TORONTO — The star of one of the year’s most elaborate big-screen spectacles understands lingering skepticism over performance-capture technology.
Jamie Bell of The Adventures of Tintin says he, too, doubted the value of mashing computer imagery with an actor’s movements when he saw earlier incarnations including 2004’s The Polar Express and 2007’s Beowulf.
“I hated the movies, hated them,” Bell admits in a recent visit to Toronto where he attended a preview screening and took questions from fans in the audience.
“And I would look at the behind-the-scenes stuff and be like, ’This is just ridiculous.’ I was a massive performance-capture skeptic.”
That changed when the Billy Elliot star was brought in to screen test for The Adventures of Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn, helmed by powerhouse director Steven Spielberg and produced by effects master Peter Jackson.
By then the technology had grown by leaps and bounds, says Bell, eclipsing even the remarkable eye-popping effects achieved by James Cameron’s Avatar.
Now he says he can’t envision Tintin without performance-capture technology, declaring it the perfect medium to bring to life Herge’s famous Belgian comic books about a plucky boy journalist with the swooped-up bangs and loyal dog, Snowy.
Tintin’s seafaring pal — the perpetually soused Captain Haddock — is played by Andy Serkis, who earlier this year turned in an acclaimed performance-capture portrayal of the lead simian in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Bell says the 47-year-old Serkis, who also used performance-capture to portray Gollum in the The Lord of the Rings series and the legendary gorilla in King Kong, should be nominated for an Oscar for Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
But he doubted the Academy would make such a bold move, suggesting there is still a stigma in Hollywood over whether it’s a legitimate artistic medium.
“You’ll explain it to someone and someone will say, ‘Oh. So you did the voice,”’ Bell says of his work on Tintin.
“And it’s a really long conversation. I mean it’s a very difficult thing to explain. I think the easiest way of putting it, really, and the way Andy Serkis puts it, is that performance-capture is purely another way of recording the actor’s performance for that character.
“The way I put it is: without the actor in this medium, the digital puppet of Tintin is lifeless — he doesn’t move, he doesn’t think, he doesn’t feel. He does nothing, he’s lifeless. So the actor is the all-important ingredient. The actor is driving the performance for sure.”
Bell says it’s also what allows the 107-minute film to remain faithful to Herge’s simple but elegant aesthetic while infusing the characters, first introduced in a Belgian newspaper in 1929, with the heart and soul of real actors.
Co-stars include Daniel Craig as the villainous Ivanovich Sakharine and Nick Frost and Simon Pegg as bumbling police inspectors Thomson and Thompson.
Bell says Spielberg blew up images from the comic books and plastered posters all over the studio where they worked.
“On any given day we’d just look around for inspiration and just look at these panels and say, ‘Let’s get that pose,’ ‘Let’s put that into the scene today,’ ‘Let’s get this moment between Haddock and Tintin,”’ he says.
“They’re drawn so beautifully, so dynamically, that for us the inspiration is right from Herge.”
Bell says he has been a fan of the comics since he was a kid and re-read all 23 adventures in preparation for the role. But none of that gave him much insight into who Tintin really was.
“For me, the spirit, legacy and allure of Tintin is the mystery about who Tintin is. And as the actor playing him, that was interesting to discover — that actually I know nothing about him, really, at all,” he says.
“Why is his only friend a dog? Why does he constantly put himself in danger? He’s a journalist who never seems to put anything in a newspaper. One of his closest friends is an alcoholic. There’s lots about this character that doesn’t really add up and there isn’t really a solid back story that is definitive.
“(But) it’s because he’s so undefined that makes people who love Tintin so able to step into his shoes and become him.”
The Adventures of Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn opens Wednesday across Canada.