From machine-to-machine combat in “Terminator 3” to waves crashing against British ships in “Master and Commander” to alien spacecrafts annihilating cities in “War of the Worlds,” visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman has helmed some of the most fantastic special effects at the movies in recent years.
Helman, who is originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, returns to form once again in the fantasy adventure film “The Spiderwick Chronicles.” Here, he is able to give life to a whole new world of creatures including faeries, goblins, and hideous ogres.
During a phone interview with me, Helman discussed his work on “Spiderwick,” his current “Indiana Jones” project with director Steven Spielberg, and where visual effects will be in the next few years.
You’ve been nominated for two Oscars for “War of the Worlds” and “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.” With the Academy Awards next week, can you tell me what your favorite film is to win Best Visual Effects?
(Laughing) You’re going to put me on the spot like that? I can’t tell you because the voting is secret. However, I think that any of the three pictures that are nominated (“Transformers,” “The Golden Compass” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”) could get it. They were all magical.
You’ve had the opportunity to work on some great films like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich” where the story always seems to take precedence to the special effects. A lot of studios will do it the opposite way and focus on the visuals before the story. What is your preference as a visual effects supervisor?
I think the visual effects are just a tool to help tell the story. If you don’t have a story, you shouldn’t be making a movie. I tend to work on projects where the script is really good. In “The Spiderwick Chronicles” I felt like that from the very beginning. It’s not a movie about the visual effects. The visual effects are only there to support a great story.
What was the biggest challenge in creating this new fantasy world in “Spiderwick?”
The main challenge for “Spiderwick” was to come up with characters that would be believable. It’s really difficult to come up with a computer rendering that looks great. Also, the most important thing is the animation. If the animation is not there it doesn’t matter how good [a character] looks, no one is going to buy it.
Over the years, what films had an effect on you and made you decide that this was the part of the film industry you wanted to make your career?
I didn’t realize I was going to be in this industry until 20 years ago. But I was always a visual person. Films that I got hooked on were “Star Wars,” “Blade Runner,” “2001,” and all the [Steven] Spielberg films.
Now, you’re working with Spielberg again for the next “Indiana Jones” movie. Since “Temple of Doom” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” won Oscars for visual effects, does that put added pressure on you to make this one extra special?
It’s added pressure because the franchise is so good. I think the work that we’re putting into [“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) is fantastic. I’m really excited for it.
What do we have to look forward to in the next few years in terms of visual effects?
The industry is going towards synthetic characters. But I’m not saying that it’s a good thing. Again, if there isn’t a story that is there for these characters, then you shouldn’t be doing it. But I think technology is going towards humans synthetic characters looking better and better.
So, are we going to see a movie in the future where we don’t even have to cast someone like Jack Nicholson if we want him to star in a movie? We’re going to be able to create our own Jack Nicholson on the computer?
You probably can. We saw a performance by Anthony Hopkins in “Beowulf” like that. The effort is really there. But as the audience, would I prefer to see Anthony Hopkins act? Yes. I would rather see the real actor.