Just how uncanny is that valley?
Steven Spielberg unleashed the full trailer for his upcoming motion-capture epic “The Adventures of Tintin” yesterday, and it’s brilliant. Or awful.
It depends on who you ask.
I’ve rarely seen such a polarizing reaction to movie trailer (embedded below). “Tintin,” based on the beloved (though not so much in the U.S.) series of comic books by Belgian artist Hergé, is about a globetrotting young reporter (never mind that he never seems to get around to filing a story) with a knack for getting into trouble. As he races from peril to peril in the mid-century, pre-war setting, he’s accompanied by the hard-drinking, “hard”-swearing Captain Haddock — whose blue streak is amusingly bowdlerized with nautical techno-babble like “billions of blistering barnacles” — his faithful dog Snowy, and an assortment of pistols, seaplanes, chloroform, fast cars, explosions and other stock of a bygone day’s pulp adventures.
The upcoming movie, directed by Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson, is produced using motion capture technology, of the kind used to create Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies and the Na’vi in “Avatar,” but in an animated style more similar to the recent films of Robert Zemeckis (“A Christmas Carol,” “The Polar Express”). And it’s the motion capture that appears to be the sticking point.
Motion capture animation, which strives to look more realistic than traditional cartoons, famously can run afoul of the “Uncanny Valley” — in which a simulation of a human looks almost, but not quite, realistic. Our minds can accept more abstracted animation, but when a rendering falls into that uncanny valley it just looks creepy. The first “Tintin” trailer, a teaser, largely dodged questions of the Uncanny Valley by sticking to fast action shots and not showing any actual conversations where it might become evident if the “Tintin” animation would fall into the Valley or not. And given the critical panning of many of Zemeckis’ motion capture films, this got Tintin fans nervous.
The new trailer slows down a little bit, showing us some dialogue amidst the action — and it only seems to have solidified peoples’ initial reactions.
“If you were one of the legions of Tintin fans appalled by the teaser trailer for Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, don’t worry: it gets worse,” wrote the National Post. “A full-length trailer for Spielberg’s first feature-length directorial effort since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (sorry for the reminder) hit the web this morning, and our beloved Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock are still as creepy as ever. The director incorporated CG, motion capture and 3-D in the film, resulting in an aesthetic that uncomfortably straddles CG animation and live action.”
“The motion-capture bugaboo that has bedeviled so many painted faces short of “Avatar” appears to have been defeated by Steven Spielberg,” Michael Cavna wrote for the Washington Post. “… judging strictly by this two-minute-plus peek, the secret’s out: Hergé’s globetrotting boy has reassuringly lively eyes.”
“I LOVE this new trailer,” wrote Drew McWeeny for HitFix. ”This is the Tintin I read when I was growing up, and the exaggerated nature of the action is something that would have been almost impossible to make work in live-action, especially if making a film for younger audiences as well as older. By pushing everything one degree past cartoony, there’s a kick to the action, and the characters here look exactly like the characters that have delighted audiences around the world for so long now.”
Delving into the comments below some of those stories, you run into more of the same. “Ugh, it looks terrible! More dead-fish expressions and awkward flailing mocap animation” or “Huh. This looks pretty cool.” (The anti-motion capture crowd seems a lot more vocal in the comments, but that’s no surprise — online commenters aren’t exactly renowned for their measured, even-handed approach to controversy.)
It’s quite clear that some people have real problems with motion capture. This is to be expected — it’s a new technology, and the examples so far seem not to have nailed it. (Though I have not seen any of the “Polar Express”-style motion capture cartoons.) The past failures of the technology/art don’t necessarily imply that future entries will be subpar, but the reaction to the “Tintin” trailer shows that hating motion capture is definitely a “thing.”
Myself? I enjoyed the trailer, though I can’t say I’ve seen QUITE enough to officially absolve “Tintin” of the Uncanny Valley. It’s always hard to judge a movie by the quick-cut action of a trailer, but “Tintin” looked like a load of fun. I doubt the animation style will make or break the film for me, anyway. The key is likely to be the writing and performances, and I’m hopeful there. “Tintin” is co-written by Steven Moffat, who’s done dazzling work writing for “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock,” by Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz”) and Paul Cornish (the upcoming “Attack the Block”) — all three highly regarded. The cast, too, is top-notch, with Daniel Craig, motion capture specialist Andy “Gollum” Serkis, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the bumbling detective duo Thompson and Thomson.
Plus, the trailer had a great bit of dialogue for a reporter like me.
“You do know what you’re doing, eh?” a worried Haddock asks as Tintin hops into the cockpit of a seaplane.
“Relax,” Tintin assures him. “I interviewed a pilot once.”
Little secret for the kiddos: that’s exactly how journalism works.
Here’s the trailer, judge for yourself: