VFX Supervisor Pablo Helman talks about the new Turtles movie

Cowabunga! The Ninja Turtles are back on the big screen this month in a reboot of the popular franchise with blockbuster maestro Michael Bay working behind the scenes. The turtles originally shot to international fame thanks to the popularity of their late 80’s cartoon series (They were rebranded as ‘Hero Turtles’ here in Ireland as the word ‘Ninja’ was considered too violent at the time). Spawning 1000’s of spin-offs including three big-budget movies, a clothes range, toys, comics, video games and even food products. This months reboot shot to number one at the USA box office proving a new generation are ready for some turtle power. In the below interview VFX wizard Pablo Helman talks about the challenge of bringing talking reptiles and rats to the big screen…

Q: How is the way you are shooting motion capture on teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles different from how it’s been done before?

A: We are using two HD cameras on the helmets of the actors. That is the first time ever in the world that any project has used two cameras. Before, they were using one camera, with standard definition, but these are two HD cameras, so we are getting about three times more data than we had before. That means that we are getting a much higher fidelity capture of the performances. The idea is that the director buys into the performances and he’s directing real performances and we are super happy with the data that we are getting because it’s three times the amount of subtlety that we are getting into the animation. Besides the face performance, we are also capturing the body. And we are also developing new technology for the suits, you can see that the suits have all these different markings, which is this laser markings that are going to the joint, and we have a computer program that actually identifies every one of the characters and automatically tracks them. So [there are] lots of brand new technologies in this movie.

Q: In order to translate the actions of the actors with the animation, do you have to work hand in hand with the director? Do you give him advice, consult on ideas, because it could be tricky sometimes knowing the work you have ahead of you after a take is shot?

A: Yes it is and because this movie is about performance, we have to work together. There’s a lot of give and take and a lot of trying of things. I am really interested in seeing subtle performances, so I am asking the actors, to pick a personal quirk, something that they do with their mouths, or a face that they make, so that we can integrate that into the characters, because as you see in the designs, the four turtles are different from each other. The idea from Jonathan Liebesman and Michael Bay is how can we make these turtles completely different from one another so that the audience can completely invest in the characters?

Q: Did you know about the mythology of the Ninja Turtles or did you have to learn everything from scratch?
A: I was kind of late to this series, since I’m a little out of the age range (laughs), but I did learn a lot from doing research. Raphael, if you look at the design, he automatically looks tough, he looks like he’s ready to fight, the design of his face is already acting the part. It’s the same thing with Mikey (Michelangelo) – You can see he’s designed to be slightly at a disadvantage because he’s the smallest one. So they set him up for all of the funny stuff.

Q: How do you compare the CGI characters from the “Jar Jar Binks” era to the characters being created in this Turtles era?
A: (laughs) Well besides the design which I am not going to get into, the ideas are similar. In other words, back then we put a helmet on the actor and we would videotape the performance, using the actor as a reference. This style is way more than a reference. This IS the performance. This is your actor being the character, that’s why it’s important to say Jonathan is directing this.

Q: So will the actors be nominated for an award?
A: (laughs) I think it’s up to them, and SAG. I would have no problem nominating anyone for a CGI performance because this IS their performance. That answers the question would we ever replace acting performances with digital characters? You are never going to do that. The performance has to come from somewhere, it’s going to come from an actor, or it’s going to come from an animator, or from a director, so it has to come from interaction. I think a lot of things that happen [in] acting, happen from interaction between the actors and the director. They explore different things, and after weeks and weeks of working on the character, they arrive at a performance. You can’t take away that. That stuff, you can’t make up. It has to be a human, made up performance.


TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES is at cinemas from October 17th