You won’t recognize Jamie Bell in ‘The Adventures of Tintin’; after all, Bell’s motion-capture character is the titular cub reporter, an icon of international fame going on nine decades, meaning he can’t very well look like the kid from ‘Billy Elliot.’ (Not to fear, Daniel Craig fans; his villainous Sakharin looks exactly like the ‘Dragon Tattoo’ star.) But — along with a cardboard dog masquerading as Snowy, and Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock — Bell spent months wearing a motion-capture suit to play Tintin for director Steven Spielberg, and his work breathes life into a character that previous only lived on the funny pages. As Tintin might say, “Great snakes!”
Out in theaters now, ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ focuses on Tintin, a young reporter who gets thrust into a world of adventure when he stumbles onto a model of a decades-old ship. Bell spoke with us about the new film, its motion-capture technology and whether Serkis — who plays Haddock as the Felix Ungar to Bell’s Oscar Madison — deserves an Academy Award.
For audiences, motion capture is still a slightly difficult thing to comprehend. Were you concerned at all about getting into it as a performer?
No, I don’t think so. I mean, working with people like Steven Spielberg, very much a pioneer of a technology, you know you’re going to be taken care of and the movie is going to look amazing in the end. I think for all of us, as filmmakers and actors and performers, the most important thing was for people to go in to the movie and have an experience and come out the other end — to forget the medium in which it was made. The medium isn’t the message, you know. If they went in there and forget what they were watching and just went along for the ride, then we would feel like we had succeeded. I feel like the movie really does that to you. I think then it becomes less about the technique and more the adventure and thrill of the movie. Some of the sequences in this movie are pretty phenomenal. You could never achieve it in live action and it’s just kind of astounding, the inventiveness of Steven Spielberg’s brain and the way he sees movies. He sees those kinds of sequences as fully realized in this movie. You know, I think he has a future as a filmmaker. [Laughs]
I know you were on record as being a big fan of the material. How did you guys balance doing justice to the legacy of ‘Tintin,’ while keeping it broad enough for people who aren’t familiar with the source?
I think there’s a spirit of the character that is kind of everything about the success of the books. He has a great heart. The soul of this character is purely good, you know? He’s a beacon of excellence for children. He has a friend who is — they’re the odd couple, him and Captain Haddock. There’s this great, action-adventure hero with a great natural instinct — a great natural ability to do all the things he needs to do, who is then coupled up with this guy who is a disaster. The most unconventional friendship in movies. It very much becomes a buddy movie at the heart of this Indiana Jones-like adventure. I think, for us, it was important for the fans — especially internationally where the film’s already opened — that we hit all the chords and notes of a typical Tintin adventure. But, at the same time, with Steven Spielberg, I think he always has the audience in mind, and he wants to make it accessible. I think something about the Tintin character is that he is very accessible.
You mention Captain Haddock, who is played by Andy Serkis, arguably the premier motion-capture performer of all time. How important was your collaboration with him?
I think I was genuinely distracted a lot of the time just because of how good that guy is. Knowing Andy before we made the movie, knowing what he’s capable of, knowing his embodiment of character, knowing that he is just an unbelievably talented individual, just was distracting! But, perfect casting for this kind of role. When you work with a master of things, I genuinely think asking questions is wrong. I find that, from my experience, just to listen, to watch and learn and listen, is the best thing. I would just admire and watch his performance.
With Andy, every time he does one of these — and this happened with ‘Avatar,’ too, with Zoe Saldana — there’s always this debate whether motion capture performances should be looked at in the same respect as a traditional performances. Do you think there should be a strict delineation?
Don’t get me wrong, I think there needs to be some kind of acknowledgement, somehow. I think if it’s an invention of a new category — because also some voice and vocal performance, which isn’t necessarily motion capture, is also brilliant. I remember Robin Williams in ‘Aladdin,’ that amazing voice performance made that movie. I don’t know, if it’s the invention of a new category, an inclusion in other categories; I don’t know. But there definitely needs to be some acknowledgement of the fact that these performances are genuinely moving people around the world, acknowledging a cultural phenomenon. I think Zoe Saldana was a massive part of the reason why the movie was successful. Obviously, we’ve seen Andy this year in ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ — which, without a doubt, he makes the movie. Yeah, we need to bestow some kind of acknowledgement on these performers who turn in really great performances and get zero credit for them.
What did you think when you saw the finished film? As a longtime fan, how did you think it came out?
For me, dude, it exceeded any kind of expectation aesthetically of what it would look like. Joe Letteri is a magician! The guy is unbelievable. I’ve never seen such photorealism in an animated film in my life. I think the characters are fully realized. We really feel everything that they’re feeling. When Andy Serkis is saying, “No one takes my ship!” and that spit comes flying out of his mouth and you see that glare in his eye, I’m there. I’m there with the character. I’m right there! It was beyond any expectation but at the same time, when you work with these kinds of people you know it’s going to be something extra special. For me, looking at my performance, I can always tell the decisions I was making that day. You can see the authorship that you have of your own performance even though it doesn’t look like you which is interesting.