‘Tintin’: Steven Spielberg says ‘the medium isn’t the message’

Dec. 02, 2011 | 12:00 p.m.

Is there a better way to start a Hollywood friendship than handing someone an Oscar as you shake their hand for the first time? That’s what happened when “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won the Academy Award for best picture and Spielberg was the presenter as producer-director Jackson came forward to pick up the most coveted trophy in town. The two filmmaking titans are now collaborators with “The Adventures of Tintin,” a movie that takes Europe’s beloved boy adventurer and introduces him to an American audience through a cutting-edge cinematic creation that, to most observers, pushes the envelope for animation and, for some skeptics, tests the Academy’s definitions of what it is and what isn’t animated. Geoff Boucher sat down with Spielberg and Jackson together backstage at last summer’s Comic-Con International to talk about the project’s spirit of adventure, both on- and off-screen. This is Part One of the interview.

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Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg at Comic-Con in July. (Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times)

GB: A fundamental early decision with any project is tone. What can you tells us about the tone of “Tintin”?

SS: There’s tens of thousands of renderings by Hergé from the 1920s right through the 1980s with the 24 books that he narrated and illustrated. As far as tone, all the hard work – all the backbreaking work – had already been done. Our job wasn’t to reinvent something that has found popularity on every continent already, almost every continent except North America, really, because the books weren’t widely distributed here for some reason. The tone was set by Hergé and that made our job a lot easier.

PJ: I read Tintin before I could read. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I would just look at the pictures and then I learned to read I found out more about the characters and the humor and the plot. And then, eventually, as everyone does,  I grew older than Tintin and I looked back at the books again and I saw the social satire and the way he’d send up bureaucrats and send up the police and anybody he saw around him. He was very much reflecting the time and the place that he grew up in. He was also reflecting popular culture. I can see now that he must have loved Hollywood action films. What I’ve tried to do with my contribution to the film was to lock into the different ways that I loved Tintin both as a child and as an adult. Hopefully, the film will work on that level, with all the things young viewers will enjoy but also the humor and satire that an adult will pick up. If we can lock into that DNA that Hergé created, well, that’s the plan.

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Tintin (played by Jamie Bell), Haddock (played by Andy Serkis) and Snowy await rescue. (WETA Digital Ltd.)

GB: What did you see as the key challenge of this particular project? Perhaps the character’s lack of  foothold in America? Or something more on the storytelling or technological side?

SS: The challenge for me was simply to crack the incongruity of a drunken sea captain and a 16- to 18-year-old journalist who winds up being part of the story more than anyone in that profession is ethically allowed to. They are the yin and the yang. Tintin is this squeaky clean boy scout, he’s intrepid, he won’t take no for answer, and in a way he’s a cross between Sherlock Holmes and a young Indiana Jones. In a sense this is buddy picture – with the dog thrown in for good measure. Our job, really, was to find a story that introduces Tintin to Captain Haddock for the very first time and initiate in success a whole series of Tintin movies.  We went to a [1941] book called “Tintin and the Crab With the Golden Claws” that first introduced the world to Captain Archibald Haddock and we started on that page.

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Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Barrie Osbourne and Fran Walsh at the 2004 Academy Awards. (Brian VanderBrug/Los Angeles Times)

GB: Peter, for filmmakers who were teenagers in the 1970s, as you were, there are few figures in Hollywood who loom as large as Steven Spielberg. How did that tilt or energize this collaboration for you on a personal level?  

PJ: I am familiar with some of his films. [laughs] Obviously working with him is an incredible pleasure. I had this experience, too, where Steven was directing the motion capture in Los Angeles and during most of those four or five weeks I had to be back home in New Zealand and because of the time difference he was walking on the set about 9 a.m. and I would be getting up at 4 a.m. to walk the 20 feet from bed to my office where I had the screen set up. I would go into the polycom. I was happy to do it because I was essentially sitting and watching Steven as he made a film and brought Tintin to life. I learned something every day and I was able to stay in my pajamas while doing it. I’ve always had a fantasy about directing a film in my pajamas and I wasn’t able to do that, but I was able to sneak on the set.

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Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg confer on the set of "Tintin." (Andrew Cooper/Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures Industries)

GB: Steven, when you were working on the film you said that it made you “feel more like a painter” than at any point in your four-decade career behind a Hollywood camera. In what way did you mean that?

SS: I’ve been accustomed through my entire career of getting images to match the things I imagine by going through dozens if not hundreds of people or a long period of time. I found myself on this project – in this particular medium – able to do not just a couple of jobs but to be able to do 15 or 20 jobs. It’s an art form that allows me to have control over lighting. I can underwrite or overwrite a performance and through the animators put [something into a performance] that even the actors didn’t bring to the bay. I’m pretty much able to push the camera – I’ve never been a dolly grip before – I’m able to be a focus-puller, I’ve never done that before. I can have an effect on the hair and makeup. All of it was quite daunting for me because I didn’t realize how much fun I was going to have when I took on the medium of performance-capture animation.

PJ: This is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to the way we used to make eight-millimeter movies in the old days, when you literally had friends on set and wouldn’t have to worry about the makeup or wardrobe or gaffers and grips and all the huge amount of logistics. We had a Super-8 camera and we’d direct whoever was in front of the camera and you’d shoot your movie. It was so free. And this reminded me of that. We’ve essentially made a CGI-animated film using motion capture to bring some of the characters to life but usually with [a film like that] there’s a degree of technical input that’s required to just make the movie, often with camera moves and lenses just tapped into a keyboard and you’re dealing with computer artists a lot with that approach. But for this one we wanted to create a virtual studio – we haven’t even got a name for it – where Steven would be able to pick up a virtual camera that looks a little like a PlayStation controller with a six-inch screen and use it to step inside the world of Tintin that we had created. All the locations had to be built in advance of us doing the motion-capture shoot, as it were; so for the best part of two or three years we were building all of the sets, all of the cars, all the airplanes, everything in the film was constructed but then the key thing was to break away from all of the technical restraints and make it as much a live-action experience as we could.

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Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and Tintin (Jamie Bell) in "The Adventures of Tintin." (WETA Digital Ltd.)

SS: Live-action is really the only way I know how to work. I’d really be less comfortable working through animators the way conventional computer animation is done, like the way DreamWorks and Pixar do many times a year. That would have been very different for me, working through many, many keyboard artists. Instead I had a chance – me with this sort of game controller, to step into the volume where the actors were working – the computers didn’t detect me because I wasn’t wearing a motion-capture suit, I was invisible to everyone except the actors – and I’d be able to look up and see Andy Serkis and Jamie Bell and then, with a flick of my eye, I could look down at this little, six-inch color screen, and I see Captain Haddock and Tintin and this entire virtual world. And when I take four or five steps with this controller, that whole world speeds past me as I move down on the street to find angles and make choices about compositions, pick the close-ups and the master shots. I was able to do this every day for 31 days while we were capturing the performances.

PJ: Steven operated the camera virtually for the entire film, which for me to watch was pretty exciting. It’s a degree of freedom for a filmmaker that is very, very rare. Often what happens in these films, too, is there’s a tendency for the camera moves to be quite formal and smooth. We decided to keep a lot of the handheld feel so we could get an interesting blend of live-action and animation; it’s “photographed,” if you can use that term like a live-action movie. That keeps with the tone of the film, too, because it’s an action thriller.

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A scene from "Jurassic Park." (Universal Pictures)

GB: Often we view new layers of technology as making the filmmaking process more complicated or less organic but the way you describe your approach makes it sound as if, in this case, the technology made it more distilled and even purer on some level.

SS: Technology is merely a tool. The technology that brought dinosaurs to life in “Jurassic Park” was talked about a long time because there had never in the history of film been a leading character that was nonexistent except on a computer. But one minute into “Jurassic Park,” if your movie’s working and if you’re telling your story properly, you can get the audience involved and they forget and don’t even care what medium you’ve chosen to tell the story. To me the medium is not the message, the characters and the narrative are.

GB: You came to Tintin by way of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in a way, right?

SS: I came to “Tintin” by reading a review in a French newspaper or magazine that kept comparing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to this thing called “Tintin.” So I got a “Tintin” book because I was curious to see what they were comparing the movie to. George Lucas [who created the Indiana Jones character] and I weren’t aware of Tintin so we didn’t owe any allegiance nor did we draw on the “Tintin” world of Hergé but I did see the similarities: Both characters run around the globe in search of secrets and the solutions to puzzles and mysteries.

Snowy in "The Adventures of Tintin." (WETA Digital Ltd.)

Snowy in "The Adventures of Tintin." (WETA Digital Ltd.)

GB: The technology you’re talking about sounds as if it was a real revelation for you. But going back to an earlier point in the project, before this tech was an alluring part of the project, why didn’t you approach Tintin as a live-action endeavor?

SS: At first I was thinking of doing a live-action movie but I could not do Snowy in live-action. There was too much demanded from the dog and the risk was to high to go with dog trainers and several look-a-like dogs. So I wanted to do a test to see if a digital dog could be in the same scene as a live-action character so I went to Peter’s company, Weta, and about two months later I got the results of the test back. I was making “War of the Worlds” at the time and I went to my trailer and popped in the DVD and saw this photo-realistic digital dog but then I saw this live-action Captain Haddock on the screen – and it was Peter Jackson dressed in a Captain Haddock outfit. Once I saw Peter Jackson as Captain Haddock I knew two things: I was going to run away from live-action but I was also going to run toward Peter Jackson.

— Geoff Boucher

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Comments


6 Responses to ‘Tintin’: Steven Spielberg says ‘the medium isn’t the message’

  1. rube says:

    These films may win awards of various kinds but do very little for the mind and for the social quandary that the world is currently in.

  2. nick says:

    You should read a Tintin book before a comment like that. I'm a teacher and many many of my students have learned to read because of these books. We have all of them in the class.

  3. Emanuel Molho says:

    All of the Tintin books available in hardbound editions in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish at

    LIbrairie de France, New York
    livresny@gmail.com

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