Tintin's Virtual Art
Barbara Robertson
January 5, 2012

Tintin's Virtual Art

You could say that Avatar set the stage for The Adventures of Tintin. The animated feature, directed by Steven Spielberg, features digital comic-book characters acting with the help of performances captured from actors using a process similar to one James Cameron developed for Avatar.
Similarly, to help set the stage for the production and help Spielberg visualize the 3D world in which Tintin would act, virtual art department supervisor Robert Powers, now vice president of 3D development at NewTek, assembled a virtual art department, much as he had done for Avatar. (For an in-depth look at the digital magic used to create the characters and environments in Tintin, see “Animation Evolution” in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of CGW.)

IMAGE: (c) 2011 Paramount Pictures.

What is a virtual art department?
We are the interface between the art department and production. We take the concept art paintings and translate them into 360-degree worlds. Our challenge is to take a single point of view from a concept painting and create that same impression in a 360-degree world. We set up what Steven [Spielberg] wanted to do on the sets, working from concept art paintings from Weta. Did you work virtually? I had a team of 15 people in LA—a group of artists, me, and a coordinator. We had assignments from Weta because they were in charge of quite a bit of the production, and I went down to New Zealand to help Weta get up to speed on virtual art. I was on the film for eight months.

So, you built virtual sets?
Yes. We didn’t build every environment in the film; we had a certain portion, and Weta Digital had a portion. We divided the work. 

Why did you create these sets? 
The director could use these virtual sets to do location scouting and make changes. And, the practical elements used on the stage—the airplanes, desks, doors, chairs, the aerial rigs the actors would use, and so forth—had to correlate with the digital assets to track properly. The technical part of the process was thinking about what the director would need in the moment on set and making sure the sets were as flexible as possible. We made sure everything was modular. 

Were these virtual sets used during shooting?
Steven [Spielberg] could see CG characters performed by actors on stage in the CG environment, whether he looked through a camera’s eyepiece or used a virtual camera on a tablet. They also had screens around the stage. What he saw was like an amped-up video game, a version of the set we created based on concept art that included lighting and atmospherics. 

How did the process work?
We used [NewTek’s] LightWave for asset creation and for baking in textures, and delivered the digital assets to Weta in the form of FBX files. Weta imported the FBX files into their Autodesk Maya-based pipeline and their digital asset system. Weta then delivered FBX files to Giant Studios as needed to use in Autodesk’s MotionBuilder. Giant facilitated all the motion-capture streaming and delivered that data to Weta in a form they could use. Glenn Derry did the camera setup and tied in the virtual environments with Giant.

How does the virtual art production process—and the result—differ from previs?
Previs is most often used to solve a problem. It brings things down to a basic level to put concepts in place and work out issues with equipment. Production typically uses previs only for certain segments they’re concerned about. 

Virtual production involves the whole film. These films are hybrids between animated movies and live-action movies. Every shot in Tintin has a virtual environment. So, in virtual production, we take all the elements to a level that maintains continuity with the art department and brings the elements into production. We put a lot of importance on lighting, texturing, and atmospherics so Steven could explore the design at an early stage in 3D with the art department. Then, when he’s on set with the actors, he doesn’t work in a void. He can see the environments with the actors’ performances driving the CG characters with the lighting and any key effects. The virtual production helps re-ignite the discovery process. He might block something differently than he would otherwise. Or, use the [virtual] light coming through a window. 

Do you think people understand the difference between virtual art production and previs?
I’ve spent the last three or four years since Avatar talking about this, but I think the vast majority of professionals still don’t fully grasp what virtual art production is. They don’t understand the full potential. They don’t understand the subtleties. This whole industry is set up for doing post work. There’s no category even in the awards for virtual production.