By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 16, 2011 at 1:44PM
The moment Steven Spielberg stepped onto the motion capture stage in LA and watched James Cameron shooting "Avatar" with the virtual camera, he knew he had found the right medium for "The Adventures of Tintin." There was nothing uncanny about this valley for Spielberg. He was bringing Hergé "into a photorealistic world of animation and imagination." And to his benefit, the whole thing was digital and he got to shoot it like a live-action movie.
"'Tintin' is the beneficiary of some amazing groundwork that has already been accomplished by two great artists, Bob Zemeckis and James Cameron," Spielberg offers, "and we actually got to use every [Weta] animator that worked on 'Avatar' and moved right over to do 'Tintin'. So I was in the crow's nest and didn't want to blow this opportunity to make a movie that was in the right medium for the right message. Had I made it live action, here's what people would be saying right now: 'I hated all that make-up on those actors' faces!' Why'd he have to give him big, fake noses and big, fake ears and fake chins?' You know, I would've been criticized for stylizing the movie beyond recognition and that's why I chose this medium."
In other words, Spielberg went for form as function, as they say, in which the "Tintin" books were the style guide for every single pose and every single facial expression. Indeed, "everything that these characters look like in our movie is actually what they look like in the comic books."
But it turns out that the Hergé style guide got modified for lighting when Spielberg realized that the bright colors and lack of shadow detail looked too flat for the interiors, so he applied a film noir look. Apparently the experience of shooting with the virtual camera was so liberating that he not only served as his own camera operator and focus puller, but also as lighting consultant a la cinematographer Roger Deakins on animated movies. Weta's animation supervisor Jamie Beard suggests it was like going to film school as a result of Spielberg's lighting expertise, and senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri adds that the animators drew inspiration from the director's classic films as well as Alfred Hitchcock's, although Spielberg recommended that they steer clear of his own movies as a general rule.
"I could even make last-minute decisions like converting a very bright sunlit sequence into a very dark film noir sequence," Spielberg says, "and we could do that in one phone conversation with the animators."
Inspiration also came from the previsualization, most notably the bravura two-and-a-half-minute motorcycle chase in Morocco. Spielberg figured they might as well take advantage of the long master shots in the previs. "When I laid the whole thing out in one shot, I knew they could do it, I just had to make sure it wasn't going to be boring; I had to make sure it wasn't going to need cuts and close-ups, and so I was able to bring the characters in and out of their close-ups without interrupting the flow of the sequence, and once I saw the [previs], I knew that we could go ahead and do the entire thing in one shot. The form allowed me virtual freedom, which I've not had up until 'Tintin' in my career, and the virtual freedom to put anything in my imagination up on the screen with only taste holding me back from becoming a complete hog, so to speak."
Of course, while trying to keep "Tintin" honest to the source material, Spielberg also knew there would be some "Raiders of the Lost Ark" analogies, since he's been telling journalists all along that he first came across "Tintin" when reading a French review that likened the Indiana Jones adventure to Hergé's hero. "There were bound to be all sorts of comparisons, and also the genre of the adventure movie has to follow certain principles and those principles are the same for 'Gunga Din,' the same for 'The Great Escape,' or the 'Indiana Jones' series," Spielberg emphasizes. "And the person who beat us all to the punch in 1929 was Hergé."
The other thing about the digital technology is that it allowed Spielberg to simultaneously make "War Horse," the stirring World War I drama about the love between a young Brit and his horse, and then go back and fine tune "Tintin" 18 months later, after "War Horse" was completed. Now both are coming out this holiday season ("Tintin" on December 21st and "War Horse" on December 28th), and both are Oscar contenders. "Tintin" is competing for best animated feature and "War Horse" for the big best picture prize.
"The reason I made the movie, beyond the fact that the play moved me so deeply when I saw it in the West End of London, was that here we have an animal that brings human beings together, at least in a détente of sorts," Spielberg explains, "and the idea that an animal has the power to be able to bring these two warring sides together for a brief respite."
Then, after I assert that "War Horse" is the antithesis of "Jaws" in how this miraculous animal unites people rather than destroying them, Spielberg laughs and says, "Yeah, exactly. And I also felt that it was very, very important to show the lengths to which a young man will travel in order to retrieve an animal that has meant so much to him and his family, that has basically saved the lives of his family by saving their farm, and that there had to be a happy conclusion."
Alas, Spielberg declined to talk about "Lincoln," the biopic that he's currently shooting in Virginia, which he has described as a procedural about the last four months of Abraham Lincoln's life when he guided the North to victory in the Civil War and fought to abolish slavery once and for all with the passage of the 13th Amendment.
In a recent interview, though, the director's long-time editor Michael Kahn assured me that we're going to see the legendary 16th U.S. President (portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis) as never before in movies: the devoted husband and father and shrewd politician, maneuvering with god's speed to repair the nation and correct a moral flaw and secure a legacy before time runs out. Why, one glimpse of the first official photo of the actor dressed as Lincoln standing beside Spielberg evokes the image of a man carrying the heavy burden of the country as well as his personal demons on his shoulders.
But, as Spielberg says, that discussion will have to wait until next year.