Friday in Hall H at Comic-Con International in San Diego began with a ruckus as director Steven Spielberg appeared to accept the convention’s Inkpot Award and talk about his new film, “The Adventures of Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn.” CBR News was there as the director made his Comic-Con debut, took questions from the audience and shared a couple of exclusive clips.
The hour-long presentation began with a montage of Spielberg’s films, starting with his early TV movie “Duel” beforemoving on to moments from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Empire of the Sun” and even “1941.”
As the lights came up, the crowd rose to its feet to give Spielberg a big welcome. Dressed in a tie, coat and his customary baseball cap, the director accepted the Inkpot from Comic-Con International director of programming Eddie Ibrahim. “Thank you. I wouldn’t be here without you supporting these movies and staying kids no matter what your age,” he said to the audience. “I’ve been a child all my life — just ask my wife. We all love the same source material that brought us all here, and the source is the imagination of so many people. I feel like I should be out there with you. Let’s keep working together.”
After another round of applause, panel moderator Geoff Boucher took to the stage and quickly began his round of questions, starting with a basic one: How did Spielberg come to be aware of “Tintin?” After asking the crowd how many of them had actually read a “Tintin” book, the director mentioned it was popular overseas but that the series never made much of an impression in the States. “I didn’t know much about ‘Tintin’ at all until 1981, when a review of ‘Raiders’ kept comparing it to something called ‘Tintin.'” Curious, the filmmaker sought out some of Herge’s work. He found one of the stories in a French volume and, though he could not read it, Spielberg followed along with the pictures and fell in love.
“It was all so beautiful,” he recalled. The comparison also became immediately apparent. “In the world of Herge, Tintin is a reporter and you’re not supposed to do this when you’re a journalist, but he keeps becoming part of the story. When Indiana Jones goes out there, he gets more involved in the adventure than his goal.”
Unlike a traditional live action or animated feature, the Spielberg adaptation of “Tintin” utilizes motion capture technology to mimic the fine details of a real actor’s performance. Boucher asked Spielberg how he went about casting the ensemble for the project. “[Just like] the way you cast a normal movie, you cast the best person for the part,” he answered. “You won’t see Daniel [Craig]’s face, but you will see every nuance of his performance through the thin digital skin made by Weta Digital.”
In making the choice to go live action or completely animated, he asked Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital to create test footage six years ago. From the start, the director knew he wanted Snowy to be animated; the big issue was whether to have a CGI dog around live actors, or to insert audiences into the hyper-reality of a photorealistic cartoon.
Spielberg shared the test with the audience, showing Peter Jackson in a Captain Haddock costume while a digital dog scampers around him. Jackson explains that he dreamt of playing the part since he “grew a beard at the age of seven.” In the midst of all of this, Jackson puts down a bottle of wine that the dog begins to drink, eventually falling off a CGI dock. Jackson tells him to swim, but eventually jumps in after him.
After the test, Jackson appeared on stage to the roar of the crowd. “He pirated that test, because it was suppose to be destroyed,” joked the “Hobbit” director. He went on to say that the test reel solidified Spielberg’s choice to go completely CGI.
“Working with Steven has been pretty amazing. He shows real promise,” Jackson joked. He recalled reading that Spielberg acquired the rights to “Tintin” in 1983, just as Jackson was halfway through his first feature, “Bad Taste.” A quarter-century later, and Spielberg wanted Jackson wanted him to be part of bringing the characters to the screen. “You can’t even imagine the mind-blowing moment where he asked me to get involved,” he said. On this adventure, Jackson serves as a producer, but should it be successful enough to garner a sequel, he said the second film’s directed by credit will read “Peter Jackson.”
“What bonded us is that we came at it from different ways,” said Spielberg. “He read [‘Tintin’] since he was a kid, and I came in as an adult.”
According to the director, the biggest challenge was “getting it to look like the drawings in the Herge books. We love the art so much that we used animation to get it as close to the art as we can.
“We also wanted to make it as much of a hybrid of live action and animation as we possible could,” Jackson continued. “Though the characters have these faces we could never find, we still wanted them to have this detail, this texture, that it almost looks like live action. Also, because Steven and I aren’t that good with computers, we wanted to create a version of animation and motion capture that allowed Steven to step inside this sort of virtual world so he could shoot the movie.”
Working with the actors in a motion capture stage they called “The Volume,” Spielberg used a virtual camera to guide the filmmaking process. “It’s like a PlayStation game controller with a six-inch screen,” he explained. “Looking into the monitor, there would be the character in real time. Not fully animated, but enough that I could actually be in the world that I could get all my shots and plan the coverage.”
Boucher asked if the new technique made him feel more like a painter. Spielberg replied, “Even though there’s hundreds of animators putting the performance capture together, you find you do a lot of jobs at the same time that normally would take 200 talented people.”
The team then showed a clip from the movie in which Tintin and Captain Haddock meet for the first time. Presented in 3D, the scene definitely retains the hallmarks of Spielberg’s filmmaking.
When the lights came back up, Jackson recalled how his involvement with computer effects began with another Spielberg movie, “Jurassic Park.” He remembered walking out of theater after that film thinking, “the movies that I wanted to make would need that level of tools. I knew I’d have to get involved with computer effects.” A week later, he had his first Silicon Graphics workstation and began designing shots for his next film, “Heavenly Creatures.” With each subsequent movie, the company brought in more and more computer power.
“What you just saw is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s gone even beyond this in terms of spectacle and production value,” Spielberg said. “The movie is a dense detective story. It’s a murder mystery. It’s funny when its needs to be.”
Returning to casting, Jackson mentioned that the technology also freed them up to hire the best performer for the job. “Virtually any movie that you cast, the look of the actor is very important, but the with motion capture, you have all the available actors available to you. It’s the only movie where you cast Nick Frost and Simon Pegg as twins,” he said, scoring a laugh from the audience.
Boucher asked Spielberg about filming action within the confines of the computer. The director explained that most of the set pieces are still in development and rendering, but that the technology allowed him to place the camera in places he never could on a live action shoot. He also warned that the process would not work for every movie.
According to the director, collaborating with Jackson on the project has been the best working relationship aside from “my best friend George Lucas.” He recalled first meeting the Middle-Earth Maestro when he handed him his Oscar for “The Return of the King.”
“Not the most intimate way to meet someone I admired for most of my life,” joked Jackson.
Mention of “The Lord of the Rings” led Boucher to ask about the prequel films currently in production. “I’m having a hell of a time. The delightful thing is that I’m enjoying it more than I ever thought I would,” Jackson explained. “We’ve done 60 days of shooting; we have another 200 to go.” The project has an unusual shooting schedule to accommodate star Martin Freeman’s commitment to the BBC “Sherlock” series. It turned out to be a boon in the way the films are made. “We’re using the time to do some editing on the footage we have and to do more preproduction for the next block,” he explained. He called it a great process.
Boucher also mentioned Spielberg’s other current projects, including the upcoming “War Horse” and developing concepts like “Lincoln” and “Robopocalypse.” Although the director declined to talk much about them, he explained why he always has three or four films brewing at the same time. “One of the things that directors lose is our objectivity, and I find if I do more than one project at the same time, it creates some clarity. It’s a benefit to me,” he said.
The Q&A portion began with a surprise appearance from Andy Serkis. Adopting the voice of a stereotypical Comic-Con nerd crossed with a little Woody Allen, he asked, “Did Daniel Craig where mo-cap tights when he met Clint Eastwood?” The panelists were too busy laughing to ever answer him.
The first real question came from a fan who wanted to know about Spielberg’s idea for a “Jaws” sequel. Laughing, the director responded, “I’m trying very hard to keep ‘Jaws’ to a minimum of three [sequels]. I don’t want to give Universal any ideas.” He also mentioned a writer has been hired to draft a treatment for “Jurassic Park 4.”
Peter Jackson explained that his childhood fascinations are the only reasons he makes movies. “Everything I’ve loved from the age of seven to when I was 17, I’m still obsessed by. I don’t have any new interests. When I make movies, I’m trying to make them for the kid that I was and still am.”
A little boy asked Spielberg what his favorite movie to make was. Disarmed by the question, he explained why “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” is still his favorite experience. “I got so close to those kids that when I went home [after the movie wrapped], I realized for the first time in my life that I wanted to have children and I didn’t feel that way before ‘E.T.’ I now have seven.”
A fan of the Herge series asked the pair why elements from the story “The Crab with the Golden Claws” were grafted into the plot of “Secret of the Unicorn.” Jackson revealed that the key to the cinematic Tintin is the relationship between the title character and Captain Haddock. “We wanted to start the cinematic life of Tintin with the story that brought [them] together.” That first meeting actually occurs in “Golden Claws,” but the plot of “Unicorn” was more appealing to them. “It’s a great plot, it’s a great story and it also goes into Haddock’s backstory.”
As the panel wrapped up, Spielberg told a fan that the audience keeps him going. “If not for you, I’d stop. We cannot make the kind of movies we make without you.” He was also forthright about the nature of fan reaction. “You don’t love me all the time. It keeps us honest. Keep taking us to task when you feel like it.”
The last question was interrupted when both directors became enamored with the fan’s t-shirt that read “I just want to meet Steven Spielberg.” Jackson hoisted the fan onto the stage and they all started taking photos. His question ended up being “Do you still use film?” Spielberg’s answer: “Yes. Except for ‘Tintin.'”
“The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” opens on December 23, 2011