Joining Industrial Light + Magic for The Lost World Jurassic Park — he had previously worked on Independence Day — Buenos Aires born Pablo Helman worked as a digital effects artist on the likes of Men In Black, Contact and Deep Impact before graduating to the role of Visual Effects Supervisor on Episode II, Terminator 3, Master And Commander and The Bourne Supremacy. On War Of The Worlds, he was co-visual effects supervisor along with Dennis Muren. Here, he talks about the strange and eldritch arts that make the film look so good…
How did you and Dennis divide up the duties?
The reason why we needed two people on the project was because this project was only going to take about twelve weeks. To start with we divided the location work in kind of a 50/50 split. So the idea was that Dennis was going to take the tripods for the intro section, the rise of the tripods and the ferry boat sequence, and I was going to take the aliens, the probe and the end of the war. Because work was so compressed we kind of went back and forth and worked together.
What was the most challenging thing?
One of the things that Steven wanted was to have the tripods have three legs, which is actually really funny because some of the shots are really wide and you see the tripods going back and it looks like they’re flying. Also the size of the tripod changed and evolved because Steven wanted to make sure that these creatures were 150 feet tall. Of course, that’s one of the challenges that we have in CG, in visual effects work. Every time you have a scale that is so huge, 150 feet against a 6ft man or woman or whatever it’s kind of a very difficult thing to do.
Is it difficult not to make them look awkward?
That’s also something we’re dealing with. You take a look at the design of a creature and you do spend a lot of time looking at movement and emulating something that you already know. In this case, Steven wanted something that wasn’t completely mechanical, so we did put some of the natural and fluid movements.
The aliens turning the bodies into dust is a completely new idea. How did that come about?
When you’re working on a project this big there’s always four or five concepts that you know are going to eat you alive, that you’re going to spend a long time on. That is definitely one of those concepts. I think Steven had this idea that whenever these rays were killing people he didn’t want to see any blood, any gore; this was going to be a horror movie for kids. So this idea for completely vaporising bodies was kind of clever. We knew that with 12 weeks to go we couldn’t do that with CG as a simulation, so we decided let’s do the actual ray assimilation and particles and then let’s shoot some elements in which we blow up a dust made hard of bodies. The other thing that is really incredible there is the way Steven thought of the clothes floating. He thought that was a soul-like moment, all these clothes floating really, really slowly.
Is it true that the shot of the bridge exploding in the Superbowl trailer was an on set improvisation by Spielberg?
The script had Tom Cruise in the car; he looks in the rear-view mirror, sees the gas station blow up and that’s it, they move onto the freeway. However, when we were in New Jersey about to shoot that, Steven called me over and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about this, and you’re going to blow up the gas station anyway. Can you blow up the bridge?” Then he said, “And also, when it blows up can you have hundreds of cars you know, blow up? I think there’s an 18-wheeler truck that comes and just breaks the whole house and at the same time we track it with a car and all these things explode, can you do that?” And I said, “Yeah, we can do that!” And he says, “Can you that for the Superbowl?” and I go, “Well that’s about four weeks...yeah, we'll do it” So that’s the kind of mind that he’s got.
Just after that, there is an amazing shot in which the camera does all sorts of gymnastics around a speeding car as Cruise spirits his kids to safety.
We’ve got a three-minute shot and there is one shot in those three minutes and his thought was the cameras are going around and he never stops and comes out of the car. It was another one of those shots that we shot in seven different parts. We put together all these different parts and stunt people and real people and extras, and then it just looks like one fluid shot. After two or three minutes you start thinking, “Well, how did they do that?” There were two people that actually pulled the roof of the car out so the camera could go in and then as the camera went outside the car then they put the roof back in.
Can you talk about the burning train sequence?
How cool is it to have a train going by on fire? You don’t see gore, you don’t see blood, but you’re assuming that all those poor people are dead. We shot elements, quarter scale elements with fire and then the train was CG. It’s one of those things you know…the same thing with the bodies in the river. It's a kind of shocking thing, a simple idea but when you look at it, it blows your mind.
What about the tentacle probe that snakes through Tim Robbins cellar?
That sequence is long, it’s 17 minutes, and we spent about two weeks shooting it. By the end of the sequence we were in Joe’s throat, it was completely claustrophobic, and that was basically what he wanted to do with the movie. The movie right there was done in the cellar and it gets uncomfortable. You want him to move out of there, especially when you know what’s coming – and so this probe comes in. The design was made as part of the tripods design, and it was also kind of an homage to the 1953 movie. It’s kind of a suspension of disbelief there because you’re thinking “Well how come the probe doesn’t see these people?” It’s kind of a peek-a-boo game and it’s all about their relationship with Tim Robbins right there.
Was the design of the tripods mirrored in the design of the aliens?
Definitely, the designs are completely mirrored in that the tripods, obviously, have three legs and the aliens have three legs. The tripods have a huge head with transparency round the edges, same thing with the aliens. The tripods have tentacles in kind of a chest area and the aliens have little hands or whatever so yeah, it’s definitely a conscious effort to mirror the design.
Was creating the aliens a big responsibility?
Oh definitely. I mean it’s something that you know is going to be a key element to the story so you want it to be as good as possible, and if you really take a look at the way he lit the whole movie, it's like everything was lit from behind, backlit and underlit. You can see very, very well. When the sun is right in front of you you’re basically looking into the sun, so you really can’t see the shades of the lights. He wanted that kind of horror movie lighting.
Well we’ve just finished Jarhead. I wouldn’t call it a visual effects film, but it has 25 minutes of visual effects work on screen, so about 500 shots. It’s a completely different movie. The individual effects are completely invisible; you’re not going to be able to tell what it is that we did. There’s a sequence where he goes into an airport and you’re going to see all these planes and all this stuff and you’re going to say “OK, well, they shot this” but there’s really nothing there. All the fires for the fires of Kuwait, that’s invisible kind of work. It was a great opportunity to work with Sam Mendes. It’s kind of funny because Jarhead and War of the Worlds, they’re kind of opposite. In terms of visual effects the idea was to do something invisible, something that was completely married into the background and clearly invisible to the direction also and the director’s vision as opposed to the other way around.
One final thing. On War Of The Worlds, is it true that Spielberg used to sing the Jaws theme as motivation as the actors were being chased by aliens?
He did something with a bullhorn. I think he liked doing that. For one thing the sound wasn’t there, so let’s say the actors were supposed to stop what they were doing when they hear these tripods coming and so let’s say you were the director, you’d say “Scream!” then everyone turns around. Or you could just go like “Der Dum Der Dum” you know, whatever. It’s really good to see, he has a great sense of humour. It’s just great to be a part of that.