And More We Learned From Empire Magazine’s Feature On The Steven Spielberg Animated Adventure
It’s been three and a half years since Steven Spielberg‘s last movie (and nearly six since his last good one), but the wait is nearly over as “The Adventures of Tintin” (or to give it its full international title, “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn“) hits Europe in a few short weeks, and it started screening for press in the last few days, with reviews emerging from London in the last 24 hours. The film, a long-in-the-works performance-capture version of Hergé‘s boy-detective hero, marks the great director’s first entrance into the world of CGI animation, and his 3D debut, and it’s looking more and more promising as its release gets closer (check out the clips from the film in case you missed it).
The latest, typically excellent, issue of Empire Magazine (print edition) has a look behind the scenes of the film, with interviews with Spielberg, producer Peter Jackson, producer Kathleen Kennedy and stars Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis (who play the title character and his best pal, the hard-drinking sailor Captain Haddock), and we’ve delved into it for some of the key revelations about the film. For more, pick up the November 2011 issue of Empire, which also features a great feature on David Fincher‘s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.”
1. The creative team were keen to keep it as close as possible to the spirit of Hergé’s original work.
Despite three of the best writers in the business, in Steven Moffatt, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, being behind the script, everyone involved was adamant that wanted to keep it true to the spirit of the comics. As Spielberg says, “Everybody adopted the voice of Hergé and in particular tried not to use contemporary humour. There’s no potty humour in Tintin. We wanted to keep the humor germane to Herge’s era, which is more akin to silent-movie slapstick than it is to verbal barbs and verbal satire.”
As the Bearded One suggests, there’s an old-fashioned humour at play in the film, and one that nods to cinema history. Jackson says of Hergé, ” I can guarantee that he loved a lot of the Hollywood films of the 20s, 30s and 40s. I can see a love of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in the slapstick. The influences that Hergé was clearly under are the references that Steven and I love, too. It wasn’t difficult for us to be able to recognize that and try to adapt Tintin in a way that was fiathful to what influenced him.”
2. Spielberg’s also taken a surprising inspiration for the look of the film; namely classic film noir.
The cinematic influences don’t stop at silent slapstick comedy, with Spielberg saying that, for the look of the film, he’s drawing on film noir, and even David Lean. “It gives a better sense of mystery to the adventure,” the director said. “There’s a little bit of that in the ‘Indiana Jones‘ movies. I just thought this movie could not all be lit from the camera — we couldn’t just front-light it. Even Herge, in his artwork, attempted to suggest film noir. He would tincture the scenes at night, almost like the great Freddie Young‘s day-for-night cinematography from ‘Doctor Zhivago.'”
3. Despite the shift into animation, the film should be instantly identifiably as a Spielberg movie — and one that’s closer to his golden era than most of his recent films.
In a year where everything from “Attack the Block” to “Real Steel” has been riffing on classic 80s-era Spielberg, it makes sense that the man himself is getting in on the action. Spielberg explains that the secret is not overwhelming the thing with kick-ass set-pieces. “Adventure is not just action for 90 minutes,” the director says. “Adventure is uncovering secrets, finding the truth out about the people you are in relationships with. You have to give the audiences little surprises that open a window to a grand epiphany. That’s the kind of style and structure I love. This movie is very much like the movies I made way back in the 80s. It’s closer to my 80s sensibilities than the movies I’ve made recently.”
That’s the certainly the impression we’ve got from the trailers so far, and star Jamie Bell, who plays the Tilda Swinton-faced journalist of the title, says the helmer’s back to his best. Bell explains one moment in the film: “We were sitting in a rowboat, and Haddock stands up, looking at the bottle of whisky in his hand and, exorcising his demons, he lets out a mighty roar and just throws it. He then exhales; he can’t believe that he’s done it. He sits back down and the bottle is still in his hand. That is such a Spielberg thing. It embodies everything about visualisation, comedy and character in one moment. That’s what he does.”
4. While there’s a live-action spirit to the film, the performance capture elements are a skeleton which the animators flesh out; the finished film is up to 85% animation.
Perhaps because of the publicity given to Serkis’ work on “Lord of the Rings” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” there’s a certain belief among the audience that performance-capture works as a kind of digital make-up job, embellishing the actor’s performance, but essentially serving as a kind of rotoscoping. Whether that’s true of previous films is questionable, but it doesn’t seem to be the case here.
Spielberg belives that the process made him more comfortable than he might have been otherwise with a pure animation, saying “I really wanted to change the dynamics of my process. This technology gave me the opportunity to make my first animated movie and yet bring some of the conventional tools of my analogue process into a a complete digital experience. It was a really interesting combination of an analogue approach to a digital outcome.”
But this is no way to downplay the work of WETA‘s animators: the director claims that the film is “85 per cent animation to 15 per cent live action,” with each single frame of a performance by Bell, Serkis, Daniel Craig, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg or one of the other co-stars, being embellished by as much as five hours of animation per work. That’s not to mention Snowy, the hero’s trusty canine companion, who is an entirely CGI-creation, without any performance-capture references.
5. Even before “filming” began, an animated pre-viz version of the film existed, one that differs from what we’ll be seeing this year.
Both Spielberg and Jackson were early adopter of pre-visualization, the practice by which complex set-pieces are animated in a basic style before filming begins. That continued here, with Jackson revealing that the film existed in its entirety before principal photography in animatic form, including scenes scrubbed from what we’ll eventually see. The director/producer says “There is an alternative, completely animated version of ‘Tintin,’ which has sequences that are in the finished movie and sequences that aren’t in the finished film”
6. Unlike most performance-capture pictures, Spielberg was actually on the floor, setting up shots with a hand-held system.
Traditionally, people like Robert Zemeckis have taken actors into the space — in this case, a studio at WETA named The Volume — and then chosen shots and angles in post-production. With forty years of filmmaking behind him, that wasn’t the approach that Spielberg wanted to take. “I didn’t want to wait 31 days to put a camera to the experience of directing the actors,” the director told Empire. “I don’t know how to work that way. So I did something that has never been done before: I brought the camera into The Volume and I got my perfect shot every time.”
As a result, it’s as pure a Spielbergian experience as you could ask for, as producer Kathleen Kennedy explains. “The reason to have Steven Spielberg direct ‘Tintin’ is that you want the style that Steven Spielberg brings to a movie. You want the choreography, the action sequences, the design of the shots. I think that’s what the audience is going to be surprised by when they see the movie. They’ll know they are watching animation, but it will feel like a Steven Spielberg movie.”
7. Both Bell and Serkis were surprised by how physically tough the shoot turned out to be.
Putting on a lycra jumpsuit and some ping-pong balls and pretending to be a comic-book character in an indoor studio: easy gig for an actor, right? Not so much. Andy Serkis explains that, between the literate script by Moffat, Wright and Cornish, and the technological demands, it was a pretty tough time. “There were a lot of rewrites coming in every day,” the “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” star says. “The language was beautifully written, but so muscular, almost like theatre dialogue, and needed a period of osmosis to get underneath it. We didn’t have the luxury of that. These huge swathes of dialogue would be hard enough to do sitting behind a desk, never mind with all your clobber on hoofing it up and down The Volume. It was one of the most physically demanding jobs I’ve ever done.”
Bell concurs, giving a list of war wounds that makes it sound like he was making a Jackie Chan movie. “When I’m skidding across the deck, I’m skidding across harsh carpet. I had two misaligned vertebrae and I threw a rib out. I needed a chiropractor for two days.”
8. Many of those involved acknowledge the problems of Zemeckis’ performance-capture films, but believe they’ve got things right.
A familiar, and accurate, laundry list of complaints appears every time one of Robert Zemeckis’ mo-cap movies is mentioned, and it seems that audiences have cottoned on too over time, with diminishing returns at the box office each time out. Kennedy credits Spielberg’s old friend with pioneering the format, but says lessons have been learnt, particularly thanks to WETA’s input “You’ve got to give Bob Zemeckis incredible credit for being the pioneer, but we were lucky enough to be building from where Jim Cameron left off. We take a pretty giant leap. It makes a big difference.”
The typically outspoken Bell agrees, saying he’s never been impressed by the medium, but believes Spielberg’s now cracked it. “I haven’t seen an animated performance capture film that has worked,” the actor says. “‘The Polar Express‘ would have been a great live-action film. ‘Beowulf‘ didn’t need to exist. I don’t want to see an interpretation of Angelina Jolie‘s hot body — I want to see Angelina Jolie’s hot body. I think ‘Tintin’ is the perfect blend of the technology and the material.”
“The Adventures of Tintin” opens internationally from October 28th, and in the U.S. on December 21st.