Interview: Steven Spielberg Tempts the Fates With His Animated ‘Tintin’

Matt McDaniel
Managing Editor
Movie Talk
Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg turned 65 this past Sunday, closing out one of the busiest years of his long and storied career.  In 2011 alone he produced "Super 8" and was the executive producer on "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "Cowboys & Aliens" and "Real Steel," along with the television shows "Falling Skies" and "Terra Nova."  And if that weren't enough, he also directed two films which are being released only five days apart: "The Adventures of Tintin" and "War Horse."

Spielberg has had the rights to make a movie out of the classic "Tintin" comic book series by Hergé for nearly 30 years, but it wasn't until he partnered up with "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson that he was able to make the project a reality.  With Jackson as a producer, Spielberg made his first-ever animated film utilizing motion capture technology — the same process used to create Gollum in the "Rings" trilogy.  This allowed actors Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis and Daniel Craig to bring the comic characters to life, and it gave Spielberg the biggest technological challenge he's faced since the first "Jurassic Park."

The resulting movie is a globe-hopping mystery — complete with pirate ships, sea planes, and motorcycle chases — that uses cutting-edge 3D computer graphics to present a classic adventure tale.  I was able to speak to the three-time Oscar winner about "Tintin," and he explained how he adapted his filmmaking process and how his relationship with Peter Jackson mirrored that of the movie's main characters.

Find showtimes and tickets for 'Tintin' >>

Matt McDaniel: I would imagine that one of the great things about working in film is that there is always something new to explore, and "Tintin" had the most new elements of any project you have had in a while, isn't it?

Steven Spielberg: Not since "Jurassic Park," where we had the first leading characters in a movie were digital. That was the first time that had ever been done. I don't think I have gotten involved in technology as critical to the success of a story, not since "Jurassic Park,"

MM: Now, is there an intimidation factor going in that, or just an excitement level?

SS: No, it's not intimidation.  It's just sort of tempting the fates in order to do something way out of the box that I feel is the only appropriate medium in which to tell the story of "The Adventures of Tintin."

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

MM: When you are dealing with this sort of completely blank canvas in a world, how do you find the balance between the fantasy and the reality of it?

SS: Well, luckily with animation, fantasy is your friend.  And the more fanciful and the more out of control the story seems to be reaching -- and reaching for laughs and reaching for a real buddy movie rapport between Tintin and Haddock, and reaching for a crazy series of flashbacks taking you back to the 17th Century -- I think all of these things go down more easily when the medium is an animated one and not a live action one.

MM: That being said, were there moments where you were on the motion capture set and thinking, "Man, I am glad I am not on a pirate ship or in the desert"?

SS: No, no, not at all, not at all, because it was a whole new challenge for me.  So I never took what I was doing with "Tintin" and compared it to what I had done, let's say, a couple of years before, where I was on actual locations and shooting with real vehicles and be involved in a real chase.

I didn't compare the apples to the oranges. As long as I was working with oranges, I thought I might as well exclusively work in that genre and not even attempt to compare the fact that there is no fresh air, it's all air conditioning, and there is no sunlight anywhere to be found on a motion capture volume.

Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg
Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg

MM: I was also able to speak to Jamie Bell, who plays Tintin, and he said that watching you and Peter Jackson work together was a little bit like the relationship Tintin and Haddock have in the movie?

SS: Yeah, because I feel like I am more like Tintin and I really believe that Peter feels he is more like Haddock. So there were a lot of laughs on this journey that Peter and I took together to make this movie.

I think I have had one of the greatest experiences in a collaborative partnership since my many experiences with George Lucas.  This certainly has been my most thrilling since working with George.

Exclusive interview with 'Tintin' star Jamie Bell >>

MM: What did you find yourself relying on Peter Jackson the most for?

SS: Just his patience. I am a very impatient director. I just like to get a result as quickly as possible, and Peter is a kind of "Let's wait for it, let's wait for the mood to be right, let's wait for the right day." He doesn't hurry things along, and I think in that sense he had a very calming influence on me that nothing was urgent.

If we had to go a few days over on the motion capture stage to make it a better movie, so be it. Paramount and Sony have deep pockets. Luckily, we only went a couple of million dollars over budget, and I am very proud to say, it was only a couple of million dollars on a very relatively low budget for a fully animated movie like this one.

MM: And I was really impressed by how the actors completely disappear in the characters, it's not just facially, but performance wise. You would hardly know it was Daniel Craig in there. What did you help the actors with in order to get pass their established persona and just be the characters?

SS: It's not what I did to influence the actors, it's what the actors did to create a feeling that no matter how over the top they perform the roles, they would always be safe and never blamed, because they didn't look like themselves.

So Daniel Craig always knew that he can play a nefarious villain and be really over the top, but it wouldn't be Daniel Craig who was over the top, it would be Sakharine. And Daniel used to say, "Look, if people don't like Sakharine, they are still going to like me, because I don't look anything like this guy."

And Jamie Bell would always joke and say, "Nobody can see my face, which gives me more courage to take chances." Andy felt the same way. Andy Serkis felt -- because it wasn't Andy's face on the screen, it was Captain Haddock's face on the screen -- Andy could experiment and really figure out through improvisation and experimentation how to give Haddock an even bigger personality.

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MM: Where do you see the motion capture technology going? Do you think it's going to live side-by-side with traditional animation or take over?

SS: No, I think there is room for every genre. There is room for every genre. It's all about casting the right technology with the right story and we cast this technology, I feel -- I am very proud to say we cast this technology well to be able to bring "Tintin" to the closest proximity to the actual hand-to-paper art of Hergé, who invented the "Tintin" comics and characters.

But I think every filmmaker has to make that decision for him or herself. Everybody has to figure out how to use the tools, and the tools are there now for everybody to use, and I don't think one tool supplants another. This is just a sub-genre in the very wide colorful world of animation.

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

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