Argentine Pablo Helman on Bringing His Visual Effects Magic to Hollywood’s Blockbusters

It’s a long way from Buenos Aires to Hollywood. In fact, it’s 6118 miles, but that didn’t stop a young Pablo Helman from leaving behind the old-world grace of El Puerto for the bright lights of Tinseltown. But Pablo wasn’t scheming to make his way onto the celebrity A-list, or pre-visualizing an armful of Best Director Oscars, he simply wanted to make a career composing music for the pictures. Fate however, had other plans for Pablo and after working as an editor for six years his experience with computers landed him right in the middle of Hollywood’s digital effects revolution.

That was over 20 years ago and since then Helman has racked up a few dozen credits on films ranging from Men in Black to Munich, and most recently the revamped Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. In addition to working with directors like Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, and George Lucas, Helman’s work has also earned him a couple of Academy Award nominations for his work as Visual Effects Supervisor on Star Wars: Episode II and War of the Worlds.

But don’t think for a second that it’s gone to his head. Helman is a man who genuinely loves what he does, and he doesn’t think too much about fame or recognition. As he tells it, he prefers to take it one project at a time and focus on telling the story as best he can. Now, as he prepares for the world premiere of his latest technical challenge in the form of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows — which found him applying a challenging state-of-the-art facial-capture technology — we took a minute to chat with Helman about the old days of visual effects, supervising teams of 500 people, and that special Argentine sensibility.

Here are some highlights from our conversation.

On the Responsibilites of an Effects Supervisor

[As supervisor] you’re supposed to give the vision of the film to the artists. You’re on the set, you’re in pre-production, you prep for the movie before it shoots and you’re on the movie while it shoots, and you’re part of story development in a sense, you help with your visual effects to tell the story. So you’re basically in charge of telling that story to 500 people that work for 8 months to complete 107 minutes of the movie.

It’s something that you learn and you develop techniques to communicate them to such a big crowd. It’s exactly the same kind of pyramid that all of movie making is built on. You have the director on top and you have a bunch of decisions that need to be made and you have to be very careful how you communicate them down the line to make things as efficient as possible. And so throughout the 20 years you just develop certain ways to say things so the artists can follow through.

On Oscar Nominations vs. The Simple Satisfactions

It’s a great honor [to be nominated], but to be honest you just put everything in perspective and it’s about the work that you do. Sometimes you’d be surprised about the movies where I’ve been recognized or not, and it’s not really about that. Normally when I finish a project I usually go to the movie theater and I just sit in the back and through the reaction of the people I get to be satisfied.

Pablo Helman with Steven Spielberg
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On Keeping Up With The Technology

That’s one of the things I was lucky with [when I started out in visual effects]: they were in the middle of changing from optical to digital. And it’s changed incredibly since then. It used to be that technology would make things change every four or five years and now it’s on a weekly basis. You can see a lot of that in Out of the Shadows — the difference in performance capture from two years ago to now. I think the new performance capture is incredibly faithful to the actors’ performance, but it changes every week or so.

“It used to be that technology would make things change every four or five years and now it’s on a weekly basis.”

In the early days a lot of things were done manually, even in the digital realm. Even when we were painting things, we were painting in the computer and we were doing things manually a lot. Now a lot of it has been automated and it’s more of an assembly line. But you need to be able to work with those kinds of concepts and get the best out of the artists to come up with the story.

On Creating Subtle Visual Effects

Sometimes working on smaller films like Munich or Jarhead or something like that, where effects actually contribute to the storytelling without anyone knowing, I have to tell you it’s really fulfilling. It’s really nice and subtle, as opposed to being very obvious about the visual effects. But again, I enjoy both things. You have to have a little of both in your life.

‘War of the Worlds’
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On Bringing His Talents Back Home to Argentina

I’ve been trying for about ten years now to work on some projects in Argentina, but it’s very difficult. I think the industry is developing still, but the good news about that is there are really great ideas and I’d be always open to working in that environment. I just met Damián Szifrón in Barcelona, and I think it’s really interesting the way he tells stories. And he’s a young guy, so I’d always be interesting in working with him on anything.

On That Special Argentine Sensibility

I think I have a certain closeness to intimate themes that are very close to the Argentine way of thinking, that have to do with internal things that happen when the world around you is changing. That is something that I always carry with me.