By Jen Vineyard | The Playlist December 20, 2011 at 3:55PM
When a film takes nearly thirty years to come to fruition, a lot of information gets shared along the way -- so even before "The Adventures of Tintin" comes out this week, most of us know not only the story, but also what's next. Still, director Steven Spielberg, his visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, and cast members Jamie Bell and Nick Frost had some more to share when they gathered in New York to talk to press about 'Tintin,' where they recounted the project's long path from page to screen and what Peter Jackson contributed in his role as a producer.
Spielberg's first exposure to Tintin was in French coverage of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," back in 1981. When he read reviews of the film, the French critics kept referencing the Belgium comic book series, noting the likenesses between the globetrotting adventures of Indiana Jones and those of Tintin. Spielberg had never heard of Tintin, so he got copies of the books ("which was not easy to do in 1981 in the U.S.," he joked), and promptly started reading them, starting with "The Seven Crystal Balls."
A year-and-a-half later, in early 1983, he contacted the writer, George Remi (who went by the pen name Hergé -- as Bell pointed out, "Hergé is his initials reversed.") to try to get the rights. Spielberg talked to the author for about half an hour along with his longtime producer Kathleen Kennedy. But in March of that year, the 75-year-old Remi died. A month later, Spielberg went to Belgium to pay a visit to Remi's widow, and once they resumed the conversation, she granted the director the rights to the story.
But since Spielberg has had such a full plate these past few decades, "The Adventures of Tintin" wasn't something he took on immediately, and might have forgotten, if not for the prodding of his producer. "Kathy kept the fire lit under me," Spielberg said. "She's been tenacious all these years: 'Don't forget it! Don't forget how you felt in '83! I know it's now '95, but remember back in '83? You loved it then, why would you love it any less now?'"
"These are books that have sold over 200 million copies and been translated into 80 languages," Bell said. "It's a generational thing handed down to you, in Europe. I grew up with Tintin. He's a beacon of excellence for children. He's a document of the 20th century. He was the eyes of an ever-changing European continent at that time in history. He's a character who relies on nothing other than having his own natural, fearless, heroic instinct. And that's a great message -- you can be great just by being yourself. It's ingrained culturally. So a lot of people internationally have an ownership of this character."
Spielberg decided early on that adapting the comic books would not work as a live-action film. "I did not want to have Jamie come in with a big red coif," the director said. "And then have Andy Serkis have a prosthetic nose, prosthetic chin, prosthetic ears. And everyone else would have had to have 'Dick Tracy'/'NeverEnding Story'/'Baron von Munchausen'-type makeup. If I really wanted to honor Hergé, the only way to tell the story and honor the origins of Tintin was to do the whole picture in the medium of digital animation and in pursuit of what we call performance capture techniques."
Spielberg called WETA about seven years ago to see if they could make a digital version of Snowy, as the first step towards realizing the characters. "Peter and Joe and I and the artists would explore what the faces would look like from all angles," Spielberg said. "We'd do a three-quarters shot, a full face, a profile, back of the head. And we kept making refinements, because it couldn't look like the button eyes and button nose from the illustrations. He couldn't be a caricature. Some of the other characters, we were able to squash and stretch and make impossibly un-human, and yet human-like. But Tintin and Snowy had to be photo-realistic."
Of all the characters, Tintin took the most time to realize, with almost a thousand different views made of him before he got to the point where the film's creators were satisfied. Snowy took the second most amount of time. "We wanted Tintin to be able to reach down and scratch Snowy behind the ears," Letteri said. "We went all the way from a realistic terrier to something that would look exactly like what Hergé drew, to a little bit in between."
WETA also designed a new system where the world of Hergé was programmed into their own virtual film studio, with locations built into the computer. Spielberg was then able to shoot with a digital virtual camera, which fit in his hands like a video game controller, with one button that allowed him to crane up and down, and another button that allowed him to dolly left and right, all the while "seeing" an animated 3D world. This allowed him to see the actors' avatars and compose shots in real time. "It really comes down to physics," Letteri said. "We modeled the physical world and we just modeled everything that would happen, from how water ripples to how sunlight travels through clouds." "Most of the time, my jaw dropped open," Spielberg said. "I don't know how they did it."
To look like their characters on screen, the actors had to wear helmets rigged with tiny cameras aimed at their faces, to record all their expressions. For instance, Frost and Simon Pegg play the Thompson twins -- two lookalike police detectives named Thompson and Thomson.
"Nick Frost is not interchangeable with Simon Pegg, even though they look just like each other in 'Tintin.' They are worlds apart. Simon Pegg didn't do a very good job at all," Spielberg joked. "Nick carried him throughout the movie. They achieved a nexus of performance that all came down to Nick."
"I do what I can," Frost demurred. "It was just great to try to bring to life these two bumbling Interpol police officers."
Although Serkis (who plays Haddock) had the most motion-capture experience, Bell became quite adept at it, too. "He understood the poses," Spielberg said. "He just became Tintin on the first day. It was amazing."
Spielberg credits Jackson for having the idea to cast Bell in the first place. "They had worked together on 'King Kong,' " he said. "And when Peter came to me with this idea, which I thought was inspired, I was just pissed off that it wasn't my idea! It was my producer's idea."
Spielberg and Jackson met on camera when Spielberg handed him his Oscar statuette for "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" back in 2004. Luckily for both, they spent some time backstage getting to know each other, and realized they'd like to collaborate. And for Spielberg, he was excited for the first time to have a producer who was mainly a director with him on the set, even if only virtually.
"The big difference is that when I work with George Lucas, he becomes very involved at the beginning, and then when I start making the movie, I don't see him again until I show him the cut," Spielberg said. "With Peter, he was on my set every day, but not physically. His head was on a TV screen."
Jackson would Skype in at 4 a.m. New Zealand time, when it was 8 a.m. in Los Angeles, so that he'd be available for consultations throughout the 31-day motion capture shoot. "Sometimes, I'd walk over to the monitor to ask him a question, and I would find Peter like this," Spielberg said, imitating someone who had nodded off while sitting in his chair. "And we would go, 'Peter. Peter. Peter!' And he would go, 'Yes, and about that last take. Maybe Jaime's speaking too loud,'" Spielberg laughed.
Spielberg said having a partner took a lot of the pressure off, because he had someone to help him solve problems as well as someone to keep him laughing. "Peter's got the same sense of humor," he said. "We laugh at the same things, and we simply had fun. Peter made it fun."
Spielberg said he was happy to answer questions about the techniques and technology they used to make the film, but ultimately he'd like all that to be invisible, and for the characters and the story to take center stage.
"Tintin is a reporter," he said. "He goes around the world, he looks for a good story, then he gets involved in the story, and the story becomes about him. I've always admired Tintin's preoccupation with the MacGuffin, so to speak. He's always got his eye on the prize. He never leaves the path to discover his secrets, and that's what makes it fun. That's what makes it breathtaking."
"The Adventures Of Tintin" hits theaters on December 21st.