With the new sneak-peek images from the eagerly anticipated "Tintin" film, are Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson about to further narrow the gap between live-action performance and animation, if not help literally render the difference irrelevant in some styles?
Spielberg and Jackson have just released to Empire Online an early look at 2011's "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn," based on the Belgian creator Hergé's legendary comic about the titular young reporter (and his trusty fox terrier, Snowy). And the movie art reveals the effect of the men's two-part process: Spielberg shot the live-action footage, "capturing" the performances of such actors as star Jamie Bell (Tintin), as well as Andy Serkis (portraying Captain Haddock), who's a veteran of seeing his appearance digitally re-rendered -- he of course was Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" films, a role he will reprise in Jackson's "Hobbit" pictures.
For his part in "Tintin," Jackson -- working with WETA -- will "animate" Spielberg's live-action shots into CGI footage. And the cinematic effect, based on the new images, lies somewhere on that sizable "performance capture" continuum between James Cameron's blue-hued "Avatar" and Robert Zemeckis's "Polar Express" -- and appearing to offer more of a "cartoon" look than Zemeckis's "A Christmas Carol."
Hollywood may too seldom be in the hands of auteurs these days, but much of the industry certainly is in the hands of another type of artist -- pioneers who know their way around a render farm. And thanks to performance capture, many of them gleefully continue to blur the line between live-action and CGI ever more.
Performance capture naturally solves the creepy "dead eye" bugaboo that helped derail "Polar Express," and also helps filmmakers reflect natural facial motions -- an art so complex in its elusive nuance, not even the supreme Pixar has quite been able to fully master such action solely through CGI.
But the question with "Tintin" becomes: Is lifelike CGI really the way we want to see Hergé's artistically sublime adventures?
To address that, first we raise another question: Do you prefer to see most of your favorite non-superhero cartoons as cartoons, or do you ultimately like them more when transferred to at least partial live-action?
On Sunday night, AMC debuted Frank Darabont's "The Walking Dead" to much acclaim -- yet as undeniably stylish as the show is, Comic Riffs remains partial to the look of Robert Kirkman's graphic novel. (Heck, we even preferred the animation to the live-action show.) And as enticing as it is to see Helen Mirren play shoot-'em-up in "Red," we still prefer Warren Ellis's work on the illustrated page.
As comics lovers, of course, we are upfront with our artistic biases: The originally Looney Tunes cartoons are still superior to the CGI'd Bugs and Daffy in "Space Jam"; we'll take an animated Garfield over the dreadful CGI-kitty feature films voiced by Bill Murray; and this year's "Marmaduke" -- well, don't get us started.
Yet we also aren't snooty purists, though, opposed to all such cross-over attempts on their (pixelated) face. Zemeckis's '80s blend of toonage and live-action in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" remains a hallmark; Michael Fry helped his "Over the Hedge" make a highly satisfying leap from comics page to big screen; and we have high hopes for the announced live-action project for Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman's "Zits."
And the successful graphic-novel adaptations to stylish live-action -- including the top-notch "Road to Perdition" and "Sin City" -- have grown so numerous that we don't blink anymore -- we simply try first to appreciate the works in their various forms.
Which is what we're prepared to do with "Tintin," but with a hefty caveat: In adapting Herge's visually beguiling work to some point on the "performance capture" continuum, Spielberg and Jackson are tasked with maintaining something magical. (A challenge far greater than even the "Schindler's List" director wrestling with controversy that the comic contains anti-Semitic themes.)
Can the continually evolving hybrid of animation and live-action do justice to Tintin, let alone push the envelope of performance capture? For Peter Jackson especially, for the next year or so, that will remain an enormous part of the adventure.