In July 2011, a group of international web journalists were lucky enough to be invited to a visit of the WETA studios in Wellington, New Zealand, to take a closer look at the processes that went into making The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. As part of the day, the assembled press were encouraged to ask questions of Peter Jackson (Producer) who was there in person and Steven Spielberg (Director) who joined the discussion via video conference from LA. Below are edited highlights on the questions they answered, from using the latest in performance capture and animation technology to choosing the right story for the movie and explaining the casting process.
Q&A – Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg
Q – It looks like you’ve tapped into a brave, new, hybrid world of animation and live action. So what has this been like and what have you learned from this?
SS – “Well, I’ve always learned that the world is not as important as its story. I think that is always going to be the case, no matter what technology or tools we use to frame our stories. It always gets down to the basics of story, plot, narrative and characters. Especially with the Hergé books, our sensitivity in wanting to capture a kind of art form that would be closer to Herge’ style and be able to exonerate his characters in a way that if Hergé was with us, he could look up at the screen and say ‘yup, that looks like Captain Haddock to me’. So, that was the first choice that Peter and I made in deciding what medium we were going to tell the story in. But with all the excitement of learning about this new art form, it always gets back down to the basics for me. It is always more important to tell a story, so even though this was a risky learning curve for me personally and a very worthwhile learning curve, I actually had a absolute blast on this movie and continue to.”
PJ – “One of the things that I thought was important was that, because neither Steven or I can use computers, with an animated film you always get a little bit daunted as a filmmaker because it feels like a lot of your communication is going to be with computer artists. You’re going to have to channel the movie through extra pairs of hands. I mean, you’re always doing that to some degree with a normal film anyway. But I just thought that the really interesting thing for us to build here was a pipeline where filmmakers with no real computer skills at all, could step in and actually shoot their movie within this kind of virtual world.
The thing that we were aiming at is that Steven would be able to step onto a set surrounded by these invisible but virtual environments and characters. Andy Serkis, Jamie Bell and Daniel Craig were there in their motion capture suits, so then Steven would lift a virtual camera up and on the screen be able to see Captain Haddock, Tintin and the location of the set. The idea was that Steven could compose the shots like in a live action film. There was a lot of pre-production on the movie because everything had to be built ahead of any shots being done. Even though it’s technology, I think we figured out a way to give ourselves an almost freedom as filmmakers. It was like shooting a super eight film.”
Q – I wanted to get your thoughts on bringing in Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish to write and the decisions that led up to that and why they were the perfect choice for the material?
SS –“Well the first decision that was made really was Peter’s decision. Peter had been a very big fan of Doctor Who and said to me on a phone call one day ‘why don’t we get the Doctor Who writer?’ I said ‘who’s that?’ and he said ‘Steven Moffat’. So he was the first person we went to and Steven was the person who worked the closest to both Peter and I in delivering the very first draft. Steven Moffat had to go back to his series, he just couldn’t do any more work for us so we brought on two other British writers, Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright, to further the process and they did an amazing job.”
PJ – “We wanted to give the movie a European sense. We didn’t want to Americanise it any more than Steven’s part in the film. It’s a European story and it’s a European piece of pop culture. So, we wanted that sort of sensibility to be there and we wanted the writers to be Tintin fans. We didn’t want to have anyone that we had to explain the DNA of Tintin to. We wanted writers who just knew it and had known it since they were kids. There is a mix of action, adventure, satire, a degree of social comment and there is also a slap stick humour. I mean, it’s a strange mix, it is a very particular mix to the way that Hergé wrote his stories. We wanted to somehow try to capture those multi levels and layers in the movie. We didn’t want to just hand pick two or three of elements that make up Tintin, we wanted to try and capture the range. So that was the trick.”
Q –Working in this medium, is there anything that was a lot more difficult than you thought it would be? Similarly, was there anything you found easier than expected?
SS –“I think that the greatest thing about this medium is it stays in a constant state of fluidity. When I make a live action movie and I wrap the movie, I am left with the reminiscence of what inspired me, what ideas the actors contributed and it all happens in a couple of months, three or four months. You go home with your assets and your love for these assets. They always say a movie can be made or broken in the cutting room and I really believe that too but I only had the assets to be able to be clever, if the scene didn’t work I would go in and re-cut the scene or cut the scene out of the picture totally. But it was a sort of closed system.
This medium allows you to continue telling your story, refining, creating shots close to release. I could do a shot today, I could do a shot a month from now and that shot be preformed, rendered, resolved and make it to the final cut of the movie before it’s released. So because this stays so fluid, it is so exciting to get an idea maybe two years after the initial performance production was behind us and be able to actually shoot a whole new series of scenes and make them fit into the current cut.”
PJ – “You know when you’re making a live action movie, you shoot your footage and then you get used to that very quickly. In the case of the films that I usually make, you have sometimes upwards of 18 months to 2 years of post production and you get used to seeing the same performances because very early in the process you’ve chosen the best takes and from then on its refining, making trims and tweaks and doing whatever you’re doing during post production. But in a way you’re looking at the same material over and over again. But one of the things with this project, which is always exciting, was that everything evolves continuously. This movie has taken us upwards of six years to get to this point from the very first discussions.
The difficulty with this film is the same difficulties with any movie, the script. I just remember the script and getting the script right and getting it to the point where we were happy, it was no different to a live action film.”
Q – How do you guys work together? Did you have disagreements and how did you approach them?
PJ – “Well I don’t remember having any disagreements particularly. I just relate it to doing a crossword puzzle with a friend. You sit there and you try and solve the puzzle together. It is not competitive, it is not who comes up with the answers first, there’s no ego it’s just how do you make the movie as good as it can possibly be? Steven and I used to get together and sit there and try and figure out the answers.”
SS – “I think Peter and I are such fans of Tintin, so once you agree on that it is all collaboration. There is problem solving but the ego doesn’t get in the way of that. We both came from two different continents but with one heart where Tintin was concerned. So there was never a moment in this whole process where it was ever a clash of ideologies or egos. It always had to be – how do we make this? How do we make this a better story? I don’t think we ever had one argument on this movie.”
Q – What about making this particular Tintin story, why did you choose it?
PJ – “The initial decision was really based on a couple of things. For the first Tintin movie, we wanted Haddock and Tintin to meet for the first time. The story that features that moment is obviously The Crab with the Golden Claws. So, we looked at that book and we didn’t feel the first movie was there. So The Secret of the Unicorn was one that appealed in a sense that it was very much an adventure and mystery. And the great thing with The Secret of the Unicorn is that it goes into Haddocks ancestry; it goes into where his family came from. The story to some degree revolves around that. So we thought that was a natural thing to actually have Haddock enters Tintin’s life and the film and then adding to make his story the sort of focus of the film.”
SS – “It was important that we used the elements from The Crab with the Golden Claws firstly because of the Hergé estate. We wanted the audiences to see the first Tintin movie from us to introduce Captain Haddock to Tintin and Tintin to Captain Haddock. So there were whole elements from The Crab with the Golden Claws that we used and a great deal of the same anchorage from The Secret Unicorn.”
Q – How much social commentary is in the movie and what can you tell us about the issues that are raised in what is a family film?
PJ – “Well The Secret of the Unicorn was a story that is much more of a straight adventure because it was written when Belgium was under German occupation during World War II and the Nazis didn’t want Hergé to have much political satire. So, even though there is a lot in some of his other stories this particular story is much more of a straight forward mystery and action story. The way that I see Tintin, especially with the supporting characters like Thomson and Thompson is Hergé is sending up a lot of bureaucratic authority figures. They are probably policemen or government bureaucratics that he butted heads with and now he’s setting them up. They’re people that we recognise in our own lives and yet he’s sort of making fun of them. So certainly there is a lot of gentle character humour.”
Q – In a movie landscape that is dominated by several established franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers, why is Tintin going to speak to audiences today?
SS – “When I get excited about a project, I don’t do a market survey to see what the feasibility is for success based on popularity. I just look for a story that appeals to me. I don’t ever expect everything to be successful and I didn’t expect any of my movies actually that weren’t based on huge books to really ever be successful. I just made a movie the best I knew how. I put myself in that seat right there and made a movie for the audience or at least that part of me that is the audience and sometimes in movies, without the audience in mind at all. It’s a ‘Hail Mary’ with every single concept these days, you just throw it into the air and hope that there is an audience that is going to understand and appreciate what you’ve done or be entertained by it. You just never know. I face this question on every single new movie that was an unknown commodity until it was discovered by audiences. I think Tintin falls in that same category. Internationally it is very well known, in America nobody knows Tintin.”
PJ – “My philosophy with the films that I make, is that you just have to have a belief that if you end up making a good film and obviously there’s no guarantee, but if you end up making a good film you just have to have faith that audiences will find and enjoy it. I don’t think there’s any way of making it market driven. You literally have to make the best movie you possibly can and then keep your fingers crossed.”
Q – Can you talk to us about the casting process for Tintin?
PJ – “I’ve worked with Jamie (Bell) on King Kong and so he struck me as being quite Tintin like and he is like that in real life. He’s a decent guy with a great sense of humour, a dogged determination and tries his very best with everything he does. Those are essential Tintin qualities and Jamie has those. So to me, I thought he would be a really interesting choice and spoke to Steven about that.”
SS – “I’ve had some good experiences with Daniel (Craig) and he became a really close friend of mine personally. We were having a beer one day and I mentioned a movie I was starting called Tintin and I said ‘wow you would be great for Sakharine’ and he said ‘who’s that?’ He knew Tintin, he was very familiar with the series but didn’t quite know about the character. So we talked about it and he thought it would be exciting to try something new, he had never done anything like this before. He thought this would be a fun learning experience for him and it turned out to be. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost – they’re basically twins in real life.”
PJ – “Two halves of the same brain. Don’t think for a second that Andy (Serkis) was in there because he is a friend of ours. Andy is a great Captain Haddock, it would be hard to find or think of somebody that could actually do as interestingly a job with that character and the manic energy and the kind of messy sort of qualities that character has. I knew that Andy would know exactly what to do with that guy. Andy obviously has a lot of experience with motion capture but Jamie, Daniel, Nick (Frost) and Simon (Pegg)hadn’t, just about every other actor in here hadn’t. So it’s not important. The thing with motion capture is your putting the suit on but ultimately you have to act and your acting becomes the thing that drives the animation in the film. But there’s no particular technique involved, it is just that you want to find the best people to play those roles just like your casting a normal movie.
The one bit of freedom that you have is if you’re casting a live action film the physical appearance of a person becomes an important thing. If you wanted someone who is in their early 20s you can’t cast someone who is in their 40s for instance. Or if you’re wanting to cast Winston Churchill you can’t cast a skinny little guy. So often when your casting physicality becomes a very important thing and is always the first place you go and then you look at the best actors who fit that brief. With motion capture the wonderful thing is that it gives you complete freedom. You’re literally looking for someone who is going inhabit the character, it doesn’t really matter at all what they look like.”
TinTin will hit cinemas in 3D, on 26th December, 2012