The James Clayton Column: Tintin and the Tannis Root Nightmare of the Uncanny Valley

James is a big fan of Tintin. But when crossed with motion capture? Some alarm bells have begun to ring...

I have this horrible dream where the director of Back To The Future visits me in my sleep and, while dressed as the Pope, bewitches me with tannis root. After he’s impregnated me, the scene suddenly skips forward to an antiquated New York City apartment packed with weird old people and Japanese tourists who keep laughing at my new pixie haircut and hollering, “Hail, Satan!”

Seeing my baby’s cot (I’m so glad the nightmare doesn’t detail the actual birth), I rush forward, look down and discover I’ve spawned an utter abomination. Gazing upon the horror, I’m compelled to hysterically cry out, “What have you done to it!? What have you done to its eyes?!”

Now out of his Papal robes, Robert Zemeckis springs forward and proudly responds, “He has his father’s eyes!”

Hyperventilating at this point, I turn to Bob and reply, “What are you talking about?! My eyes are normal! What have you done to him? You maniacs!”

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“Ah, I refer to his other father,” explains the filmmaker with an unnerving grin of perfect, airbrushed teeth. “I am a maniac! I sold my soul long ago to diabolical technologies and now only produce computer-generated organisms. I have total control over these soulless characters! I am greater than God!”

His eyes then glaze over and a void stares at me as “Hail, Satan!” and the abominable infant’s mewling sound out behind me. Luckily, Zemeckis’ pre-CG spree creation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, has entered the dream to provide a happy ending. (‘Bob Hoskins ex Machina’.)

Private eye Eddie Valiant boldly steps up, hands me a bucket of Acme Dip (the dreaded toxic substance that kills cartoons and other animated critters) and the non-real faces of the hellish throng all convulse with photorealistic fear. I drown my poor monstrous baby in the Dip, angels sing hallelujah, all the awful visions melt away and I wake up to the real world, where people’s eyes are made of essential human fluids and not virtual entropy.

These kinds of nightmares are the reason I have no wish to watch The Polar Express, Beowulf or the 3D performance capture version of A Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge. I’ll continue to avoid them, just in case they make the night terrors I’ve just described worse. Plus, on the off chance that I bump into Bob Zemeckis (maybe at the supermarket or at an Eyes Wide Shut-style party) I want to make sure I’m thanking him for Who Framed Roger Rabbit and not angrily asking him, “What have you done to their eyes?!”

Every time I’ve seen clips or images from Zemeckis’ recent films, I’ve had a regressive moment of wanting to leap in the DeLorean and go back in  time to an age before computerised special effects in moviemaking. I’m so creeped out by The Polar Express that, in the instant I’m confronted by it, I’d happily have Tron, Pixar flicks and Gollum of The Lord Of The Rings erasedfrom history in order to save myself from ‘the uncanny valley’.

Extreme Back To The Future-inspired plans of action will be put into place if Zemeckis’ buddy, Steven Spielberg, has harmed Tintin by attacking the boy reporter’s tales with motion capture technology. Spielberg better hope I can find a flux capacitor and get back to put things right. If not, things could get very ugly.

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The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret Of The Unicorn has been in development for a number of years and is finally arriving this Christmas. To bring the Belgian hero’s adventures to the big screen in blockbuster format, Spielberg and Peter Jackson decided to go for 3D and performance capture computer animation, fuelled by Jackson’s Weta Digital workshop and the expertise of Zemeckis and James “Avatar” Cameron.

These are all very capable filmmakers, who have proven that they can create spectacular cinematic spectacles of heart and soul. The whole project impresses itself as an even more exciting and promising prospect when you note the cast of actors providing voices and mo-cap performance, and see that Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish have written it.

What worries me, as a Tintinophile, is the visual treatment. Even if the British scribes and the combined blockbuster auteurs have captured the essence of Tintin’s adventures in the storytelling (plot, characters, dialogue, etc.), if the final execution on screen is an upsetting artificial-looking entity full of uncanny valleys, then it’s all wasted. For me at least, Secret Of The Unicorn will sink.

Visuals are more crucial here than something like Beowulf, because the movie is based on a set of highly unique comics. A great part of Tintin‘s essence is instilled in the ligne claire drawing style of Hergé (a.k.a. Georges Remi) and, thus, I’m not convinced that the animation Spielberg will be pasting over the performance capture is suitable for source material that has such a striking, iconic look.

In fact, speaking emotionally, as someone who considers Hergé’s adventures to be sacred, I’m filled with dread and am anxious that Secret Of The Unicorn‘s visuals could suck the soul out of something that holds a special place in my heart.

I was raised on Tintin’s tales and his travels with Snowy were the books that brought the world to life and opened up my formative imagination. I love Hergé’s albums to bits and I’m living in fear that the thing I love and that has brought so much joy is being molested and mutilated by the moviemaking machine.

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It’s one of those ‘you defiled my childhood!’ affairs, just like the Star Wars prequels, except we’ve got a dead-eyed Captain Haddock instead of Darth Vader’s stroppy teen tantrums.

It tears me apart thinking that Tintin’s clean prepubescent face and dot eyes have been turned into a photorealistic, high-def, detailed visage, with expressions that evoke the uncanny valley. No amount of excellent screenwriting or surrounding plot direction can inject soul into the inhuman look of an eerily-rendered CGI figure. If this is the case, then all the human charm and character exuded by Hergé’s original panels will be lost.

I want Tintin to be a success. I want to experience his exhilarating adventures as a blockbuster spectacle in a cinema auditorium. I just hope that technology hasn’t destroyed my beloved bequiffed hero.

If it has, then, blue blistering barnacles, I’ll be livid. There will be blood. There will be a vat of Acme Dip, and Steven Spielberg and CGI Snowy will be heading straight for it.

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.

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