Pablo Helman interview: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Who better to spill the beans on the new Turtles movie than the SFX supervisor?

As part of our visit to ILM, we got a chance to sit down with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles SFX Supervisor Pablo Helman for a chat. A warm, grey haired chap with a gruff voice and a slight Harold Ramis vibe about him, Helman was an interesting and really pleasant person to spend time with. Helman had overseen the digital Ninja Turtles in the new movie and was particularly enthused about what they’d achieved and how they’d achieved it.

As Den of Geek’s resident Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles obsessive (and by resident, I mean they let me sleep by the bins outside the offices when they don’t notice I’m there), I find conducting interviews about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles useful, as I’m only going to end up talking about it anyway. This one took place a few weeks before the US release of the film.

It also took place with other journalists. It was a roundtable interview with three other journalists from various different parts of the world. Including our Argentinian interview subject, the five of us were from five different countries, so we all spoke a little slowly to make sure we could understand each other. It’s worth noting, though, that not all of the questions in this interview were asked by Den of Geek and so some of them might not seem very Den of Geekish. I do think all of his answers are quite interesting, though, so I’ve included pretty much everything here. It’s, er, probably best to just assume that we asked your favourite questions and that any you’re not keen on were asked by someone else.

What made you push yourself the most on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and why?

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I think the most difficult thing for all of us was to make sure that the performance is telling the story. That’s how you very quickly find out that just because scientifically we have captured all this data and scientifically we have put it onto the creature, we needed the animator’s artistry to come in and shape that performance to tell you that story. I think that’s the most difficult thing that we had to overcome. The reason is because these four turtles are carrying the movie. If we don’t have the Turtles we don’t have a movie, right?

So the idea is that, when you’re seeing this you understand what the characters are and you laugh with them and you kind of feel with them.

I think that, because this is the first movie not a sequel, there is a process of discovery, where you actually discover the characters. Just because we shot it on the set in a specific way, that doesn’t mean that we discovered what the Turtles are. We found that out when we were designing them and putting them together. It’s that thing about familiarity with faces, that you know that it’s me because maybe I smile in a specific way and immediately your brain says ‘Oh, that’s who he is’. That is something that we all kind of discovered when we were in dailies. Looking at the picture and saying “Well that’s not… that doesn’t look like Mikey.”

“Well, how come?” It’s because you also find out where to put the camera and how to light it. There’s something that happened to me on other movies. There was an actor, a specific actor that I worked with, that if you put the camera right here (gestures with his hands), as a profile, you don’t recognise him. He’s a very well-known actor. Very quickly we started saying to the director “We have to change it so the camera went like this” (gestures with his hands again). He said “ahh, there it is!”

Same thing happens with these characters.

We found that looking down on them is not a very good angle. It’s usually a three quarter angle that is good. Side light and back light is good, but front light is not that good.

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For a film where you’ve had to prepare, particularly with a film with so much technology involved, so far in advance, how easy is it to make adjustments when things don’t work?

I think that’s a great question*. That is part of the reason why we decided to go with a system that is editable. Because being a comedy and you have four funny actors sitting there and telling jokes and you have writers feeding lines and changing things all the way, you have to be able to be flexible. If you can’t do that, you can’t have a movie that is funny. You can have a movie that has some animation on it, but not necessarily what you want.

Technology is such, right now, that basically we’re pushing the technology all the way to release, almost. I mean, think about it, this movie is being released in three weeks aaaaaand, we are right there, right? We kind of just finished. And finished meaning that there were lots of shots, this movie’s about over a thousand shots or something like that, but performances were tweaked all the way to the end because you want to make the best movie that you can possibly make.

I think that is the main difference between this system and any other system in any other movies that are being made, is that you can edit the performance and put it together from different performances.

Are the cameras that you use for the special effects (the head-mounted ones on the actors) full HD?

It’s HD. That’s also a difference between this and other systems. There’s not the one camera over here that’s standard definition. Our system has two HD cameras and it’s also fitted on a helmet that is 3D printed so it doesn’t move. Just from that, starting from two HD cameras, you have about three and a half times the resolution of what’s been done before.

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That was actually a requirement for us because we wanted to catch as much data and as much sensitivity on the eyes as possible. And the mouth.

What kind of input did Michael Bay give you?

Well, Michael did give us a lot of input. When it comes to aesthetics, he’s a master at framing, blocking, sequencing. He has a specific aesthetic for those kinds of things. So, dodging the camera, moving the camera three-sixty around the characters.

Especially because you have four characters. That’s a very, very difficult thing to do, when you’re blocking four actors. It’s really difficult for a director to pay attention to what the four are doing. You have to be in a really wide lens, right, so what happens is if I’m on a really wide lens, I’m over here and if you’re talking, you’re going to be really far away. Even though you’re right there where you are (gestures to us, sat right by him), it looks that way. So the idea is just to change the camera around. Michael is a master at that.

That is also why the system had to be editable. Because you have four performers interacting with two other performers and the camera has to be moving around; it’s a dialogue piece so you don’t want it cut, cut, cut, cut. That’s also the reason why it was so important for us to edit performances. Because we have like seven, eight takes of a specific thing and if one take is good for one person and another take is good for another, and the timing is wrong or something happens, and so you have to be able to put all of those performances together.

Did you take any visual reference from the old TV show?

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We did. We did take a look at all the comic books. In fact, I met Eastman. He was on the set a couple of times and I was talking to him a lot. We did take a look at all the history of it.

But here’s the difference; the difference is that when a comic book gets developed, it gets developed for print. So what happens is you have one frame in which you’re telling the story and it really doesn’t matter how the mouth moves. You can do all kinds of things just for that specific frame, because you’re telling that specific story. And then you move on to the next storyboard.

In movies that’s not so. It’s not just taking the graphic novel and making it a frame.

That’s why we had to have mouths, because you have to be able to enunciate, you have to be able to articulate what you’re saying. Otherwise it looks like a puppet show. That’s the main reason.

There was a recasting about four months ago, where Johnny Knoxville came in. From an animation point of view, was that difficult to facilitate?

Actually, Pete (Ploszek) was really good at portraying Leo, it was mainly about the voice and the delivery. Because our system is so flexible, we were able to key frame that in. The deliveries are a little bit different, but they’re not that much different, so we were able to accommodate that.

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I just ask because with the performance capture, it’s such a personalised system. So, you were just able to remodel the mouth?

Yeah, it’s a remodeling of the mouth and taking a look at some of the rigging, and some of the phonemes that were made. But I mean, it wasn’t a big deal because we knew we had to be flexible.

I have a question about the texture of the skin, because it has to be quite Turtleish. Can you tell us about that?

Well, we did take a look at a bunch of different references from real life. That is kind of like the theme of this movie; how do you make it real without being gross or something that you don’t want to see?

We tried to make the four different Turtles look really different from each other. So there are some markings on every one of the Turtles, but they’re different from each other. We went reptilian and we went a little bit wet, or sweaty – especially towards the end battle.

But the skin is skin and so we had all the other attributes of skin, meaning that when the light hits there’s a scatter of light inside the skin. There are some areas that are redder because their blood is red. That’s what happens to us too, right? So around the nose and places where there’s a little bit of flesh, there the light gets warm. So, even though they are green, there’s a little bit of warmth in there.

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What is the risk of making a movie of this nature?

It is really risky, because when you’re doing innovation, when you’re doing something that is completely new, you don’t know how it’s gonna come out. That’s part of doing innovation, right? I mean, you have a pretty good idea of what you do and you take a risk. But that’s the good thing about working at ILM; there’s really great artists. I think our job is to sit down at the table and think of anything that could solve the problem. It’s a really creative job, I’m really lucky to have this job, and the people who I work with are awesome.

So, sometimes things didn’t work, so you just sit down at the table and rethought the whole thing. And then, things work.

So, yeah, there is a lot of risk. The risk is to not portray the characters the way you wanted and to have people not understand what the characters are all about. But I think when you have that as your priority, you can do it. Because it’s not about the technology, it’s not about the schedules, it’s about the images and what it is that you want that character to do.

How long have you been working on this film?

It’s gonna be three years.

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It’s really a very interesting property, just because it’s so outrageous. In my business you’re always looking for ‘what’s original?’ and you can’t have anything that more original and more out there than a turtle that is a mutant and is a ninja and is a teenager. I mean, come on.

The idea is to take a look at that thing and make it new. So, it’s been a long time.

When you’re thinking about committing to a three year project, is that a difficult decision to make?

Well, it’s usually about two years for me. It takes two years for me to start talking about a project, reading a script, sitting down with the director and the production designer and the producers and to come up with a methodology of how we are going to do this. And then be on location. And then, come back for post-production.

In this case, it’s part of the risk, too. If you’re sitting down at the table and the producer and the director are saying “I want these characters to be as real as possible. How do we do this?”

So I say “Okay, well, we need to capture the data.”

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“Well, what does that mean?”

That means that you need to direct the actors and you need to be married to those performances. ‘Cause if you don’t, we’re not going to make it. That was kind of like the original premise, right? Well, guess what? It went away, because then we did exactly that.

The director worked with us; he understood right away that it was a visual effects commitment that he was making.

But then, once you put it all together, well then… it’s a good thing that we decided to make it editable because if we didn’t we wouldn’t have a movie.

And in that case it was a risk, and it was expensive, in a sense, but the director looks to us and says “You have to be prepared for the A plan and the B plan and the C plan and you can never fail”. And that’s basically what we do.

Thank you, Pablo Helman.

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