Spielberg, Jackson dig into ‘Tintin’

Duo's motion-capture film quietly in motion

Steven Spielberg this week will quietly wrap 32 days of performance-capture lensing on “Tintin,” then hand the project to producer Peter Jackson, who will focus on the film’s special effects for the next 18 months.

Although the baton-pass is stealthy, “Tintin” is anything but a low-profile project. And that’s just the first of many contradictions inherent with the film, which brings together two of cinema’s visionaries.

The Tintin comicbook series about a globetrotting teenaged boy reporter, which originated 80 years ago in Belgium, is wildly popular in many countries around the world. In the U.S., however, the character is little-known, especially among children.

Spielberg and Jackson’s respective camps have tried to keep a lid on the details of what is expected to become a three-film franchise while hyping the one-of-a-kind aspects of “Tintin’s” motion-capture technology, which is being created by Jackson’s New Zealand-based effects house Weta.

Just don’t ask too many questions.

Spielberg’s longtime spokesman Marvin Levy, who welcomed a story on “The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn,” said, “You have to see it to understand (the technology). It really can’t be described.”

But he quickly nixed the idea of a visit to the set. “That wouldn’t be feasible,” he says.

The film’s other producer, Kathleen Kennedy, is happy to talk about “Tintin,” but admitted the world Spielberg and Jackson are creating is hard to describe.

“It’s extremely difficult to explain to someone unless they are standing here next to me,” Kennedy says from the Los Angeles set. “And usually then their reaction is, ‘Oh my god.’ ”

Kennedy and Spielberg acquired the project in 1983 after Spielberg’s interest in the project was piqued by critics’ insistence that his “Raiders of the Lost Ark” harkened back to Tintin’s escapades in exotic locations.

But the pair couldn’t realistically begin developing the pic until about two years ago, when motion-capture technology finally caught up with the demands of the story. Spielberg received his introduction into the fledgling technology via his producing role on “Monster House.” But Jackson, who joined Kennedy and Spielberg on the project in early 2007, is clearly a master of the form. Both the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “King Kong” elevated performance-capture to never-before-seen realism.

Jackson’s role as mo-cap mentor to Spielberg, however, prompts the question: Who exactly is steering the “Tintin” ship?

Spielberg will receive sole directing credit on the first film, though even that distinction seems murky given that Jackson is doing the more time-consuming work, spending a year and a half creating the Tintin’s world vs. Spielberg’s one month on set. Jackson also traveled to Los Angeles for rehearsals and for the first week of shooting.

“It’s hard to delineate between directing and producing on films like this,” explains one project insider.

Kennedy insists that the transitions between the two creative talents are relatively seamless. “They are amazingly collaborative, even more so than Steven and George (Lucas were on the ‘Raiders’ films).”

And then, there are the two filmmakers’ differing styles and thematic vibes: Spielberg is more character-oriented and relatively lean while Jackson revels in lavish visuals … and running times.

The conventional wisdom has always been that Spielberg would direct his “Tintin” film, and Jackson would have his own. (It has long been reported that Jackson will helm the second chapter of three “Tintin” films.) There was even speculation that the two films would be shot back to back, much like Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings.” However, there is no second film in the immediate future or even a script for one at this point.

Paramount and Sony, the first film’s co-financiers, have yet to greenlight a followup to the $120 million project and are waiting for a script before making a decision.

The first film, which was No. 11 in Georges “Herge” Remi’s 24-book Tintin series, was written by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish.

Jackson is currently taking a stab at the second film and sketching out ideas, though he wouldn’t necessarily take screenplay credit for that film and could possibly hand script duties back to Moffat, Wright and Cornish.

Even the casting of the first film suggests a strong Jackson influence: Beside the inclusion of “LOTR’s” Andy Serkis, the helmer made a personal call to enlist star Jamie Bell, who played a supporting role in Jackson’s “King Kong.”

But Spielberg’s camp insists he will have a firm handle on all aspects of the film, including its special effects. Jackson and Spielberg have rigged a video conferencing system by which Spielberg is able to see everything Jackson sees at the Weta facility in New Zealand.

Spielberg and Kennedy also are making their presence felt with the project’s early marketing decisions.

Paramount, which will distribute the film in all English-speaking territories and Asia, has the bigger challenge, with much lower awareness of the property in these territories, particularly the United States.

But one Par top exec downplayed any perceived challenges.

“It’s not like there was any awareness on ‘Kung Fu Panda’ either,” the exec says. “We had to go out and introduce this property to the world.”

Still, “Kung Fu Panda” enjoyed a high-profile voice cast, with stars Angelina Jolie and Jack Black tubthumping in the film’s behalf. By contrast, the only household name in “Tintin’s” cast is current James Bond incarnation Daniel Craig, who is notorious for eschewing press junkets.

Sony, which is handling all overseas regions outside Asia, will likely have an easier time selling the film ahead of its planned 2011 release because the comicbook, which has been translated into 50 languages, remains hugely popular in the territories Sony will handle, including non-English-speaking Europe and India.

If anyone can overcome the film’s challenges and silence the questions, it’s the combined superpower of Spielberg and Jackson. Still, this highly anticipated collaboration continues to beg more questions than it answers.