A Conversation With Peter Jackson And Steven Spielberg: The Benefits Of Motion Capture [Part 1]

Last week, I was fortunate enough to visit Weta in New Zealand and receive a tour of their facilities as they were in the middle of making The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Unquestionably, the highlight of the day was an hour-long Q&A session featuring Jackson in-person and Steven Spielberg via video in LA.

Today, we present to you part of that conversation, in which Spielberg and Jackson extol the virtues of the Weta filmmaking process (read my original piece, for a brief description of the mocap warehouse that is being employed for this film). Tomorrow, we'll have more of the conversation, in which the two directors discuss some of the direct logistical benefits of motion capture technology.


Spielberg: I've always learned that the world is not as important as the story, and I think that is going to always be the case, no matter what technology, what tools we use to frame our stories and to create a tone, even to define a genre, or at least try to define a new genre. It's really always more important to tell a story, so even though this was a very steep learning curve for me personally, and a very worthwhile learning curve – I had actually a blast working on this movie, as I continue to — it always gets down to the basics. All of the dialogue always returns to story, plot, narrative, characters.Jackson: [N]either Steven nor I can use computers. The idea of an animated film is you always kind of get a little bit daunted by it as a filmmaker, because it feels like a lot of your communication is going to be with computer artists, and you're going to have to kind of channel the movie through extra pairs of hands. You're always doing that with a normal film anyway, but I just thought that the really interesting thing for us to build here...is to build a pipeline in which filmmakers with no real computer skill could step in and actually shoot their movie within this virtual world. [...]

The idea was that Stephen could compose his shots as he would in a live action film. He was able to operate the camera himself too. In a way, even though it's technology, I think we figured out a way to give ourselves enormous freedom as filmmakers. It was like shooting a super 8 film.

Spielberg: It WAS, because in those days, I would just run around with a camera, really running back and forth getting all my coverage with a little Kodak three-turn 8mm movie camera...and this was very similar to that, except...I had all the x/y buttons on my right, I could crane up and down, I could dolly in, dolly out. I could basically be the focus puller, the camera operator, the dolly grip. I wound up lighting the movie with some of the artists at Weta. I did a lot of jobs that I don't normally do myself on a movie. And it gave me a chance to actually start to see the picture come together.

In a normal motion capture situation, including Avatar, which I guess is the most successful performance capture movie in history — the most successful movie in history, period — I was able to actually get in there, into the volume, with the actors, and not only direct the actors, being four feet, away but I was able to bring a kind of conventional wisdom, which is the only way I know how to make movies, to each day. I would wind up with 75 different setups per day. Usually with a motion capture situation, you get the performance where you like it, and then you come back two months later without the actors and you start getting your shots in a much smaller volume, the size of a small boxing ring.

I didn't want to do that in this case. I wanted to try to be as immediate as the actors were being in giving their performances for the first time. I wanted to be inspired by those performances and be able to find the shots and choreograph the masters and the coverage at the same time the actors were discovering who they were. And that is a very conventional way of making a movie, but at least I found a purpose, not just directing actors, like a stage director...but I really found a creative way of making the movie in real time.


Check back tomorrow for more thoughts on making Tintin from Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg.