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June 06
2024

ISSUE

Summer 2024

PABLO HELMAN BRINGS TO LIFE THE RHYTHM OF THE RIGHT STORY BEAT

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Pablo Helman except where noted.

Pablo Helman had ambitions of becoming a composer and instead changed his tune to become an Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor for The Irishman, War of the Worlds and Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones.

Pablo Helman had ambitions of becoming a composer and instead changed his tune to become an Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor for The Irishman, War of the Worlds and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.

Despite the infamous Dirty War (1976 to 1983) where the military dictatorship in Argentina caused 10,000 to 30,000 citizens to “disappear” for being suspected life-wing political opponents, the artistic community in Buenos Aires was still able to give birth to global talent, even if gatherings had been driven underground. Rising from this crucible was a composer who would find himself collaborating with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Clint Eastwood, but in an entirely different capacity.

“You couldn’t wear your hair long,” recalls Pablo Helman, Visual Effects Supervisor at ILM. “It was difficult to walk on the streets and not be stopped and asked for your documents. You never knew if your friend was involved in terrorism or not. I went to a party when I was 16 and didn’t know that the owner of the house was somebody involved with terrorism, so at 2 a.m. police came and took 50 of us kids in. They let me go at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. I was living with my mother at that time, and she screamed at me, ‘What the hell are you doing? I don’t know where you are.’ I didn’t tell her. Four years later when I left Argentina, I told her and she started crying. It also pushed me out of Argentina in 1980, which was right in the middle of a civil war. I had friends who disappeared. Also, when I was 15, I went to a concert and was chased by a policeman on a horse in the middle of the street. That was not fun. It does change the way you see things.”

Bueno Aires was established in 1536 and is a cross between Paris, New York and Rome. “The buildings are old, from the 1700s and 1800s,” Helman remarks. “It’s a beautiful city that never stops. You can go out and have something to eat at 3 a.m., like a piece of pizza. Everything is open. At 16, I was a drummer for a band that got signed by RCA Records. While finishing high school, I was recording and touring, so I never had to get a job per se. I was touring five days a week, and three months of the year I was recording.”

As a 16-year-old Pablo Helman signed a recording contract and was a drummer for a band that toured South America, including Chile..

As a 16-year-old Pablo Helman signed a recording contract and was a drummer for a band that toured South America, including Chile..

“A lot of it has to do with being able to open up yourself to learn, especially at ILM. Dennis Muren has always been an incredible mentor for me, and he was the one who introduced me to Steven Spielberg on The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Working with Spielberg for five years straight and Marty for eight years was like going to film school every day.”

—Pablo Helman, Visual Effects Supervisor, ILM

Compromises had to be made because of the repressive environment. “You need to make decisions to do [things] whether your safety is compromised or not, or just shut up or leave the country like me.” The love for playing music remains for Helman, with the main instruments being the guitar, drums and bass. “It’s funny. One of my first 45s was ‘Eight Days a Week,’ and because I’m working on the musical Wicked and [the Beatles] were recording at Abbey Road, the head of the studio gave me an incredible tour. Studio One was where Dark Side of the Moon was recorded by Pink Floyd. There were all kinds of pictures there. Then we went to Studio Two where the Beatles recorded the majority of their stuff. We were going down the stairs and the studio head goes, ‘This is where Paul recorded ‘Blackbird’ and the Beatles had their first tryout in 1962. Then we went to Studio Three where ‘All You Need is Love’ was filmed and all of the original music for Indiana Jones and Star Wars was recorded. It was an incredible experience going there and coming full circle living with those ghosts.”

Movies also played an important role growing up in Bueno Aires, courtesy of a famous street called Corrientes that is lined with different theaters showcasing cinema from around the world. “I would go and watch Amarcord or all of the Fellini works,” Helman remarks. “About 15 years ago, I was in Frankfurt doing a talk of some kind and had lunch with Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno who filmed Amarcord, and we talked about that movie. It was incredible how I went from music to having lunch with Giuseppe Rotunno or working with Spielberg or Scorsese.” Movies and films share numerous rules and fundamentals, Helman says. “It’s the same thing. In music you have sequencing, rhythm; you’re telling a story and have a beginning and an end. I would say that probably anybody who does music could do film and the other way around. They’re both difficult.” The timing of the music was the reason why the opening shot of The Irishman, where the camera tracks through a nursing home and settles on an elderly Robert De Niro who starts talking, had to be extended digitally for 13 seconds. “It’s also the same thing with cinema. Working with Marty, you could go to his trailer or office, and he always has a TV set in the back with a movie that is playing with no sound. He loves taking a look at stuff and learning from the framing and storytelling.”

A personal thrill for Helman was getting a tour of Abbey Road Studios where his musical idols The Beatles and Pink Floyd recorded.

A personal thrill for Helman was getting a tour of Abbey Road Studios where his musical idols The Beatles and Pink Floyd recorded.

Helman, third from left, and The Irishman visual effects team attend the 92nd Academy Awards.

Helman, third from left, and The Irishman visual effects team attend the 92nd Academy Awards.

After earning a degree for music composition at UCLA and obtaining his teaching certification, Helman was composing music for television. “I connected with a PBS station and started writing music for them,” Helman recalls. “They said, ‘We don’t have a job for a musician, but we do have one for an editor. We can teach you how to edit, and you can still write the music for the promos.’ For about seven years I was an editor and directed live television there while I was getting my Masters in Education. Because I was in charge of buying equipment for this station, I bought a Quantel box for editing and compositing that had the same program as Henry or HAL. They were putting the Domino in a place called Digital Magic, which was the first completely digital facility. This was 1985, and at that time in Los Angeles everything was going from optical to digital. Because I was one of the only people who could work the Domino, I started working for Digital Magic doing a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation. From that, I went to Digital Domain to work on Apollo 13, and that’s where I learned Flame. Then I became a compositing supervisor at Pacific Ocean Post and worked on Independence Day. From there, I went to ILM which was 28 years ago. ILM had bought Flame but connected them in way where everyone could see their own discs. I was hired to supervise the department. Because I had done a lot of supervision on set, I subbed for other supervisors who couldn’t be there for a few days, and in about three years I became a visual effects supervisor.”

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones established the digital effects infrastructure for ILM. (Image courtesy of ILM, Lucasfilm Ltd. and Twentieth Century Fox)

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones established the digital effects infrastructure for ILM. (Image courtesy of ILM, Lucasfilm Ltd. and Twentieth Century Fox)

Martin Scorsese and Helman have worked together on Silence, Rolling Thunder Revue, The Irishman and Killers of the Flower Moon.

Martin Scorsese and Helman have worked together on Silence, Rolling Thunder Revue, The Irishman and Killers of the Flower Moon.

Helman on set with George Lucas making Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, which pioneered digital cinematography and visual effects.

Helman on set with George Lucas making Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, which pioneered digital cinematography and visual effects.

VFX is an area of filmmaking where the technical and artistic come together. “A lot of it has to do with being able to open up yourself to learn, especially at ILM,” Helman notes. “Dennis Muren has always been an incredible mentor for me, and he was the one who introduced me to Steven Spielberg on The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Working with Spielberg for five years straight and Marty for eight years was like going to film school every day. Every time you work with a different director it’s a completely different process. As a visual effects supervisor you have to be inside their head, learn pre-emptively how they think and offer things that fit into their vision. You need to know what the shot is about, and why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s about communication and how you say things. You’re working with people who are very busy, so you have to hone your communication. You have only five seconds to tell the story.”

Helman has been responsible for projects that have spectacular and invisible digital augmentation. “It’s about storytelling, listening, reading the script and understanding what the filmmaker wants. Then, also being completely part of the cinematography, production design, special effects and wardrobe. Everything that has to do with the picture, and you have to do your job without being known. That’s actually the kind of visual effects I like to do. In a sense, it depends on how you define visual effects. For me, visual effects are always important. I appreciate the fact that the VES Awards separated into ‘this is just visual effects and this is supporting visual effects.’ I don’t think that there is a difference there because every visual effects shot should be supporting the story or else it shouldn’t exist. The Irishman had 1,750 shots and without visual effects, you could not tell that story. War of the Worlds had 247 shots that were supporting the story. But in a typical Steven thing. he is very economical when shooting. Steven shoots in different ways so that he can always do it without visual effects but tell the same story. Steven is smart and knows visual effects well.”

By utilizing the Sony HDW-F900 camera, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones became the first movie shot digitally. (Image courtesy of ILM, Lucasfilm Ltd. and Twentieth Century Fox))

By utilizing the Sony HDW-F900 camera, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones became the first movie shot digitally. (Image courtesy of ILM, Lucasfilm Ltd. and Twentieth Century Fox))

Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones pioneered digital effects and cinematography. “Attack of the Clones was the first movie shot on digital,” Helman notes. “It was a Sony HDW-F900 camera. A lot of the infrastructure that came out of working in digital came from that movie at ILM. We used to have dailies on ¾ inch machines and video. There was somebody in the booth who would play the dailies. That was the first movie where they had a server with everything digitally stored and we could click on something. It’s an incredible thing see technology going by you quickly. When I was doing The Irishman, we were right there at the beginning of deriving geometry from lighting. When those ideas came together, they came together in a specific way and creatively. That’s why I love working at ILM. We are encouraged to sit at the table and talk about, ‘What would happen if we had to build this and rebuild? Don’t worry about what we’ve done before. We have the resources and time to do it in a specific way.’ You sit down with a bunch of people who are a lot more creative than I am and put it out there. This what we need to do and we do it. But technology changes quickly. All of this AI stuff that is happening.”

Helman and his wife Donna walk the red carpet at the BAFTA Awards.

Helman and his wife Donna walk the red carpet at the BAFTA Awards.

Helman takes a look through the camera viewfinder while making Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Helman takes a look through the camera viewfinder while making Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

One of the most efficient filmmakers that Helman has worked with is Steven Spielberg.

One of the most efficient filmmakers that Helman has worked with is Steven Spielberg.

Visual effects made The Irishman possible by de-aging principal actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Helman got the chance to witness firsthand the cinematic teaming of acting legends Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for The Irishman.

Helman got the chance to witness firsthand the cinematic teaming of acting legends Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for The Irishman.

Visual effects made The Irishman possible by de-aging principal actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Helman got an opportunity to collaborate with director David Fincher on the Netflix production of Mank. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Helman got an opportunity to collaborate with director David Fincher on the Netflix production of Mank. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

A lot of the visual effects in Killers of the Flower Moon were about getting the desired scope for the environments. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

A lot of the visual effects in Killers of the Flower Moon were about getting the desired scope for the environments. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Al Pacino portrays Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman.(Image courtesy of Netflix)

Al Pacino portrays Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman.
(Image courtesy of Netflix)

Yoda went from being a puppet in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to entirely CG in Attack of the Clones. (Image courtesy of ILM and Lucasfilm Ltd.)

Yoda went from being a puppet in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to entirely CG in Attack of the Clones. (Image courtesy of ILM and Lucasfilm Ltd.)

AI and digital doubles were contentious issues that contributed to the SAG-AFTRA strike. “The main problem there has to do with a misinterpretation of ‘we don’t want anybody to be using this likeness on other projects,’” Helman states. “It’s okay for one project but not for another. We never reuse assets because technology moves so fast. When we have a scan of an actor, you can’t use it for the next movie, so I’m not worried about that. The only reason we do digital doubles sometimes is because whatever is in the script cannot be accomplished any other way. I’d rather use the actor or stunt performer, for that matter. I can understand why everybody is scared of that.”

The “No CGI” storyline is not realistic. “People who say, ‘There are no visual effects here.’ They don’t say, ‘There’s no production design here.’ Because you can’t tell me that production design does not make the movie for you! You’re changing a bunch of stuff and you’re making choices on the production design because of storytelling, and production design is being used as a tool. The same thing with lighting and performance. You can’t tell me that the performances are real. They’re performances, and you’re telling a story with them. If you are smart, you’re going to be able to use every tool that you have available to you to tell that story. Be smart and use visual effects the right way.”

Being incredibly focused is a central character trait for Helman. “I am creative in the sense that I’m always thinking about music and stories. I write and draw. I do all of those kinds of things, and I have been so lucky in my life that the majority of my jobs have been creative.”



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