The release of "The Adventures of Tintin" trailer this week revealed the look of director Steven Spielberg's long-gestating adaptation of the popular European comic series. The story of an intrepid young reporter on a hunt for a ship's treasure inspired by the work of Belgian artist Hergé, "Tintin" was shot in a shadowy film noir style using the same performance capture technology that James Cameron deployed on "Avatar."
The trailer's scenes of photo-real characters adventuring in an animated world raise anew a question that has bedeviled the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in recent years -- how to treat films that use performance capture, or motion capture as the technique is also called. Relying on both actors and animators to tell its story, "Tintin" is one of a growing category of movies that don't fit neatly in either the animation category or live action.
"You’ll never be able to define an animated film by how it looks, cause we’re using the same artists, the same software, the same computers to do very cartooney stuff and very photo-real stuff," said Bill Kroyer, a governor of the academy's short films and animation branch. "Where are you going to draw the line? You can see how this is going to become an increasing problem. From our standpoint, it's about preserving a specific art form."
With star power like Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson behind it, "Tintin" looks likely to garner awards season attention, and if it does, Spielberg would like it to be in the animated category, according to a spokeswoman at Paramount Pictures.
"In a year filled with sequels, ['Tintin'] should stand out for its originality," said Bill Desowitz, senior editor of the Animation World Network, an animation publishing group. "The Hergé comics, while unknown to most Americans, offer a sense of grand adventure and nostalgia. Meanwhile, the colorful, hyper-real look of the animation, with its exotic locations, should help bolster the appeal."
AMPAS amended its rules in 2010 to address motion capture. In addition to "Avatar," the technique has been used on films including "Polar Express," "Happy Feet" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. To make these films, actors wear a body suit with markers, and cameras record their movements. Then visual effects artists and animators add to the actor's performance.
"Motion capture by itself is not an animation technique," the academy rules stipulate. "In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75% of the picture’s running time."
"Tintin" relies on motion capture performances for most of its major characters, including Tintin, played by Jamie Bell, a pirate (Daniel Craig) and a pair of bumbling detectives (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). But animators are working with those performances -- Pegg and Frost, for instance, who are physical opposites in real life, play twins.
"If it was intended to simply be a copy of a live actor’s work, then we would not consider it animation," Kroyer said. "At the moment, we have not determined a way to make that decision. It lies with the intention of the director."
In the case of "Avatar," Cameron chose to campaign his film, which relied on such actors as Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington and on animators at Weta Digital to create its tall, blue characters, as live action.
By calling "Tintin" animated, Spielberg, who will also have the live action film "War Horse" in awards contention this year, is stepping into an industry debate about the motion capture technique.
In 2006, the motion capture movie "Happy Feet" won the animated feature Oscar, inspiring a backlash against the technique among animators who consider it either disempowering or cheating. The credits of the Pixar movie "Ratatouille," released the following year, included the prickly disclaimer: "Our Quality Assurance Guarantee: 100% Genuine Animation! No motion capture or any other performance shortcuts were used in the production of this film."
"You have opinions that run the entire gamut," said Kroyer. "You have people who are prophets of motion capture and other people who say it’s heresy and I will never use it. I think mo-cap is as legitimate a tool as anything for making films, but it’s not the kind of animation we always did."
The motion capture Oscar debate is not likely to go away any time soon -- Jackson's "The Hobbit: Part 1," which will rely on the technique for some characters, is due in 2012, a second "Tintin" movie is currently slated for 2013 and "Avatar 2" is coming in 2014.