As the visual effects supervisor on the fantasy film “The Last Airbender,” two-time Academy Award nominee Pablo Helman was in charge of managing a 300-man visual effects crew whose job it was to create a new and exciting mythological world based on a Nickelodeon anime cartoon.
Helman, who has worked on the visual effects for films such as “War of the Worlds,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” and “Saving Private Ryan,” saw the project as a challenge he was ready to meet head on.
During an interview with me, Helman, who was born in Argentina, discussed how the four elements of Water, Earth, Air, and Fire had to be created with special software and what it was like working with filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan who had never directed a visual effects-driven film before.
Were there any challenges in “The Last Airbender” that you never experienced before working on the visual effects in past films?
There are always technical challenges that come up. In this particular film it was the digital particle work for Fire, Earth, Water, and Air. We had to create those things in a brand new way. Working with Night [Shyamalan], his vision is that everything needs to be grounded and realistic and believable.
Hadn’t you ever created visual effects with some of these elements before? I remember lots of fiery explosions in “War of the Worlds” and plenty of waves in “Master and Commander.”
I had worked with water and fire before but not to the degree we are doing it here. In this film the fire has to act. It has to perform in a specific way. It has to tell a story. To do those kinds of things we had to develop brand new software.
So, basically you had to visualize these elements almost like they were living, breathing characters?
Yeah, and the challenge is that if the director wants something that is realistic then we have to look at two things: the way it looks and the way it behaves. We can make fire look like fire, but if fire behaves in a way that is not natural then you start questioning the things you are seeing. We had to come up with ways to make the fire look completely natural while it’s doing something that is not natural.
It almost sounds like you are an “airbender” yourself since you have to manipulate these computer-generated elements just like the characters.
(Laughs) Pretty much. You spend a lot of time with these ideas. It’s a very creative process. Essentially, you do become a bender yourself.
Since this is M. Night Shyamalan’s first film with major visual effects, was it easy for him to express what he wanted to see or was it a learning experience for him? Did he ask for things that were simply impossible to deliver?
Everything is possible! (Laughs) No, I think he adapted very well. He is very visual. He always started by telling us exactly what he wanted the shot to be about. Once we understand what they want the shot to be about, that makes our job a lot easier. His vision shapes what we are seeing.
Since this movie is adapted from an animated TV show, were you able to use any of the imagery from the original series to recreate some of the effects for the film version?
I think that is one of the challenges. You take a lot of the stuff the fans like so much and adapt that to a real environment. We did take a look at the show in the beginning. But then after that you want to forget about it and use your creativity to do something a bit different that resembles the work that everybody likes.
This is the first film you’ve worked on that has been formatted in 3-D. What are your thoughts on this 3-D trend that the industry is going through right now? Do you think it enhances the movie or could it take away from all your hard work?
I think if you don’t get it right it takes away from the movie, but I think this specific movie lends itself to 3-D because of the way M. Night tells the story. It’s the same as if you’re writing a book and then right there in the middle of your page you put an illustration of something. Your illustration is enhancing the experience of whoever is reading the book. 3-D is like a tool to tell a story. I don’t think it’s a trend. I think it’s here to stay.
As someone in the visual effects industry, do you keep up with others who are doing the same type of work as you? Do you like to keep tabs on what everyone else is up to?
(Laughs) Yeah, generally we do. We are all friends because it’s a small business. We all have worked with each other throughout the years especially if you’ve been in the business for 20 years. We do look at each other’s work because we are an industry that is very technology-driven. Everything we do we’re doing it on top of one another’s shoulders. It’s not a matter of topping each other, it’s a matter of using what other visual effects artists have done and building on that.