Leave it to master filmmaker Steven Spielberg to have two films open within a week of each other. Over the holidays, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse opened in North American theaters, although Tintin had been playing in Europe for months already. We spoke with Spielberg about Tintin, his animated adaptation of the Belgian comic books by Herge.
This is the first animated film Spielberg directed, although he produced the American Tail films in the ‘80s. Reminiscent of Indiana Jones, Tintin is a young reporter who goes on worldwide adventures searching for treasure and solving mysteries. The film version was shot in performance capture style, where actors wore spandex suits with dots on their face to create the computer animation.
The master director of Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park shared his wisdom on the filmmaking process. When the famous bearded man who made the world’s best movies starts talking about movies, it feels like a loving family member telling you stories.
Q: What were you able to achieve with performance capture to build on what your fellow directors like Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron have done?
SS: For me, five minutes into watching this movie, I think everybody will soon see the medium is not the message. The characters and the story and plot is. Like every movie, you’ll forget whether it’s 3D, whether it’s widescreen or 1.85:1 [aspect ratio.] You’re going to forget everything if the movie’s working. If the movie doesn’t work or if movies generically don’t work, you immediately start to pick apart what ingredients contributed to that. If any movie is working, hopefully how it was made will be the least of your concern. You’ll only want to have a god time.
Q: Even though it’s animated, how did you make the characters realistic?
SS: I’ve always found that the costume the actors wear and if they’re in stylized makeup, if they’ve got wigs, in a live action movie, let’s say a big costume drama, even though it does give them a sense of great ambience and environment and they feel like they’re in a great court or if they feel like they’re in the old west, or they feel like they’re being chased by hobbits or dinosaurs, it all comes down to the actors looking each other in the eye. That’s where the truth is told. That’s where all the drama and comedy happens. When you see Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot, they’re dressed outlandishly and everything else, the truth of those performances is when they’re looking at each other, acting together. So actors just need each other to act together. All that stuff is forgotten. So even though our actors are wearing motion capture suits, performance capture suits, headgear, a camera, dots on their faces, after laughing at each other for about 10 minutes and getting that out of their systems, they’re performing characters. I think that is the secret of great acting. You have to bring your imagination to the party. You’ve got to have a great imagination. You’ve got to bring it to the day when you’re working and your imagination and your skills as a professional actor are what see you through. Not what you’re wearing or where you are.
Q: Is it easier to make movies now with CGI and gadgets?
SS: It may be a digital era in terms of certain kind of movies, but it’s still an analog era in terms of just telling a good story. That’s the most important thing. There’s nothing of greater importance to either of us than the story.
Q: What does Tintin have in common with you?
SS: Tintin, at least speaking for myself, he’s an intrepid, tenacious reporter who often becomes more a part of the story than just a reporter reporting it is. In a sense, what I identified with with Tintin is he does not take no for an answer and that’s been the story of my life. Look at the Herge books. There’s a lot of narrative. There’s a lot of not just adventure but there’s also subplot. What makes it delightful I think for the two of us is in the middle of all that forward motion, we take time for the characters to have a relationship with each other. We take time for Captain Haddock to moan about what brought him to drink and close to ruination. We even go back in the first movie to Captain Haddock’s ancestors so we get to know a lot about why Captain Haddock is the man he is today. We’re very concerned about keeping the narrative moving because Herge was concerned about that too, but also in honoring Herge it was very important to take little rest stops to get to know the different people involved.
Q: You’ve obviously paid great attention to be faithful to Tintin. What is in the movie for the Steven Spielberg fans?
SS: This movie I’m making for all of you. Some movies I make for myself. I just sort of make them for myself. I do that sometimes when the subject matter is very sensitive and very personal and I really can’t imagine I’m an audience. I would lose myself too much if I thought of myself as the audience. There are other kinds of genre films that I need to be able to direct from the audience sitting right next you watching the picture be made. Tintin is just such a movie.
Q: You’re such a master filmmaker, can you share with us one important decision that didn’t work?
SS: I’ve got a lot of examples I can give you about moments where I thought something would work on film and didn’t work, but I never came to that decision with the film half shot, where I was stuck on a runaway train and couldn’t jump off. On those occasions where I’ve admitted defeat, that this is not going to work, I haven’t embarked on that project and made that movie.
Q: This is your first film in 3D. What do you see as the future of 3D as a filmmaker?
SS: I’m certainly hoping that 3D gets to the point where people do not notice it, because once they stop noticing it, it just becomes another tool and an aid to help tell a story. Then maybe they can make the ticket prices comparable to a 2D movie and not charge such exorbitant prices just to gain entrance into a 3D one. With the exception of Imax, where you are getting a premium experience in a premium environment, but to show a 3D movie in a similar theater in a multi-plex next to another similar theater showing a 2D movie, hoping some day there’ll be so many 3D movies, the prices can come down which I think will be fair to the consumer. Not every movie in my opinion should be in 3D. Little love stories I wouldn’t shoot in 3D but there are movies that are perfect in 3D. I think the last great 3D movie I saw that really enhanced the experience for me, pardon me if I’m going to mention a film that I coproduced, but it was the last Transformers which I think is the most amazing 3D experience I’ve had since Avatar. But 3D needs a trained eye. It can’t be done by everybody and people who just do 3D just for the sake of commercializing their movie another five or six percent, and they don’t know really how to do it, they should care how to do it better by bringing other directors or at least collaborators into their lives that help teach and instruct how do you really make a 3D movie because it’s not just like putting a new lens on the camera and forgetting it. It’s not a fire and forget tool. It takes a lot of very careful consideration and it will change your approach to where you put the camera so 3D isn’t for everybody.