SAN DIEGO - Say what you will about the merits or demerits of an event like Comic-Con, but the first-ever appearance by Steven Spielberg in Hall H was a genuinely stirring way to kick off a Friday, and moments like these make a strong case for this as more than "just" a promotional event.
Comic-Con took advantage of the moment with Paramount to play it up, awarding him the Inkpot that I've seen them give to other legends like Hayao Miyazaki the year he brought "Ponyo." Before they brought the legendary director out, they ran a clips package cut to various pieces of John Williams music composed for those films, and it's one of those things that you can't get wrong. When you're pulling images and moments and iconic beats from "Jurassic Park" and "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" and "E.T." and "Temple of Doom" and "Close Encounters" and "War Of The Worlds" and "A.I." and "Sugarland Express" and "Duel" and "Munich" and even "Hook" and "Empire Of the Sun" and "Always," you're going to find way more than enough material to work with. The music, the images, the memories they evoke… this is a career you can't argue with, and it always amuses me when contrarians try to take something away from Spielberg's reputation. Few filmmakers, living or dead, have ever worked with this kind of focused skill for as long or in as many genres as Spielberg, and the images he's created are a roadmap through the pop culture of the last 40 years.
When he stepped out onstage, there was an entirely appropriate standing ovation for him. I loved his tie that didn't really look right, the rumpled jeans, and that big little-kid smile of his that has been so recognizable for so long now. Eddie Ibrahim gave Spielberg his Inkpot award and then the filmmaker stepped up to the mic. "Really, thank you. Without you, I wouldn't be here. Without you supporting these movies and what we do, and staying kids the rest of your lives… I feel the same way. Ask my wife. I've been a kid my whole life. When I grow up, I'll stop making movies, which I don't intend to do. We all love the same source material, and the source material has always been the collective imagination of so many gifted storytellers that have given us our waking hours and our dreaming hours. I feel like I should be out there in the audience with you and not up here. Let's all keep working together. Thank you for this."
Simple and heartfelt and then Geoff Boucher of the Times walked out to moderate the panel, opening with the most obvious question of the day: where did your interest in "Tintin" begin?
Spielberg asked for applause from anyone who'd ever read a "Tintin" book, and there was a solid response from the crowd. Not everyone, but many of the people in the room. Spielberg seemed relieved by that. "Tintin has been embraced all over Europe and Asia. I didn't know anything about him until I read a French review of "Raiders" in 1981, and it kept comparing my film to 'Tintin,' so I got a book in French. I didn't need to read the words to read the story. I could see the point, too. It felt like a cousin to 'Raiders.'" He went on to explain the primary similarities. "In the world of Herge, Tintin was a reporter, and he kept doing what you're not supposed to do, putting himself into the stories he was reporting, and he would become the story. And for us, with 'Raiders,' Indy was an archeologist, and he would go after an antiquity, usually a supernatural antiquity of some kind, and he would get caught up in the legend and become the story, so there is a similarity."
Boucher asked about casting for a performance capture film, and Spielberg said that he feels like it's the same process. "You cast the right actor for the part. You may not see the face of, say, Daniel Craig, but you'll see every nuance of his performance through the very thin digital skin of the characters created by WETA. And I wanted to know up front if I would be shooting live-action with a digital dog, or all motion-capture, and so I did a live-action test."
I never knew that. As much as I've been following the progress of "Tintin" since moving to Los Angeles in the early '90s, I'd never heard about Spielberg doing a test of a live-action CGI Snowy. And then, thank god, they actually showed us the test. In it, Peter Jackson walked out onto a pier, next to a boat, dressed as Captain Haddock, and started talking about how he was born to play the part and he was going to use this test as his own screen test. And as he talked, a CGI Snowy came walking out onto the dock, determined to get his attention. If they had gone that way, I think it would have worked, because the Snowy from the test had tons of personality. When Peter sets down his bottle of booze and starts talking about the terrible burden of growing a full beard at the age of seven, Snowy grabs the bottle and ends up drinking it and getting drunk, eventually ending up on his hind legs, hopping backwards off of the dock completely. Peter turns and dives off the pier to get him, ending the test. It was impressive overall, and technically persuasive.
And at the end of it, they brought out Peter Jackson, who had not been announced as a guest today. I'm glad they got to introduce the Tintin stuff together. It seems fitting. And their chemistry together is very fun, very light. If their creative work is as playful as their rapport onstage, then "The Adventures Of Tintin" should be huge fun. There was some gentle ballbusting going on right away from Jackson as he sat down. "Working with Steven's been pretty amazing. I think he shows real promise. If he decides to stick with filmmaking, he could go places."
Jackson laid out the long history of the project, saying "Steven got the rights to Tintin back in 1983, and I remember reading about that back then. I was making 'Bad Taste' at the time, and I have basically been waiting for that film for a quarter-century, and it's been an absolute pleasure."
Spielberg pointed out one crucial difference in their relationship to the material. "Peter learned how to read by reading Tintin, but I came at it as an adult, and that mutual fandom is what brought us together."
He continued by talking about the visual design of the film. "We wanted the movie to look like the drawings in all the Herge adventures, and we didn't want people to complain about us getting the characters wrong. You're all here because you love art. We love art so much we wanted to use the animation to bring his characters to life. We didn't want them to look like big movie stars."
Jackson continued along the same lines. "We wanted characters in a 3D world, but we also wanted to make it a hybrid of live-action and animation, and even though they have faces you'd never find in a human being, we wanted pores and sweat and stubble… a level of detail that almost feels like live-action. Neither Steven or I are very good on computers. I can barely send an e-mail. We wanted to create a version of animation and motion-capture that allowed Steven to step inside the virtual world with the characters and the locations and the sets that were built over a two-year period before we shot the movie. This is a hybrid where Steven had virtual camera where Steven could step in and film it like a vlive-action film. The thing that I'm excited about when I watch this come together is that this is a film that Steven shot himself. It's almost like his early 8MM films in that way."
That should be the thing that gets any real film fan excited. Think about that. On a normal film, there are filters between the director and the camera, other people interpreting his feelings and his desires and his aesthetic ideas. On this film, you'll see what Spielberg shot himself, virtual camera in hand. That's so raw, yet it's still this big giant blockbuster style film. It's exciting precisely because that's not how films get made.
Spielberg seemed delighted by the tools. "You look up and you see actors in these white suits, but in the monitor, there would be the characters. Not fully animated, not fully rendered, but enough that I could actually be in the world of Tintin getting my shots and planning my angles." He laughed at how strange it felt for it to be that immediate. "One person can do the lighting, can push the camera, can do the hair and make-up. Even though there are hundreds of animators working on every frame, working out the final animation, when you're doing the actual motion capture, your'e doing a lot of it yourself. It's a much more direct-to-canvass art form, I've found."
Jackson described the enduring appeal of the series. "My experience with Tintin was looking at the books before I could read, really. You'd look at the pictures and you could follow the stories. They're almost like storyboards or silent movies. Once you can read, they're different, but I looked at Tintin like the older brother I never had, having adventures I could never have. As you get older and look at them as an adult, there are layers of social statements, because Herge wrote these from 1927 to the '80s. A lot happened in the world and in Herge's life, and you start to appreciate the world he was living in and the satire and the parody he was putting into them. You also recognize the influences he was under. There's a lot of Hollywood adventure and silent comedy in there. When we were making the film, we wanted it to have the different layers that Herge put into them."
The 3D clips that they showed us from the film were the first full-length sequences I've seen from the movie, and right away, I am satisfied that WETA remains the leader in the industry in terms of giving life to the eyes of digital characters. The first sequence had Tintin talking to a man standing outside the door to his house. The man's desperate to get inside, desperate to talk to Tintin about the boat, the model that we've seen in the trailer. Tintin's reluctant to open the door, and as Snowy comes down the stairs to join them, gunshots erupt outside. Tintin hits the floor, and the chain gets shot in half. Once the gunshots stop, the door swings open, and the guy who was talking to Tintin collapses, dead. As a neighbor steps out of her apartment, Tintin yells, "Someone's been shot."
She shrugs, unimpressed. "Again?" Before she can continue, Tintin jumps over the body and runs out into the street, ready to fire after the car, but it's too late. It's gone.
The next sequence began on a boat, as Tintin asks the name of the Captain, reacting visibly to his last name when he responds. "Haddock?" Turns out, the Haddocks were the family who were part of the story of the Unicorn, the long-missing ship that lies at the heart of the film's adventure. As Tintin asks questions of Haddock, they move through the ship, hiding from armed men who are searching for both of them. Haddock laments that he has forgotten the secret of the Unicorn passed down to him by his grandfather thanks to too much drowning of grief on the night his grandfather died. He literally drank the secret right out of his head, and so he has nothing to offer Tintin, no clue to give him. The work between the two of them, the way they interacted, and the way the action was staged in each beat of the sequence… it's got a great sense of energy. It feels urgent. The rest of what they showed us was selected shots from the rest of the movie with voice-over, and it's got a real impact screened this big. I am ready to see this one now, excited by what they've shown us.
You can't help but talk about the technical side of things when looking at these clips, since obviously I can't tell you that the film will be good. I think having Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, and Stephen Moffat write your script is a pretty damn good start, but until we see it all play out, there's no way to know. I can say, though, that they have taken a lot of the lessons of "Avatar" to heart in what I saw, and not just the Zemeckis style of motion-capture. Jackson talked about how strange it is that he ended up making this movie in this particular way with Speilberg. "When I walked out of 'Jurassic Park,' I knew that the movies I wanted to make would need some big visual imagination, and I knew that if I wanted to carry on what I wanted to do, I would need to get into computer effects. We got our first computer a few weeks later. I had to mortgage the house to get a Silicon Graphics computer. On 'Heavenly Creatures,' we had 50 or 60 digital shots. The company and the talent that's doing 'Tintin' for Steven would not exist if not for 'Jurassic Park.' Fate is an incredible thing."
Spielberg talked about how he adapted to working in this style for the first time. "I filmed it like a live-action film. There's a lot of handheld and Steadicam. It's just using new tools to tell my stories the way I know how to tell them. It's the way I'm comfortable with. I wanted to be in The Volume [the digital capture environment where you record the raw performance data] with the actors. The movie is a dense detective story. It's a murder-mystery. It's very funny when it needs to be. You just saw the tip of the iceberg. The earliest iteration of the storytelling. It's gone way beyond this in terms of storytelling and spectacle. You'll see that soon."
Spielberg said that Jamie Bell was suggested to him for the role by Jackson, who had just worked with him on "King Kong," and he's thrilled with how it's worked out. "He is Tintin through and through, even when he didn't have his motion-capture suit on."
Jackson talked about how free they were to cast anyone they wanted in this film. "Virtually any movie you cast, what the actors look like is a factor. The wonderful thing with mo-cap is that you have the entire pool of actors together. This is the only film where you could cast Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as twins. And clearly Andy Serkis learned everything he needed to know about Captain Haddock from my screen test."
Spielberg talked about another way the performance capture process freed him up. "All the big epic things like the chases and the battles, which are still in development, I could put my camera in places I never could on a live-action movie. This is not a medium that's right for every film, but it was right for this story. There were things I wish I could have done in a live-action film. If you decide this is worth seeing, then Peter will do the next one."
Jackson interrupted to add, "Go see it, because I want to make my Tintin film."
Boucher asked about the working relationship between them, and Spielberg answered, "I first met Peter when I was at the microphone at the Kodak Theater and I handed him his Academy Award for 'Lord Of The Rings.' We met with 800 million people watching."
Jackson laughed. "Not the most intimate way to meet someone I've admired my whole life."
Spielberg continued. "The collaboration was effortless. Except for my best friend, George Lucas, this is the best collaboration I've ever had. We were side by side on the screenplay all the way through to the approval of all the shots. It's been such a wonderful treat for me. A real honor. It's very very easy. The energy in NZ is not the hyper energy of Los Angeles."
Jackson nodded, smiling. "Thank god."
Boucher said he had to ask about a few non-"Tintin" projects, and started with Jackson and "The Hobbit," and Jackson's response was a blank smile. "What's that?"
He continued, though, saying, "It's great. Has anybody seen the latest blog? I'm having a hell of a time. The delightful thing is that I'm enjoying it way way more than I thought I would. I'm having a blast. It's an interesting way to make a movie like that. We're on a short break now. We resume shooting soon. We did 60 days, and have 200 more to go. We wanted to cast Martin Freeman, but he had already signed up to 'Sherlock,' and that's what we're waiting for. So we're getting ready for the next wave of shooting."
Boucher asked Spielberg how he pulls off that perpetual magic trick of his, where he has multiple movies cooking at all times. After all, this year he's got "The War Horse" and "Tintin" releasing within days of one another. Spielberg says it's just the way he prefers it. "I kind of operate on about five or six tracks. I love doing multiple projects at the same time. The first thing a director loses is objectivity, and i find that when I work on several things, I can come back to things fresh after working on something else. It's actually been a benefit to me."
At that point, Boucher opened it up to Q&A with the audience, and the first person at the mic looked suspiciously like Andy Serkis. He launched into a crazy fanboy rant and managed to stammer out his question. "Is it true that when you was filming 'Tintin,' that Daniel Craig met Clint Eastwood wearing mocap tights?!"
Of course, it was Serkis, and I hope to god that story was true. He got a big laugh from both Spielberg and Jackson, and they moved on to actual audience members for a spirited back and forth.
One person asked if Spielberg would tell the audience about the great scene idea he mentioned for a "Jaws" sequel in a recent interview with AICN's Quint. "It's not that I'm not willing to share that scene. I just don't want Universal to get any ideas and go out and make that movie without me. There's a book that's out now that interviews all the people on the island of Martha's Vineyard watching us for nine months, like a coffee table book, and if you're a fan of 'Jaws,' you should read it. It really shows what kind of a support system a community can be in helping us make a movie, even if it is coming out 30 or so years late."
Someone asked about the importance of childhood influences, and Jackson replied, "I'm totally a kid still. Everything that I loved from the age of 6 or 7 to 17… all of my hobbies like model trains and planes and Ray Harryhausen and WWI and WWII… I don't really have any new interests since then. I try to make movies for the kid that I was and still am. There's nothing secret about it."
Someone asked Spielberg to compare the digital work in "Tintin" to the work done on "Beowulf," and he replied, "The evolution of the tech has gotten to where we can be very close to photo-real. The animators create musculature and nerves that responds like we do, so the facial equivalent of an emotion or the intensity is very lifelike. We've evolved since 'The Polar Express,' and the Na'vi in 'Avatar' were the biggest jump, and we benefitted from that."
A little kid came up for the next question, and Spielberg was extra-sweet in talking to him. The boy introduced himself as Alex and asked, "I was wondering what was your favorite movie to make?"
Spielberg was delighted by the question. "That's great. That's a great question. The most important personal thing to ever happen to me was 'E.T.,' which I hope you've seen. I'll tell you why. When we finish making a movie, we're with people for many many months, and they're like a family. I got so close to those kids, so when I went home, I was sadder than normal, and I realized that it was because it wasn't just like any other film. I realized for the first time in my life that I wanted to have children. I have seven now, and that's thanks to 'E.T.'"
A Spanish horror fan asked Peter Jackson, "Are you planning to go back to making horror films?"
I know that Jackson's been thinking about it for a while, toying with some really crazy ideas, and he confirmed that. "Yeah, absolutely. I'd love to. I have some things I'm playing around with."
Someone asked, "Out of all the movies you've produced, which one do you wish you'd directed?"
Spielberg squirmed a little at how politically delicate a question like that is. "The second I answer your question, the director will think, 'I didn't realize my job was in jeopardy.' When I hired someone to make those films, they became part of their DNA instead of mine. If there's any film I gave away that I should have made, that would be 'American Beauty.' That was the one that got away, but it got away to the right director, and he won the Oscar for it."
Jackson demurred, saying he didn't really have an answer. "Well, on this, the director is Steven Spielberg, so I can't really answer this one. I've only produced a few. I find that I get so excited about movies when I imagine them that I want to go make them, but 'District 9' was all Neill Blomkamp. That only exists because of him."
Spielberg jumped back in. "I like producing. My favorite producing I've ever done… here's what I do. I hire the director and go away. That's the smartest thing that most producers should do. My happiest moment producing was the three 'Back To The Future' movies with Robert Zemeckis."
When asked what keeps them excited about filmmaking, Spielberg answered. "What keeps me going is you. If it weren't for you, I would stop. You keep us going. We cannot make the kind of audience movies we make without you. You're honest in your feelings about them, and you're honest in your feelings about us. You don't love me all the time. You take us to task sometimes. Keep it up."
The inevitable question about "Jurassic Park IV" got an affirmative from Spielberg. "We have a story. I can happily announce that now. We have a writer who is writing the treatment. Hopefully we can make it in our foreseeable futures, the next two or three years."
A longtime Tintin fan asked, "What made you choose 'Secret of the Unicorn' first?" Fair question when you're adapting something with 24 different adventures to choose from. Jackson said it was a choice they discussed for a while. "We wanted to start the cinematic life of Tintin with a story that brought Captain Haddock and Tintin together. Even though Herge started the series without Haddock, by 1940, he had developed the character, and we took a section from 'Golden Claws' and grafted that into 'Secret of the Unicorn.' It's a great plot and a great story, and we came up with ways to make it a movie. Also, this deals with Haddock's backstory and ancestry. That made sense to us."
Someone asked about the value of short films and what makes a good one stand out, and they both tackled the question. Spielberg said, "I look at a lot of short films every year. We never had YouTube. We had to carry a projector around to show things. I love the amount of freedom tech has given young people. It happens more today than any other time in history. I don't want a send-up of other work. I want something that's totally original. That's what I look for in a short. Yes, visual style, but also content. Can you tell a story? Where's the beef, so to speak."
Jackson continued, "What you're looking for is to react to the film in a way that excites you. It has to give you a sense that the people who made the film have a real understanding of filmmaking. It's either there or it's not. The best thing is just to make a short film. That's the best thing to do if you want to be a director. You have to have drive and determination, and if you can't get it together to make a short, it'll never happen. Grab a camera or an iPhone, and go out and start shooting."
Finally, a young guy stepped up to the mic, and on the big overhead screens, you could read his t-shirt, which said, "I want to meet Steven Spielberg and shake his hand," and Spielberg couldn't resist. He called the guy up onto the stage, and for a few chaotic moments, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg took pictures of the guy, with the guy, and of each other with him. Hilarious. That kid got the bonus treatment, and finally, after they finished, Spielberg pushed him forward to the mic onstage to ask his question.
"Yeah, I just wondered if you still shoot film."
Spielberg said that since there's no part of the process on "Tintin" that involves film, this is the first thing he's done without it, but on everything else, he's still going to shoot on 35MM.
And with that, they wrapped it up, ending on a great high note. It was such an energetic morning that I'm glad I was there for it, and I hope Spielberg will consider coming back for "Robopocalypse."
"The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret of The Unicorn" will be in American theaters December 23, 2011.
Everything: Comic-Con 2011
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