This year?s holiday movie season brings with it a double dose of family film fare from a director well-seasoned in the genre. Steven Spielberg, long the wearer of many hats in Hollywood, is one of the few filmmakers who could potentially find both box office and awards-season success with two films released within a week of each other. The first is his digitally animated adaptation of the Begian comic book series ?The Adventures of Tintin,? which opens Wednesday. The second is his adaptation of the children?s novel (and Tony Award-winning play) ?War Horse,? opening Christmas Day.
During a recent visit to New York, Mr. Spielberg discussed ?The Adventures of Tintin,? his first foray into digital animation using the performance-capture technology first crafted by his prot�g� Robert Zemeckis, then further developed by the New Zealand effects company WETA Digital. Relaxed and friendly, he spoke about the opportunities animation created for him as a director, the ways he wanted to honor Herg�?s artistry, how he feels about releasing two of his movies at Christmastime and what continues to excite him about filmmaking. Here is an edited, condensed version of the conversation:
What made you interested in making a film out of the ?Tintin? series?
I became enthralled with the way Herg� told his stories. Grand, epic, global adventures about a young reporter who goes all around the world looking for stories to tell and then gets himself deeply involved, and dangerously involved sometimes, in the stories he?s telling. And then eventually becomes the story itself. And I always related to that because I do the same thing. I go out and look for a good story to tell and if I like it enough and I decide to direct it, I become dangerously involved in becoming a part of that story.
Had you watched any of the other ?Tintin? material, like the French live-action films?
I watched the films and some of the cartoons and some of the television episodes. But none of that really inspired me. I wasn?t influenced by any of them. If anything, I learned that I needed to tell a completely different story, still based on the Herg� books, but I needed to do it in a different way. It certainly convinced me not to make ?Tintin? a live action film.
In using performance-capture animation, what was the overarching visual idea you had?
Every one of the panels in an Herg� ?Adventures of Tintin? book tells a story. Beyond the dialogue that is encapsulated in a common bubble above the characters? heads, Herg� used body language to communicate emotion, anxiety, tension, anger. I simply created a style guide from many of those illustrations and put them on the walls of the performance-capture stage. So all the actors started to study their poses. Then I was able to shoot rather lengthy, continuous shots where I was attempting to create the same visual panels with a movie frame around them that Herg� had done in exploring his stories. The Herg� books: the art direction, the kind of cars, the kind of telephones, the kind of facial expressions, that was our bible.
Were there concerns about bringing in a domestic audience for ?Tintin,? with the series not being as well-known in the United States?
No, because nobody had ever heard of ?Toy Story? before it came out. Nobody had ever heard of ?Shrek? before that came out. Those weren?t based on books that sold 220 million copies the way ?Tintin? has overseas. So we weren?t concerned about that. ?Tintin? will soar or it will glide just based on the fact that it?s a really rollicking, funny and very human adventure movie. And like any new animated film, it?s up to the audience to decide whether or not they want to adopt it.
What did you do differently as a director on this animated project?
I stuck the camera in places that would be impossible to stick it on a live-action film. I did long, continuous shots. There?s a three-minute chase at the end of the second act that I never could have done in one continuous shot without a lot of digital tricks in a live-action movie to get it to seem like it was one shot. Here, I was just able to do a real-time chase. It took about a year and a half to get it on film. But it was worth it. Because of the medium of animation, suddenly my imagination wasn?t limited by the exigencies of physical outdoor production. All the production was from the imagination right to the computer and there?s nothing better than that.
How do you choose which films to direct and which to produce?
I?ve often wondered what gets me to direct and what gets me to produce. I?ve never been able to answer the question adequately even for myself. When something gets a stranglehold on me and compels me to direct it, I don?t question why. I don?t look a gift horse in the mouth. No pun intended vis-�-vis ?War Horse.? I just know what it feels like to be overwhelmed with a desire to make a movie.
And I also know as a businessman what it means to be overwhelmed with a desire to produce a good story. But there?s a great difference between production and direction for me. And I may often question choices I make as a producer. But I?ve never questioned the choices I make as a director. Whether in success or in failure, I?m proud of every single movie I?ve ever directed.
With two of your movies coming out within four days of each other, were there concerns about dividing audiences?
No, we studied that and I know that the marketplace always expands. And there?s often been movies that have all been hits, three or four at the same time. And sometimes with the same audience that goes to see one movie on a Saturday and another movie on a Sunday. So the marketplace expands for a good movie. If I hadn?t made ?War Horse,? somebody else was certain to make the film in the same window I made it and was certain to release the film in the same window that we?re releasing it. So I knew that whether it was me or somebody else, ?War Horse? was comin? out Christmastime 2011. I wasn?t concerned about that because I think ?War Horse? is an older family audience and I think ?Tintin? is a general family audience.
What keeps you excited about making movies?
I get that same queasy, nervous, thrilling feeling every time I go to work. That?s never worn off since I was 12 years-old with my dad?s 8-millimeter movie camera. The thrill hasn?t changed at all. In fact, as I?ve gotten older, it?s actually increased, because now I appreciate the collaboration.
When I was a kid, there was no collaboration, it?s you with a camera bossing your friends around. But as an adult, filmmaking is all about appreciating the talents of the people you surround yourself with and knowing you could never have made any of these films by yourself.
My job was constantly to keep a movie family going. I?m blessed with the same thing that John Ford and Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock were blessed with, a mini-industry very similar to the one from the golden era of Hollywood, where it was the same people making movies with you each and every time. And it makes life so much more enjoyable when you get to go home to your family and go to work with your other family.
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