Steven Spielberg on ‘Tintin': ‘It made me more like a painter than ever before’

Feb. 19, 2010 | 3:54 p.m.

Rachel Abramowitz had a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times this week on the angst among Hollywood actors as they watch more major filmmakers embrace performance-capture techniques and animation approaches.  Here’s a great follow-up as she talks to Steven Spielberg about the making of “Tintin.”

   Steven Spielberg says there was only one reason to make his new “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” with the cutting-edge performance-capture technology that James Cameron used on “Avatar.

“It was based on my respect for the art of Hergé and wanting to get as close to that art as I could,” says the director, referring to Tintin’s author-illustrator, who created the international blockbuster graphic novel series (200 million copies in print) starring intrepid cub reporter Tintin, and his irrepressible canine companion, Snowy, as they venture through the pre-WWII world.

 “Hergé wrote about fictional people in a real world, not in a fantasy universe,” Spielberg said. “It was the real universe he was working with, and he used National Geographic to research his adventure stories. It just seemed that live action would be too stylized for an audience to relate to. You’d have to have costumes that are a little outrageous when you see actors wearing them. The costumes seem to fit better when the medium chosen is a digital one.”

“Tintin” stars Jamie Bell (“King Kong”) as the title character, Andy Serkis (Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy) as his buddy Captain Haddock, and Daniel Craig (Bond, James Bond)  as the evil Red Rackham. Produced by Peter Jackson, with the animation done by Jackson’s Weta wizards, the film is due in theaters in 2011. 

Like Cameron, Spielberg shot the actors on a special performance-capture stage. The performers donned lycra suits, covered in reflective markers, and their every movement was tracked by more than 100 cameras. They also wore a head-rigging with a camera near their jawline that recorded intensely detailed data of their faces — enough detail to avoid the “dead eye” faces that had an unsettling lack of movement or emotion in many previous motion-capture films. Ultimately, all the camera data was fed into a computer to create a 3-D replica of the actor. The digital document of the actor and the performance is so all-enveloping that the director, in this case Spielberg, can go back and change the “camera” movement and orientation long after the actor has left the set.   

Tintin

For the director of such films as “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List,” the new experience was transporting. 

“I just adored it,“ he says. “It made me more like a painter than ever before. I got a chance to do so many jobs that I don’t often do as a director. You get to paint with this device that puts you into a virtual world, and allows you to make your shots and block all the actors with a small hand-held device only three times as large as an Xbox game controller.” 

With that small monitor, Spielberg could look down and watch what the actors were doing — in real time — on a screen that showed them in the film universe. Working on the motion-capture stage — which is called the volume — Spielberg was routinely dazzled by the liberating artistic value of the new science. 

 “When Captain Haddock runs across the volume, the cameras capture all the information of his physical and emotional moves,” the director said. “So as Andy Serkis runs across the stage, there’s Captain Haddock on the monitor, in full anime, running along the streets of Belgium. Not only are the actors represented in real time, they enter into a three-dimensional world.”

So though Jamie Bell will be digitally made to look exactly like Hergé’s classic renderings of Tintin, “it will be Jamie Bell’s complete physical and emotional performance,” Spielberg said. He added: “If Tintin makes you feel something, it’s Jamie Bell’s soul you’re sensing.”

– Rachel Abramowitz

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Photos: Steven Spielberg in 2008. Credit: Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press. John Dykstra on the set of “Star Wars,” photo courtesy of Dykstra. Tintin image: Casterman/Le Lombard

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