Interview: Jamie Bell Captures the Spirit of ‘Tintin’

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Jamie Bell
Jamie Bell

Jamie Bell is only 25 years old, but he's been a leading actor in films for over a decade. Starting with the title role in the sleeper hit "Billy Elliot," he's balanced his career between big-budget blockbusters and well-regarded indies. He's worked with acclaimed directors like Clint Eastwood and Edward Zwick, and shared the screen with giant stars (the biggest, naturally, being King Kong).

This week brings the release of Bell's highest-profile role to date, even though you won't actually see his face. In the animated "The Adventures of Tintin," Bell plays the intrepid young reporter from the classic comic books via motion capture technology. Bell acted his scenes in a special suit that allowed infrared cameras to track his every move, and that information was transferred onto a digital character. Like the aliens in "Avatar," every expression Tintin makes in the film originated with Bell's performance.

I spoke to Bell about working with director Steven Spielberg on his first animated feature, along with reuniting with his "King Kong" director Peter Jackson and costar Andy Serkis. Plus, he told me just how much of himself he is able to see in the Tintin that is on screen.

Find showtimes and tickets for 'Tintin' >>

Matt McDaniel: When you are watching this motion capture version of your performance, do you see yourself in the character of Tintin? Does the work you remember doing come through on the screen?

Jamie Bell: Yes, and I think that's what it is about. It's about remembering the choices that you made for the character, that's what it is. I think it's less about looking and seeing -- even in a face, or maybe in an expression, you can kind of just catch a quick glance. A moment where you are like, "Oh, I see, I see myself in the way his brow is ruffled, definitely reminds me of me." Or the way he like frowns is definitely reminiscent of a frown that I would pull, but more than anything, I recognize the acting decisions that I made for the character, emotionally and physically and everything else.

So it's not as much that you recognize who you are as a person, the way you look, even the way you imagine you are acting at the time or the facial expressions you feel like you are pulling. It's more of the actual choices that you make for the character that you acknowledge as your own, and then it becomes about -- I recognize the authorship, I know that that's my performance.

MM: So when you are starting to work in the performance capture space with the suit and the dots and everything, how long does it take that process to start to feel natural -- or does it ever?

JB: I think a few hours. A few hours of learning the rhythms and the patterns of capturing. The structure of the way the day works is a little different to live action.

There's a thing called a "T-Pose." Sometimes the computer will misalign and your digital puppet in the computer will start basically freaking out, and doing a very strange dance when something is wrong with the tracking.

And then there's a thing called a T-Pose, where you stand with your hands out, so all your dots are visible to the infrared cameras, and then it re-tracks you and then you can continue.

So there are certain routines and rhythms of the day that are just slightly different than you do get used to. But that stuff, yeah, it just doesn't take very long. Even the silly suit and the dots and all the blah, blah, blah, is actually a couple of hours in and you forget. Because the actual thing that you are focusing on is the thing you usually do anyway, which is performance. It's about embodying the character.

Watch an exclusive clip from 'The Adventures of Tintin' >>

MM: And I suppose it has got to be a particular privilege, I guess, to be watching Steven Spielberg as he is learning how to do something new as well?

JB: Yeah, completely! I mean, this is his first foray into animation. He has definitely produced animated things before; some of my favorite things of all time actually have been produced by him and animated. But this is his first hands-on experience with the new technology and a new medium that he has never worked in.

And what's interesting is that -- as much of an established filmmaker that he is -- when it comes to new tools, he, similar to Tintin, has a fearlessness and an innocent curiosity about how things work. He asks questions and he gets things wrong, and people help him and he asks for help. I think he was genuinely intrigued by this technology and the control that he had over everything that you see on the screen.

Steven was really still directing the film for kind of two years, because he would start receiving rendered shots, composited shots and things like that, and he was still affecting lighting, affecting composition, even so late in the game. I think he had a real ball with it, and actually has really taken this technology and ran with it, while maintaining his kind of aesthetic stamp over the movie, which is important.

Exclusive: Steven Spielberg talks about 'Tintin' >>

MM: Now, you have worked with Peter Jackson before on "King Kong." How did Jackson and Spielberg work together on the sets?

JB: Very well! I mean, I consider them to kind of be like Tintin and Haddock. I think Steven is Tintin, and he has that kind of the fearless, innocent curiousness, good at kind of everything. And Peter [is like] the mischievous, smart, anarchic Haddock. So they complement each other really well. They are both big fans of Tintin.

Steven would come up with an idea and always go through Peter first. He would always ask Peter's advice first. And likewise of Peter, he was always there. If it wasn't him in person in Los Angeles, he was connected over Skype on a computer and would be writing "The Hobbit" for a couple of minutes, then would check back in and ask how the last take went, and greet us with his morning coffee in New Zealand over Skype.

That's two very committed directors, who in their own right should have very big egos and not be able to work together. But actually they communicated and collaborated incredibly well, and very inspiring to see that happening in the industry. I think that's an amazing thing to watch.

MM: And you are also working again with Andy Serkis, who is sort of the grandmaster of motion capture. So did you go to him for advice? Did he help you get yourself acclimated to this way of working?

JB: No, I mean, Andy is such a sweet guy, and he really trusts in everyone else to be able to do their job properly. And with me, when you consider the masters of things, I don't often ask questions of them, I just kind of generally just shut up and listen and watch what they do and try and equal it, and try my hardest to be on the same level as they are.

Watching Andy is a pleasure and a joy for everyone on that set, whoever is lucky enough to work with him. And for me, working opposite him, I would most of the time be distracted by just how immersive and how good he is.

But I asked him a few little things: "How do you find them? How do you find the characters? Is it a gradual thing; is it like an instantaneous thing?" And he says, well, it comes for him through the physicality of the character. He will just stand there and physically morph and immerse himself into this other person and it's an amazing thing to watch.

MM: And this time you are working with Daniel Craig. In 'Defiance' he played your brother, this time he is the villain. I would imagine if anybody could make the pajama-like motion capture jumpsuit look cool, it would be Daniel Craig.

JB: I guess that's totally up to you, I think. I don't know. I wouldn't know. I guess some of the ladies on the set might have something to say about it. I mean, I love Dan. Dan is a great guy. We had such good fun working with each other.

MM: He really seemed to have disappeared into his character the most of anyone.

JB: Yeah, he has a complete transformation. I mean, also just aesthetically, the way that character appears and the way he affected his voice in that way.

We are so used to Daniel being a certain way. I think. First of all, we are used to seeing him a lot and a lot of him. So this is definitely a departure for him, but a good one, because he is a very good character actor as well.

"The Adventures of Tintin" opens Wednesday. Watch an exclusive clip from the film below.

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