In 1929, a 21-year-old Belgian illustrator named Georges Remi created a new comic strip featuring a bold cub reporter and his white Fox Terrier traveling in the Soviet Union. The comic, known as Tintin, was an immediate success and spawned a series of graphic novels which were translated into 80 languages and sold more than 350 million copies, written under the pen name of Herge.
It has taken over 80 years to bring the franchise to the big screen, and who better to do the series justice than producer Peter Jackson and director Steven Spielberg? Shot entirely on a soundstage in Playa Vista, California, in high tech motion capture, both Spielberg and the actors were instantly able to see their ‘avatars’ interacting within the film’s universe on the virtual camera’s monitor.
Starring as Tintin is Jamie Bell, who shot to fame as a teenager in Billy Elliot. After seeing that movie, both Spielberg and Jackson felt Bell had all the right qualities to portray the character.
The young actor spoke about his love for the franchise and ‘keeping it professional’ with Steven Spielberg.
Did you know about the Tintin franchise before starting this?
I watched the animated television series on Channel Four as a kid in England, and it felt different to other cartoons. As a young person back then, watching them it felt like I was watching a grown up cartoon.
I think because of the length, usually it took 40 minutes to finish an adventure, you felt like you were sitting down and watching a mini-movie, your own adult cartoon. That it was something special to me.
How did you go about embodying the character?
When you see a young person who is so fearless and so adventurous the way Tintin is, it’s everything you want to be yourself. Tintin is a very driven character, a very moral character, and I admire that.
He will get to the bottom of things no matter what. But sometimes he’s wrong and that’s when he has to trust in Snowy, his dog. But he always wins at the end of it.
As a young person, especially for me, I always projected everything onto him and therefore he was my hero.
Were you able to relate to your character in any way? Did you find it at all challenging to try and stay true to the character in the graphic novel?
I’m not a particularly adventurous person, I’m more of an armchair traveler, like Herge was. Herge was a guy who didn’t really travel the world that much at all, he would buy National Geographic and sit in his armchair and draw it. I’m kind of similar in that way.
The spirit of Tintin is really the thing about him. If you don’t know that much about who he is, the specific thing about him is he’s a beacon of excellence for children. His moral compass is pointing in the right direction.
He is a document of the 20th century. He was the eyes of an every changing European continent in history. The spirit of that is timeless.
He’s also a character who relies on nothing else other than his own great natural, fearless, heroic instinct, and that’s a great message. You can be great just by being yourself. I think that’s awesome.
Can you talk a little about Tintin’s traveling companion, Snowy?
Snowy is an essential character who you will feel for, he’s a very funny character as well. He gets into trouble and Tintin is often scolding him and I like that. I like that Tintin disciplines him, it’s not a cute, lovey kind of relationship, it’s a boy and his dog.
That to me was always very striking from the comics and that’s what we’ve tried to do in the film as well. And like I said earlier, Snowy is sometimes right when Tintin is wrong, sometimes Snowy is two steps ahead of the game and Tintin is lagging behind. That’s been fun to play.
What was it like acting in the Volume?
It’s an interesting way to work, because the movie set is in your head. We were focused on giving these characters life and making them breathe. Then, in this 3D animated world they’ve created, we could see all of our heart and soul and anger coming through. It was remarkable.
If there was one question you’d like to ask Herge what would it be?
I would generally ask questions about the character. Who is he? Why is his only friend a dog? Where are his parents? Things like that.
I trolled through all 23 adventures in preparation just to try and find all these answers to this mystery, the heart of all of these adventures, and it’s impossible. You can’t find any answers, and I think that’s because Herge himself is also an enigma. I think he hides himself, even his name isn’t real.
That’s his initials reversed. His real name is Georges Remi. You get Herge from that. I think the allure of Tintin is the mystery of who he actually is.
What was it like working with Steven Spielberg?
I’ve loved everything he’s ever done. I’ve never told him any of that, because you feel like you need to keep it professional. But it’s been fantastic just to see him work and to think of myself as that boy in the movie theatres seeing his films, and then to do this particular project.
I’m the happiest guy in the world.
What does this movie mean to you?
Being a massive fan before this film, and now being in the film, obviously it’s a very massive responsibility. The books have sold over 200 million copies, have been translated into 80 languages, the readership is from ages 7 to 70.
Lots of people internationally all have an ownership over this character, and you are the representative of that character. So for me it was important to evoke the spirit of Herge and the books and that beacon that he is, and I really feel like Steven really achieved that.