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The star of the enormously popular comic book series “The Adventures of Tintin,” by Hergé (Belgian artist Georges Rémi), is a young reporter named Tintin. But it’s Tintin’s constant companion, the spunky Wire Fox Terrier Snowy, who sparks the stories. Snowy provides comic relief, rescues Tintin from danger, butts into everyone’s business and noses out important clues, often accidentally.
So it’s fitting that Snowy helped make possible the animated feature film The Adventures of Tintin. Joe Letteri, senior visual effects supervisor and director of Weta Digital (Wellington, NZ), which has won five Oscars for creating digital characters and effects in the Lord of the Rings series, King Kong and Avatar, tells the story.
“We were just finishing the third Lord of the Rings film when Kathleen Kennedy, who produced Tintin along with Steven Spielberg, asked if we were interested in creating Snowy for the film,” Letteri says. “At the time, the idea was to make a live-action film and they wanted to be sure we could create a realistic digital white dog.”
Weta’s artists accepted the challenge and created a digital Snowy. Then, for the test shot, Letteri had the idea of putting Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson in Captain Haddock’s costume. “We had Peter [Jackson] telling Steven [Spielberg] how he’d make a good Haddock,” Letteri says, “and we had Snowy steal the scene from Peter.”
The test shot convinced Spielberg that he could make the film—and that he wanted to work with Jackson. As the two directors talked about Tintin, though, they realized they wanted to make the world of Hergé, not a liveaction film.
Technology developed on director James Cameron’s Avatar helped make that possible. Spielberg and Jackson tried the system Cameron had used to create the Na’vi in Avatar and realized they could use the same process for Tintin; that is, put actors playing the comic book characters into motion-capture suits and use the data obtained from their performances to help animate a digital Tintin, Haddock and other characters. And that’s how they and Weta Digital created the film. Snowy, however, was hand-animated.
“We tried putting a Lycra suit with tracking markers, little balls, on a dog,” says Jamie Beard, animation supervisor at Weta Digital. “But what we got was motion data of a dog trying to eat the balls off his legs.”
Some of the captured data provided reference for how a dog moves. But more often, the animators relied on their own research. “We had dogs under our desks,” Beard says. “And we went to dog clubs to see dogs running around and interacting. When you have a dog, other dog owners welcome you with open arms, even if your dog is a digital dog.”
The dog in the animated film isn’t exactly realistic in appearance; he’s a caricature. But he acts like a real terrier just as he does in the comic books. “Hergé researched the breed,” Beard says. “These dogs were bred for hunting and independent thought, so Tintin has the same pains as anyone with this type of a dog. He has to keep Snowy interested. In the comics, if the story isn’t engaging, Snowy will find his own adventure. He’s always in trouble.”
Does that mean he steals scenes as he did in the test? It sure does. “Snowy would steal every scene he was in,” Letteri says. “Steven [Spielberg] had to remind the animators that some scenes should be Tintin’s.”
Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures’ The Adventures of Tintin opened December 21 2011 in stereo 3D. Directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson, Kathleen Kennedy and John Williams, the film stars Jamie Bell (Tintin), Andy Serkis (Captain Haddock) and Daniel Craig (Red Rackham). us.movie.tintin.com/ 
© 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. Image courtesy Weta Digital