Visionary filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson bring the iconic character to the big screen in 3D
With over 200 million books in print-and two million sold each year-The Adventures of Tintin has a global fan base unlike anything else in contemporary pop culture. George "Hergé" Remi's adventure tales have plunged the intrepid young reporter, his scrappy dog Snowy and his array of friends and nemeses to far-flung locales in Africa, South America, the Far East, Russia, even the Moon. Beginning as a newspaper comic strip in 1920s Belgium and spanning the next half-century, The Adventures of Tintin was adapted into 23 albums that have become global best sellers, and now, for the first time, Tintin is being made into a major motion picture, by two avowed fans-director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson.
Spielberg-the legendary filmmaker whose adventure films are among the most beloved of all time-read his first Tintin book in the early 1980s, armed only with a smattering of high school-level French. "I can't read French, but in a sense, I was like a child-just looking at the pictures told the entire story of that single volume adventure," Spielberg recalls. "It was an extraordinary experience to understand what somebody was talking about based on what were, in a sense, beautifully rendered storyboards. I read most of the books and was completely enthralled. I thought they would make fantastic motion pictures."
Deceptively simple yet conjuring unique puzzles and tackling sophisticated concepts, the comics famously brought to worldwide renown their creator's singular ligne claire style, simple yet richly clear images that stylistically rendered the comics' imagery with clarity and accuracy. The quest to make a film that was true to Hergé's creation took Spielberg into unchartered territory-the possibility of making his first animated movie. "I like trying new things every chance I get," says the director. "I was excited to break the digital technology through the world of dinosaurs when I made Jurassic Park. That, to me, was a grand, new adventure. I looked at Tintin in much the same way."
Prior to his passing in 1983, Hergé hand-picked the director to bring Tintin to the big screen. "Unfortunately, we did not get to meet Hergé then, but we did speak on the phone," recollects Kathleen Kennedy,Spielberg's longtime collaborator". At the end of our conversation, he said that if anyone was to adapt these into a movie, he would love to have it be Steven. Hergé easily could have been a filmmaker. He had just done these beautiful, beautiful storyboards."
But the quest to make Tintin as a movie would take decades. "I wanted to honor Hergé and get as close to the faces, the personalities and the palette of the half-century of work that he did on the books," the director explains. "I felt that to shoot this movie with actors and film-to find Captain Haddock today, I would have to go back 35, 40 years and cast Walter Matthau. But, in a sense, we were finally able to capture the artwork and the portraiture of Hergé through animation."
The key to the project, for Spielberg, came from a surprising source.
Peter Jackson had been a lifelong Tintin fan, having collected the books since before he could properly read and in spite of not speaking French. "I had the books literally for my entire life," says the Kiwi auteur, whose The Lord of the Rings trilogy brought J.R.R. Tolkien's books to a new generation of fans. "I can read them over and over again. They always seem fresh. Then, as you grow older, Tintin stays the same age and you can see the incredible parody, satire, social commentary, and just the love of Hollywood adventure that Hergé had."
Jackson had long been aware that Spielberg had the rights to a Tintin film and had been waiting for it as a fan. "Then, to be finally asked by Steven to be involved in it…" Jackson laughs. "As you can imagine, it was a pretty weird and very exciting time for me."
The two filmmakers had initially met in front of millions of television viewers when Spielberg handed Jackson the Oscar for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. They reconnected again when Spielberg was mulling over how to make Tintin and lit on the idea of using a digitally rendered version of Snowy, Tintin's canine sidekick. He asked Jackson if Weta could do a test of this technique, "and when I got the film back a few months later, I saw a perfect Snowy," Spielberg recalls. "Then I popped the question and asked Peter if he wanted to do the films with me."
"Obviously I had to think very seriously about that," Jackson deadpans. "It took me two or three seconds."
The collaboration quickly led them to the inevitable solution-bringing Hergé's world to life wholly through computer animation, which would be developed and shaped at Jackson's creative lab in New Zealand, Weta Workshop and Weta Digital-the effects house that changed the game with the immersive landscapes and lifelike characters of Avatar. "It was a great experience, with the two of us being Tintin fans and bouncing ideas off each other," Jackson says. "We very quickly went to Hergé's designs, thinking 'How can you honor the artwork and the characters if you're casting human beings as these people? 'Because Tintin is partly terrific imagination and adventure, but it's also the drawings that Hergé did. That is the essential DNA of Tintin, which you are never going to get if you're shooting a live action film."
The process would unfold over several years, with Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy meeting with Jackson and his team in New Zealand through a Polycom satellite linkup. "We were really just two fans getting each other excited and making each other laugh," Jackson recounts."It was not like work at all. It was a terrific joy, really."
As critical as it was to get the look of Tintin right, it was equally critical to have a script that was true to the essence of the comics in all their scope and humor while also capturing the distinctive personalities of the characters, within the solid three-act structure of a feature film. They ultimately focused on the 11th title in the series, The Secret of the Unicorn, with its inherent mystery hidden within a model boat which Tintin buys at a street market that unlocks a sweeping adventure on the high seas with no less than buried treasure as its prize. They then folded in elements of the 12th title, Red Rackham's Treasure, which continues the story of the Unicorn, then incorporated The Crab with the Golden Claws, the ninth book, for the final element they needed-Captain Haddock. "We were able to combine several stories with the permission of the Hergé estate," Spielberg explains. "Red Rackham's Treasure and The Secret of the Unicorn are companion pieces anyway. But we wanted to see how Tintin and Captain Haddock met, and the classic Hergé book that shows that meeting is The Crab with the Golden Claws."
Combining the three volumes, says Jackson, provided them with the perfect "origin story". "We were very much aware that we were not only making a film for Tintin fans, but we were also introducing Tintin and his world to a substantial number of people around the world who are not familiar with the character," Jackson says. "So, we have the excitement and mystery of Secret of the Unicorn, with a section of The Crab with the Golden Claws grafted onto that in a way that's very organic and feels perfectly okay."
"The books were buddy pictures," Spielberg adds. "Haddock and Tintin are 'the Odd Couple'-this sort of irascible team led by a brilliant investigative reporter hauling behind him or often chasing down the whiskey bottle-besotted Captain Archibald Haddock. So, in order to make a movie about a relationship between a drunken sea captain, very bitter and sad about having lost connection with his very illustrious past, and a very enterprising, ambitious young reporter, who not only goes after the story but becomes the story, we wanted to sort of merge these books together."
The initial draft of the script was written by Steven Moffat, the showrunner and main writer for the hit British TV reboot of Doctor Who. When Moffat had to return to work on the series, Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and Joe Cornish (the acclaimed sci-fi indie Attack the Block) stepped in. All three writers were avowed Tintin fans, which the filmmakers felt was crucial to the adaptation. "The key to this was always the script," notes Spielberg. "It's what Kathy and I started working on when we first optioned the Tintin books from Hergé when he was alive. And I think we finally got it right with great thanks paid to all our writers."
Meanwhile, across the world in New Zealand, the animators charged with translating Hergé's 2D characters and settings into three dimensions had likewise grown up with Tintin and shared Spielberg's desire to be as true to Hergé's creation as possible. "As animators, when you're making Tintin, you don't have anything for free, just in the same way as Hergé had to create his world with the pen and the paper," says animation and pre-vis supervisor Jamie Beard. "He used all the vocabulary that you could use within a comic strip format. He even invented a lot of it, but you can see with the way he draws certain expressions and movements that it's all within that world that he's created. So, we have to recreate everything and come up with our own vocabulary as well and it all stems from the same research."
Ultimately, says Spielberg, "The heart of the film originates with the heart of the author and illustrator, Hergé. And the heart of the character in the books is also the heart of the character in the film. Nothing has ever changed from his original template."
Every design-from the shape of Tintin's trademark coif hairstyle to the look of the sand dunes traversed by Tintin, Haddock and Snowy-went through a painstaking fine-tuning process to perfect every element before animation could begin in earnest. "These were romanticized images of the world," Beard describes. "Hergé was non-traveler and never went to these places, but he imagined them as places that a child would love to go and visit, and I think that's what animation brings to this film as well. We could have sent a camera crew to all of these places and just filmed them but there's something unique about an animated film that takes you a place you want to go and visit rather than a place that really exists."
"The world of Tintin is particularly well suited for animation because you have this believable world yet it's not actually totally realistic," says visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, whose groundbreaking work on Avatar as well as Jackson's King Kong and The Lord of the Rings trilogy has won him four Oscars. "Hergé drew in a hyper-realistic style and that suits the kind of work that we do when we're creating animation more than it does with live action. So, what we wanted to do was to invite the audience to enter a believable world, but then add an element of stylization on top of that. Hergé used a lot of real world photographic references and stayed very true to those references. You also have the unique look of these very iconic characters, which you then need to visualize in three dimensions."
In a sense, the movie was made twice-the first time as a near-complete pre-visualization (commonly referred to as "previs") based on the filmmakers' ideas and early conceptual drawings, which Spielberg describes as "kind of like a pitching session with a bunch of comedy writers throwing ideas. They would present us with all these different options for set pieces, some of them based on ideas that came from the screenplay, and other things that they just pulled out of the air. And Peter was in Wellington, I was in Los Angeles, and we're having all of these two-way Polycom conversations with a big screen, sharing these amazing possibilities. That's how it began, with little baby steps, trying to figure out what these set pieces should look like."
The animation team, says Jackson, "are all lifelong Tintin fans. That's the secret. They know this world inside-out."
The team at Weta was a good barometer, says Kennedy, of the fans around the world who will be seeing characters they grew up with rendered realistically but with painstaking attention to detail. "For generations in Europe and elsewhere, people have grown up with this series," she says. "They have images in their minds; they have an interpretation that they sense from what Hergé did with these beautiful illustrations. And to take that artwork and try to find a way to three-dimensionally translate that to the screen and to capture these personalities of Tintin and Haddock and Snowy is a huge responsibility."
Using the script and the previs as a basis, the filmmakers then set out to make the movie in earnest as a scrupulously rendered version comprised of Spielberg's hand-crafted shots and a collection of live actors playing the roles. Though The Adventures of Tintin is ultimately an animated film, the filmmakers utilized the technical breakthroughs Weta and Giant Studios developed for the lifelike digital animation of Avatar-and some innovations pushed for by Spielberg himself-to lend the animated characters an added human dimension.
The cast they assembled is nothing short of inspired for those who grew up with Tintin and newcomers to the property alike. In the title role is Jamie Bell, whose acclaimed debut performance in Billy Elliot has since given way to increasingly complex and varied roles. As a child, Bell admired the character of Tintin. "He was everything I wanted to be," the actor says. "I very much considered Tintin to be a beacon of excellence for children, and I projected everything I wanted to be in my life onto that character. I wanted to travel the world. I wanted to find treasure. I wanted to shoot bad guys all the time. So, when you find out you're going to play the role, it's a huge responsibility because I'm like a lot of the 'tintinologists' and 'tintinophiles' who have this in their soul."
Andy Serkis, who recently defied all expectations with his startling performance within the animated skin of the chimp Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, plays the salty Captain Haddock. Like Bell, Serkis filled out the personality of his character with an essence gleaned from the books themselves. "For me, there's such an amazing amount of emotion portrayed in those drawings," says Serkis. "For all his flaws, I think at the core of Haddock is a man with a huge heart who is actually trying to get on top of his demons and to connect with the world in some way. And Hergé clearly loved this character and invested so much in him, so I went to Hergé's amazing drawings, and then tried to find the heart and soul of the relationship with Tintin. It is all about these kind of opposing forces and how they come together. There are moments along the way where Captain Haddock moves away from self-pity through clarity, drawn out by Tintin, and actually begins to feel, probably for the first time, something for someone else other than himself."
Even playing an animated character, says Serkis, "You're always trying to make the characters feel real. I mean, there's a huge amount of comedy, of course, and slapstick and farce and absurd humor. But you have to go to the heart of it. You don't treat them as cartoon characters. We were constantly reminding ourselves, if you're not inside and following particularly these two guys, then, for all of the adventure, it really amounts to nothing."
Playing the bumbling detectives Thompson & Thomson, the filmmakers cast the real life British comedic team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, whose chemistry has lit up films like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Paul. "For the Thompson Twins, we wanted to get two actors who could literally almost share the same brain, which is what the Thompsons do in the books," Jackson explains. "So, we thought Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. I mean, they're very difficult to tell apart even when you just see them for real," jokes Jackson. "But as the Thompsons, they're impossible to tell apart, which is exactly as it should be."
Bond himself-Daniel Craig-plays the film's villain, the mysterious Sakharine. Spielberg had worked with Craig on Munich and called him up to lend his personality to the role. "And he agreed because, like myself, he had never worked in a medium like this before and was very compelled by the possibilities. He also said, 'I'm excited about doing your movie because nobody will see my face. They'll see the Hergé face, but they won't see my face, so if they don't like me, they won't blame me, they'll blame Sakharine,'" the director laughs.
For the critical role of Snowy, they did what Jackson had long ago impressed Spielberg with-a fully animated dog. "Snowy is as human as some of the characters in this movie," Spielberg describes. "He really comes to the rescue and in many respects is one of the superheroes in the whole Tintin series."
Additional roles were then filled in by a diverse ensemble of British actors including Daniel Mays, Toby Jones, Tony Curran, Mackenzie Crook and Kim Stengel, along with Moroccan-born French film star Gad Elmaleh as Omar Ben Salaad. "Gad is hysterically funny in the movie," Kennedy comments. "He brought so much of his incredible comic timing to this role, and I think he's really going to surprise audiences."
"There's no vanity for actors in an animated feature, because we don't recognize them in the movie," Elmaleh comments with his characteristic humor. "My mother knows that I did a Steven Spielberg movie, but she's not going to recognize me. She's trying to explain to all of my family that they're going to see the movie in France and in Morocco, where all the country is waiting for this movie. So, please, Steven, tell them that it's me," he laughs.
With actors performing the roles, Spielberg was able to frame his shots, block the action and shoot numerous sequences himself using a handheld "virtual camera," which added an exciting traditional filmmaking feel to the animated proceedings. "From the DreamWorks animation, to the PIXAR animation, to the animation that Weta did on Tintin, of course, it's all done directly through the computer," says Spielberg. "I knew that this medium didn't require a photo-chemical step, but there were advantages to this that I had never imagined before. One of the advantages was being able to stand, with my actors-with Andy, with Jamie, with Gad-and direct them, being five feet away from them, as opposed to 25 yards away in the video village where we usually sit when we're making a film production. There was much more intimacy, I think, being able to be that close to the actors."
With the actors on the stage, the filmmakers used an innovative system that would allow them to direct within the animated world, as if they were on the kinds of practical sets they've traditionally used. "Performance capture is one of the tools we used to bring this story to life, along with traditional animation," adds Jackson. "Our goal was to build a system by which Steven or I, who are much more adept at live-action filmmaking-I mean, we can't use computers, either of us-to be able to walk into this animated world that we created with the characters from Tintin, with the locations and sets that were built in the computer, and be able to pick up a camera-literally pick up a camera, which is a virtual camera-and shoot a live-action movie inside this photo-real world. And it wasn't the photo-real world that was important; it was the way in which we could shoot a movie inside that world that we think is a pretty interesting result, actually."
Spielberg, who is known for editing his films the traditional way, worked with his longtime editor Michael Kahn to edit it digitally and deliver a final cut to Weta for the long process of refining, animating and doing the final rendering. "The artists at Weta spent between four and five hours per frame, and there are 24 frames a second and ninety-three minutes of footage," Kennedy relates. "It's an incredibly time-consuming process. And Steven, I don't think, realized that more than any other movie he had worked on, he would really be the painter because he needed to look at all of those details of the frame and make choices about what's on Tintin's desk, what's hanging on his wall, what cars are in the street, what color are the cars, did it rain the night before? It's endless. And those are the kind of discussions that have gone on for three years to create this."
But because it's digital, the post-production process was not drastically lengthened when making the film in 3D. "It's very striking with this film in particular," Jackson notes. "Just the thought of seeing Tintin on the big screen in 3D makes me feel like a kid again."
The final critical element was the score by legendary composer and longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams. "John is the bonding agent that unifies all the disparate, eclectic elements of a movie, and his unifications are what makes John a genius and what makes all of us who work with him so grateful for him," Spielberg marvels.
Though the digital animation aspect represents a fascinating new realm in filmmaking, for Spielberg and Jackson, it was always secondary to telling a good story. "I think five minutes into watching this movie, everybody will soon see that the medium is not the message; it's the characters and the story," Spielberg observes. "As with every movie, you're going to forget that it's 3D or wide screen or cinemascope. You're going to forget everything about how it's made if the movie's working.
"If you end up making a good film, and obviously there's no guarantee you will, you have to have faith that audiences will find it and enjoy it," Jackson adds. "You literally have to make the best movie you possibly can and keep your fingers crossed."
Kennedy notes that while the film is deeply rooted in Hergé's sensibilities, it also reflects the unique alchemy between two filmmakers at the top of their game. "Everything to do with their sensibilities as filmmakers is infused into this movie," she says. "The sense of humor, the choreography of action, all of these wonderful action-adventure elements are infused in this movie. We've gotten a lot of enthusiasm from people who are looking forward to this movie, and I think there's good reason for the audience to be excited."
For Tintin fans all over the world, this year represents the first time they'll have the opportunity to see Hergé's world brought to life on the big screen. Spielberg, Jackson, Kennedy, and all their collaborators have worked over half a decade in the making of the film, and if it resonates with audiences, they see a wealth of Tintin stories that could be explored in the future, "whether you want to go to South America, or Egypt, or Tibet, or the Balkans," says Jackson, "and there are so many different genres to explore based on Hergé's incredible legacy."
"Hopefully," Spielberg adds, "Peter will direct the second Tintin adventure, so I'm really looking forward to working with him as a collaborator, in the same way Peter has worked with me, to support me directing Tintin, but also to support me in each creative decision from the beginning of this process. We're both as excited as we were when we first decided to do this together about making films that will honor Hergé and do justice to his tremendous artistry and storytelling. If we're successful, hopefully new generations will go buy the Tintin books and realize that all of this came from the mind of a brilliant man."