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Becoming Tintin: An Interview with Jamie Bell

Jamie Bell, 25, shares a moment with his onscreen counterpart, everyoneís favorite cartoon journalist Tintin. Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
by Dan Lybarger

Actor Jamie Bell had an enviable debut as the title character in the international hit Billy Elliot. Like his onscreen alter ego, Bell was a boy from the north of England who studied to be a ballet dancer despite the ribbing of his peers and ended up succeeding. Unlike the role, Bellís story continues and takes him in surprising directions.

For one thing, the agile star played the disabled Smike in Douglas McGrathís adaptation of David Copperfield and has portrayed convincing Americans in everything from a Green Day video ("Wake Me Up When September EndsĒ) to Undertow to Flags of Our Fathers. Heís also made some additional pocket money adding his voice to video games (King Kong and Jumper).

For his latest role, Bell has taken on the beloved reporter (if there is such a thing) Tintin in The Adventures of Tintin, which opens today in the United States after a successful run in Europe. Based on the comic books crated by Belgian cartoonist Hergť in 1929, the film follows young Tintin as he tries to find out why the creepy Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig) is willing to pay outrageously high sums for his model ship called The Unicorn. For his investigation, he teams up with his super intelligent dog Snowy and the alcoholic Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis).

Tintinís adventures have delighted Europeans and Asians for decades, even if heís more of a cult figure here in the States (a woman I used to know kept a figure of him on her dashboard for good luck). Several of Hergťís most beloved characters make it into the film including opera singer Bianca Castafiore (Kim Stengel) and the bumbling detectives Thompson & Thompson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). The later gave the 80s band The Thompson Twins their name.

The film also marks the first time Oscar-winners Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Schindlerís List) and Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) have collaborated. Bellís own hair doesnít have the same orange cowlick that the comic book character has, but thanks to the motion capture technology of Jacksonís New Zealand-based Weta studio, he and the other performers can match the looks of their cartoon counterparts. In the following telephone conversation, Bell explained how his work with motion capture gives the 3D animated film a new dimension to the time honored comics.

My nephew is going to be delighted that Iím talking with you because heís a huge Green Day fan.

Oh, thatís hilarious. It was something very different for me. Iíd never done music video. I hadnít really been that excited to do one. Iíd much prefer to like direct one or something. When this guy, Sam Bayeróhe directed ďSmells Like Teen SpiritĒ by Nirvana. This guy was ingrained into the music video culture from the beginning. When he said he wanted to do this kind of epic Green Day video, it seemed like something that would be cool. It was a lot of fun to do and very ambitious for a music video.

Speaking of ambitious, the new film is also pretty involved. Had you grown up reading Hergťís Tintin comics?

Oh, yeah. I started reading Tintin when I was eight. Over In Europe and pretty much everywhere else in the world except this country (the United States), heís considered a kind of global icon. For me, he was very much part of my childhood growing up.

Because of your background as a dancer, did that help you master his distinctive way of running?

With performance capture, the physical side of things is very important. The actor whoís playing these kinds of parts needs some form of control and understanding of their body physically. For me, that came very easy. I started when I was six. That is a kind of crucial component to this kind of technology and for this character, specifically.

It also gives you a good sense of discipline, a sense of working, a sense of stamina, just in terms of the physical kind of commitment that Iím obviously extremely grateful for. There are definitely certain things about film acting that wouldnít have come as easily to me if I hadnít had a six year experience with dance. I think itís extremely important. I think youíll find a lot of actors come from a dance background.

Youíve also done voice work for video games. For an outsider to this technology, could you explain the difference between motion capture and what youíre just doing with the voice?

With the voice, all youíre doing is standing in a sound booth. All youíre providing as a performer is literally just your voice. With performance capture, youíre actually acting out the scenes physically and vocally in the way to the way youíd see actors in a live action film, providing everything to the character.

Without the actor in performance capture, the digital puppet of Tintin doesnít move. It doesnít feel anything. Itís a lifeless thing. It doesnít do anything. The actor is a very important ingredient. Itís very different to just voice work.

Did you have Daniel Craig or Andy Serkis to react off of?

Absolutely, itís the same as in a live action film. There are other actors you work with in a scene. It opens it up. The principle is exactly the same. Theyíre acting off each other and working with each other within the scenes.

Youíre reacting to stuff that wouldnít quite happen in the real world. Did you have any preparation with that working on Peter Jacksonís King Kong?

Yeah, I think Peter Jackson had seen the potential in that movie to be able to react to things that arenít there, to inform yourself as an actor because the things around you donít exist. Thatís the fun part. Thatís the creative side. Itís the imaginative side. Itís the kind of kid in you as an actor that gets to come out of you for a second. Actually, itís really fun and exciting and creative.

Where exactly were you when you shot your scenes? I understand that Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg were working from two different places during the filming.

For the first week of principal photography, Peter was actually on the set at the same time. And then Peter would then for the remainder of the shoot would Skype call into the set. He was going to be present by Skype. Steven would be directing, and Peter would be on a computer screen. We actually shot the film in Culver City(, Calif.).

Did you get to see it pieced together through the making of it? Did you get to see what youíd be reacting to?

No. We didnít get to see much of the final product itself. Itís such a rigorous process. Itís called ďrendering.Ē With the rendering of this information, it was kind of basically impossible for them to show me anything of what the film was going to look like. So when we first saw it, it was really the first time weíd seen anything completed.

Wow. So you would go for months and years without knowing what the final result would look like?

Oh, yeah. I went for two years without knowing what the film would look like at all.

So how did you feel when you finally saw it?

I thought they did a great job. I thought they really pushed the boundaries. I thought theyíd elevated animation as a medium. I thought that Steven had crafted a really good Tintin movie, a really good action adventure movie. So, for me, I was blown away by it.

Because the film is designed to be seen in 3D, were there any considerations you had to make as a performer?

No, not really. Stevenís using it in a really subtle way. Itís not going to be that kind of the
make you sick kind of 3D where you look at it, and it doesnít make you feel so good. Spielberg has used the 3D technology to expand our universe.

Iíve noticed that with a lot of the WETA motion capture movies (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Avatar), the characters are a bit more lifelike. Why does the WETA team seem to do a much better job with this?

I think that they have the most experience. I think these are the guys who kind of first gave us these kind of characters, like Gollum (in The Lord of the Rings), which was a primitive form of that technology. But I think that they were kind of doing it before other people were and using it in the right way. I think Joe Letteri, who is the special effects wizard of The Lord of the Rings, Avatar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes or Tintin.

He understands that the performance rests in the eyes of the actors. And thatís what he pays the most attention to. Thatís also the hardest part of the characters. Weta for some reason seem to be the only ones who can get a sense of real life and locate real kinds of feelings behind those eyes. And thatís what itís all about.

In some of the other motion capture films Iíve seen, the eyes look like theyíre pieces of glass.

Thatís something that they focus on heavily. Itís something that theyíve worked for years to try to get that right. These guys did it better than anybody else. They did a really great job with that in this movie. This is the first time weíve really seen a fully animated motion capture movie where the characters have life in their eyes. I think thatís kind of exciting.

Did Andy Serkis give you any advice on doing this sort of thing?

No. Heís not that kind of guy. Heís much more involved with his own character. Heís very immersed, so once we start working, he starts working he ceases to be Andy and he sort of becomes whichever character heís playing. And thatís the joy of working with him, when you see him transform into someone else.

In Flags of Our Fathers, you not only played tragic real life Marine Ralph ďIggyĒ Ingantowski, but you looked exactly like him.

I donít know. I think there was a certain look, a certain spirit behind him. He was a youthful kind of man. He was described in the book as a kind of a ďBMX bicycle kid.Ē He was someone who had a massive heart. I recognized a lot about that character, maybe not aesthetically but more of the spirit of a really good guy, an innocent guy, a kind of purist. He was very much a baby of the American dream.

Iíd like to know which accent was harder, the California guy from Chumscrubber or the southern kid you played in Undertow?

Itís funny. I think the Southern kind of sound, especially for an English actor, is bizarrely kind of easy to do. Thereís been other kinds of accents that have been more challenging, like when we were doing a version of a Belorussian sound for this film I did called Defiance, which also had Daniel Craig in it. We were doing these not Polish, but not Russian either, very Belorussian accents. And that was definitely tricky.

I think any kind of voice work, accent work that is kind of physical is really fun and it helps me kind of understand the character a little bit more. It is a rare accent for actors to have to do. It usually one that you will have to do at some point I think because so many good stories come from that part of the world. That is a little more tricky.

For a lot of performers, a role like Billy Elliot would have been definitive, but youíve gone on to play Charles Dickens roles, you were in Jane Eyre, youíve played Yanks. Why do you think you were able to move on?

Thatís a good question. Iím not too sure, really. I didnít really have a kind of strategy or tactic that one uses to forge a career. I think that some of us are just extremely fortunate. Iíve been extremely lucky to have those kinds of opportunities. Thankfully for me, they just kept coming. And I jumped at every single one because I wanted to keep working and realized this was something I wanted to take seriously and kind of harness into a career. Iíve been so lucky that thatís been the case. Iíve worked with some really fascinating people on some really challenging and different projects. In that regard, Iím extremely lucky as an actor, and I count my blessings as it is.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3338
originally posted: 12/21/11 10:17:06
last updated: 12/21/11 10:42:23
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