In 1993, Peter Jackson was coming off Dead Alive and sitting firmly in the splatstick world of horror when he went into a theater to see Jurassic Park. The sights provided by Steven Spielberg, Stan Winston Studio and ILM had a profound effect on the freshman filmmaker from New Zealand – they propelled him practically mortgage his house in order to get a computer that could do the kinds of things he knew he wanted to do as a storyteller. The next year, he put out Heavenly Creatures.
That was the first step in the road to buy dozens, then hundreds and now thousands of computers that make up WETA – the digital effects studio crafting The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn which is being directed by, of course, Steven Spielberg. The sphere of influence comes full circle here, and the footage and discussion offered up today by the two modern masters was an exciting promise that big adventure would soon be coming our way.
The panel opened with a tribute to Spielberg set to the base booms of John Williams’s Jaws theme and taking beloved snippets from fan favorite films. “I’ve been a child all my life,” the director said once the standing ovation had calmed down to a dull roar. “I feel like I should be out there in the audience with you.” Accepting an award for outstanding lifetime achievement, he offered advice to the fans that they should never grow up and said that if he ever did, he’d stop making movies.
He doesn’t plan on ever doing so.
Even though Jackson’s journey to WETA was sparked by Spielberg’s work, Spielberg’s journey with Tintin started nearly a decade before when he read a French review of Raiders of the Lost Ark that repeatedly compared it to the books by Hergé. He sought them out, fell in love, and bought the rights.
Almost thirty years later, he approached Peter Jackson and WETA to do a test of what Snowy the dog would look like as a CGI character amidst live-action actors. The result, which we got to see, was a funny video where Jackson himself dressed up as Captain Haddock in order to pitch himself to play the part while a terrific-looking Snowy bounded around behind him, lapped up some spilled hooch and then fell off the CGI dock into the ocean. At first, it seemed like showing the footage might be a way to contextualize expectations for a completely mo-cap movie (something Spielberg has never done, and something colleague Robert Zemeckis has all but driven into the ground). However, the CGI Snowy looked great. In a way, it’s a shame they didn’t stick with live-action for the rest of the elements, but the look of the film is still stirring, and the process allowed Spielberg a freedom with the camera that he’d never had.
Of course, he was joined by the star of the test footage on stage shortly after. Jackson claimed that he’d heard about Spielberg optioning the property back in the 80s and that he ended up “looking forward to it for a quarter of a century.” That turned out to be a good thing because the project languished long enough for Jackson – a Tintin fan since childhood – to get on board. In fact, his bond was so strong with the material that he said it was “the older brother [he] never had…having the adventures I always wanted to.”
Those adventures make Tintin a close cousin to Indiana Jones (that French critic was right). Tintin is a journalist hunting a massive story who ends up embedding himself into the story, much in the same way Jones is an antiquities hunter that gets caught up in the daring escapes and close calls along the way.
Those similarities continued in the footage that was shown – a few sequences of action that displayed Spielberg at the top of his game in terms of tension-building and dynamic, active camera work. There were no quiet moments shown, but whether Tintin was sneaking around trying not to get caught or fighting with thugs, there was a lot of Indy’s DNA (right down to the bi-planes, sidecar motorbikes, and comedic fist fights).
The camera technology they were working with let Spielberg shoot inside the white basketball court they called “The Volume” as if he were in a live-action setting. The only difference was that he could place the camera in positions and spaces physically impossible in the real world.
He likened the small video game controller-esque camera set up to the Super 8 camera of his youth.
There were some fantastic small moments from the panel: Spielberg revealing that his experience on E.T. was what made him want children for the first time, Andy Serkis wearing a disguise and asking a ridiculous question about tights, and one fan who asked a question while wearing a shirt that read “If it’s possible, I would love to meet Steven Spielberg, shake his hand, and thank him.”
It was the least annoying way possible to meet an idol, and Spielberg instantly called him up to the stage where he got a handshake, a ton of pictures taken with both directors and a story to tell his grandchildren when he’s showing them their movies.
Overall, the panel was a great extended look at what appears to be a thrilling adventure story using state-of-the-art tech, but it was more than anything else a conversation with two movie fans who make some of the best movies out there. The feeling of the hour was best summed up by the three words at the end of the tribute which played at the opening: “Steven Spielberg. Filmmaker.”