Weta Digital Exclusive Interview: From Tintin to The Hobbit

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Movie Fanatic was granted an exclusive interview with Matthias Menz of the famed New Zealand-based special effects company Weta Digital. The group came to wide fame with their astounding work on the Lord of the Rings movies and Avatar. They are a favorite of Peter Jackson, so it wasn’t surprising that they were enlisted to manage the special effects on The Adventures of Tintin (now out on home video) and of course, his upcoming Hobbit twin films: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: There and Back Again.

Steven Spielberg Directs The Adventures of Tintin

Menz answers our questions about the making of Tintin and working with stellar directors such as Jackson and Steven Spielberg.

Movie Fanatic: Were there any challenges that you faced that may have surprised you during the making of Tintin? How did you come together to overcome it?

Matthias Menz: For a multitude of reasons we were facing the completion of a large chunk of the film in a very limited time frame. Now we at Weta Digital are quality driven and we knew we wouldn't let go until it looks great, but time wise it looked like the impossible. It was quite amazing to see the whole team all pull on one string to get it done and not having to give up quality -- kudos to them. In fact we not only finished in time but ahead of schedule for nearly all of it. So we even had a chance to go back and refine some earlier work.

Movie Fanatic: You've worked with so many directors of such brilliance, what was it like to work with both Peter Jackson (Tintin producer) and Steven Spielberg (Tintin director)?

Matthias Menz: It’s been great. Working with Peter is always inspiring. Both have been wonderful to work for. We were working with Steven on a daily basis and he is amazing, such a gentleman, very open for ideas. He gets the best out of everyone. I had read about his enthusiasm, but witnessing it every day first hand has been uplifting. His passion for filmmaking is infectious.

Movie Fanatic: How does the process begin? When tackling something as big as Tintin with all of its vastness, is it difficult to figure out where to start?

Matthias Menz: Yes and no. It all starts with the script and its breakdown, and we had Herge's comics of course. So the world had been well illustrated. Weta has fairly well established workflows it has developed over the years, and it’s constantly evolving of course, never standing still. So in a broader sense we know how a film the scale of Tintin goes through our pipeline and all the different departments. But no film is alike so obviously it can be difficult if you are trying to do something that hasn't been done before and we hit this magical moment basically for every film we work on -- if only to do better than what we've done before. But this is clearly where our team approach at Weta comes in. There is so much talent and passion, Tintin has used and evolved out of the technology Weta developed for Avatar. It’s been refined and new technologies have been added for the special needs of this particular film. For example, we had to extend our lighting toolsets especially for all the indoor scenes in Tintin. For Avatar we substantially improved our outdoor lighting setup because much of that film takes place outside. Tintin demanded that level of innovation for our interior lighting setup. We also worked on the realism of shadows and light, this clearly adds to the visual richness of this world. We wanted to honor Herge's world and spirit but it also had to work as a film in three dimensions.

Movie Fanatic: What was the most enjoyable aspect for you in making Tintin?

Matthias Menz: Besides working for Steven, it was clearly the lighting design for our sequences. It is magical to be so close to the final look of a picture. In preparation for Tintin we looked into principles of classic cinematography, studied the work of the old grand painters like Rembrandt and Caravaggio, looked into the work of Januz Kaminski (Spielberg’s long term Director of Photography) and tried to honor classical cinematography as best we could for the lighting aspect of Tintin. Might sound strange, but I really enjoyed being critiqued by Steven or watching him comment on the work of others -- just to hear and learn what he's looking for and the reasons behind it. It’s like learning from the best; these were wonderful moments, trying to tune in with Steven's taste and expectations.

The Adventures of Tintin: New Still

Movie Fanatic: We have heard there is talk of a sequel... will you be back and do you already have ideas of what you would like it to look like?

Matthias Menz: I’m hoping to be back and looking forward to exploring this world more! The plan was always for Peter Jackson to direct the second film and we don’t know yet what he has in mind for it. We don’t really know anything at this point. It'll most likely continue to look and feel like live action cinematography. It will likely continue to break boundaries of what’s possible in this medium of digital filmmaking from both a storytelling look and technology standpoint.

Movie Fanatic: Congrats on the BAFTA nominations, where do the accolades from your peers lie in your world as far as importance?

Matthias Menz: We are always happy to be recognized for our work, whether that be from our peers or elsewhere. The BAFTAs are indeed a great honor. The Visual Effects Society (VES Awards) also recognizes our peers annually. The best visual effects work of the year comes together to be recognized. Tintin led the pack this year with six nominations.

Movie Fanatic: The Blu-Ray release of a film allows viewers to delve inside the making of a picture, is that a nice perk that has emerged from the home video revolution that more people can now know what it is you all do to make that magic?

Matthias Menz: It’s a wonderful thing! I personally watch every making-of I can get my hands on. It can be both inspiring and educational. The making of Tintin required many skilled and talented people in all the different areas of production. Such a film is not an easy thing to make, it’s carefully crafted and refined, and so it’s great to share our work and passion with everyone.
Gollum from Return of the King

Movie Fanatic: What's next on your plate?

Matthias Menz: Right now we are hard at work on The Hobbit. Looking forward to working on Gollum again!

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