioned throughout the studio, allowing them instant feedback.

"The ability to see the playback in real time was so important to both director and actors," says Joe Letteri. "We worked with Giant Studios very closely to develop that, and that collaboration was very successful because they've understood everything has to be as realistic as possible in the moment."

While the virtual camera could only offer the lower-res picture quality of a video game, it was more than enough to ignite Spielberg's creativity and the new technique clicked immediately for him, allowing the director to paint with light and image in a way he never had before.

In addition, an earlier Weta breakthrough - the process known as "image-based facial performance capture," used to forge the compelling emotional realism of the Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and to create the otherworldly Pandorans in James Cameron's Avatar - was commandeered by Spielberg to add to the rich characterizations of The Adventures of Tintin.

When using this system, the actors wear a football-type helmet rigged with a tiny camera aimed directly at their faces - allowing a digital recording of the slightest, expressive movements of their eyes, lips and facial muscles. For Spielberg this put the emphasis exactly where he wanted it: on the power of emotionally true performances.

"Every single human being represented in Tintin is an actor giving a full performance -- an emotional performance, a villainous performance - and that all shines through the digital makeup," the director comments. "We watched Herge's characters be reborn as living beings, expressing feelings and displaying souls, and the effect was startling."

The actor with the most performance capture experience of anyone in the world, Andy Serkis, became the group leader, helping the other actors acclimate. For all his experience with the medium, Serkis was inspired by the transformation he saw in Spielberg and Jackson as they worked together.

"It was amazing to see them both really bouncing off each other creatively," he says. "They're both so passionate about filmmaking, and it sometimes seemed like this was the first film they'd ever made—they had that kind of energy. They were coming up with ideas at such a quick rate, it was dizzying."

The time-consuming process was also new to many of the actors. Each morning prior to shooting, the actors would go through two "range of motion" scans, one for the face and one for the body. Once these scans were completed, the cameras could identify the actors in the Volume and translate their actions into a moving skeleton, so they could then be layered over with character "makeup" in post-production.

For Jamie Bell, the Volume felt more like a minimalist theater than a movie set, but that aspect, he says, actually enhanced the work. "It's an interesting way to work, because the movie set is in your head," Bell explains. "We were focused on giving these characters life and making them breathe. Then, in this 3D animated world they've created, we could see all of our heart and soul and anger coming through. It was remarkable."

Bell had to act in scenes with a wire frame Snowy, a stuffed Snowy for "stunts," and an articulated Snowy on wheels --- all operated by property master Brad Elliott who also brought with him years of experience in puppetry at Jim Henson's company that he turned into a performance. "It made sense for the actors to have something to interact with," Elliot explains, "and because Snowy is such a big part of this movie, it was a real privilege for me to do Snowy."

Throughout, Spielberg cultivated an atmosphere where anything could happen on the performance capture stage. The entire cast was often all be in the Volume, performing stunts, acting on custom-made gimbals to represent planes, cars or ships, and, with Spielberg and Jackson's encouragement, improvising.

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