It is perhaps fitting that Steven Spielberg's introduction to Tintin, the young reporter created by Belgian artist Hergé, came via the French language.

It was in the aftermath of Raiders Of The Lost Ark’s release, in 1981, and the acclaimed filmmaker was eagerly trawling the reviews. One piece came from a key French film critic and though Spielberg did not understand the language, he was intrigued by the repetition of one particular word: Tintin. The filmmaker had the review translated into English, and his discovery only added to the intrigue.

“The reviewer was saying that I must have been a real fan of Hergé,” begins Spielberg, “because there was such a similarity between the two worlds. It was comparing my movie with the Hergé adventures but that was the first time I had come across Hergé. I immediately had my assistant get me a book, in French, and I loved the storytelling. I understood everything, even though I couldn’t read the language.

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“I then quickly read all the books in English, and I was completely enthralled. I understood the comparisons with Indiana Jones, and thought the Tintin stories would make fantastic motion pictures.”

The Tintin stories are no stranger to the small screen – there are two well-loved animated television series, Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, produced by Belvision, which aired 104 five-minute episodes from 1958 to 1962, and also The Adventures Of Tintin, which debuted in 1991, with 39 one-hour episodes produced over the course of three seasons. And yet with Spielberg’s Indiana Jones franchise nudging towards its end, Tintin could now pick up Indy’s swashbuckling mantle on the big screen.

Indy’s a man, Tintin just a lad, but they’re motivated by the same principles: justice, honour, and, oftentimes, a startling pragmatism. They also inhabit similar, adventure-laden times, their first capers unfolding during last century’s pre-war years. The advantage that Tintin enjoys over Indy, of course, is his potential longevity. The young reporter is played on screen in Spielberg’s new movie, The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn, by Billy Elliot star Jamie Bell, although with his and the other actors’ performances recorded through motion capture and rendered into 3D animation, the characters can remain the same age forever.

Hergé produced 23 completed comic books. The challenge for Spielberg is taking the property into his native country, where the character is less well known. The comparisons to Indiana Jones will no doubt facilitate the transition. “For me the heart of the character originates with the heart of the illustrator and writer,” Spielberg says. “And Tintin is a tenacious young discoverer, an investigative reporter and his passion is to uncover a mystery. That is a passion that has inspired me long before I read the Tintin books. Since I’ve read the books, however, I have always admired how nothing can stop him and how he has this amazing relationship with the most unlikely partner, which is the reprobate Captain Haddock.”

The character of Captain Haddock, brought to screen courtesy of performance-capture specialist Andy Serkis, is the polar opposite of Tintin: one is the great achiever, the other the self-destructive under-achiever, yet together they’re a top-drawer duo.

“We were able to do this with the permission of the Hergé estate by combining several stories,” continues Spielberg, who employs the books The Secret Of The Unicorn, Red Rackham’s Treasure and The Crab With The Golden Claws to tell his tale, the latter allowing the introduction of Tintin to Haddock. “The most important thing is getting the scripts right. I started working on this more than 25 years ago and we really struggled with the screenplays. We finally got it right thanks to our writers Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish and Stephen Moffatt, and also, of course, thanks to Peter Jackson.”

Indeed Jackson has played a key role in bringing Tintin to the screen, working as producer on the movie alongside Spielberg and the latter’s long-time producing partner Kathy Kennedy. He will also direct the second instalment should the first succeed at the box office. If both films succeed, the pair plan to co-direct a third film.

“Peter and I were, in a way, like two code-breakers working on the Enigma code, trying to figure this movie out together,” says Spielberg of his relationship with the New Zealand-born director, “and once I realised that we were just two scientists in a lab trying to figure out how to make something work, there was no ego. We were just two huge Tintin fanboys trying to bring this movie to you in a way that you will like.”

Jackson’s affinity for Tintin stretches back further in time than Spielberg’s. “My relationship with Tintin and Steven is interesting because as a very young filmmaker, back in the 1980s, I began reading about how Steven was planning a film version of Tintin,” recalls The Lord Of The Rings director. “I was a huge Tintin fan, and I’ve been waiting years for Steven’s movie.”

Spielberg tapped up Jackson when conducting a feasibility study into whether the piece could play as a live-action movie. The process required a computer-generated version of Tintin’s trusty canine pal Snowy, and Spielberg asked Jackson’s firm, WETA Digital, to create the footage. “Then one day I get this call where he says he realised what a big fan I was and invites me to make this film with him,” Jackson remembers. “That’s a very unusual way to get into a project.”

Once Jackson came on board, the two filmmakers quickly dismissed the idea of a live-action film and worked instead on the use of performance-capture, a technique that Jackson has helped establish thanks to his work with Serkis on The Lord Of The Rings’ character Gollum, and on King Kong. “Peter and I discussed a live action version of Tintin,” says Spielberg, “but we decided that the most important thing was to honour Hergé, and get as close to the faces and the personalities and the palette as possible.

“Every single panel of his told a story in cinematic terms,” he adds. “There’s kinetic energy in every pose and action, and it’s almost as if he were trying to squeeze 24 frames into a single frame, and succeeding. That is, I think, the genius of Hergé. Each of his stories has the essence of a movie, and now we can be true to that.”

Indeed, when reading Hergé’s work one cannot help but think not only of Indy, but also of Alfred Hitchcock and the hardboiled characters that populate many a film noir. Tintin’s is a world glowing with the intoxicating allure of cities at night, and yet also one shadowed by images of villains and killers lurking in the nooks and crannies.

The director first optioned the Tintin books in 1983 and had arranged a meeting with Hergé to discuss a cinematic adaptation. The writer and illustrator died a few weeks prior, however, though his estate, overseen by his wife Fanny, remained confident in Spielberg’s vision, and his integrity. Hergé is said to have told Fanny that Spielberg’s Tintin, “will doubtless be different, but it will be a good Tintin”.

Tintinologists will be watching with a careful eye, but most will feel confident that their beloved hero is in safe hands. When it comes to connecting with wide-eyed adventure, Spielberg and Jackson are still connected to their inner children.

“In a way making this film is no different from when you were a kid, imagining stories while lying in bed at night, or playing in a garden with toys,” says Jackson. “You’re just excited at the idea of taking those dramas and stories and putting them out there on film.

“Also I discovered that when Steven walks onto the set it’s like the first time that he’s ever walked onto a film set. He’s childish. I mean that in a positive way; there’s an excitement that he brings to it, an enthusiasm that I found very inspiring, and we needed that. Steven and I have spent five to six years making this film and it was challenging.”

They’ve been aided in their endeavours by a talented and varied cast, predominantly British, which includes alongside Bell and Serkis the likes of Daniel Craig, who plays the pirate Red Rackham, Toby Jones as pickpocket Aristides Silk, and both Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who inhabit the bumbling forms of the detectives Thomson and Thompson.

The film stands as yet another first for Spielberg. “I like trying new things every chance I get,” he notes. “I was excited to break digital technology through the world of dinosaurs when I made Jurassic Park.

“In the same way, I’ve never really directed an animated film before this, and yet I felt it was necessary to make this picture in the medium of performance capture. I hope that we’ve done justice to Hergé’s work.”

The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn is in cinemas from Wednesday