Taking on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t like signing on to direct any old film. It’s a property that comes with an enormous fan base and, therefore, sky-high expectations and even while shooting it, director Jonathan Liebesman was well aware of it. Last June we got the chance to visit the film’s Wall Street set in New York City and Liebesman took a brief break to say hello and also note, “I’ve never had a film that people are so excited to see so long before, so I think it’s just challenging to do something that meets the expectations. Honestly, that’s hard.”
Fortunately, Liebesman’s got some quality talent backing him up including VFX supervisor Pablo Helman, the man responsible for leading the initiative to bring the Turtles back to the big screen in the most groundbreaking and realistic way possible. Hit the jump to find out what it took for Helman to take the Turtles from concept to design to set and beyond.
Click here to check out the trailer for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
This is some revolutionary technology here. Helman kicked off the conversation by pointing out, “We’re super excited about what we’re doing because this performance capture technology that we’re developing hasn’t been used before, and maybe even ever.” Helman’s got a whole research and development effort with ILM going to create technology that allows them to capture every little nuance of a performance down to the movement of the actors’ eyeballs.
The big challenge is ensuring that the psychology of a character appears on screen. Helman highlighted that, over the past ten years, VFX-heavy films are becoming more and more focused on bringing an actor’s performance to the screen rather than just doing their best to deliver an authentic looking creature. He explained, “You really want to get into the psychology of the behaviors and the choices people make because the computer, the only thing that it does is mirror that, but it doesn’t know why you’re making that choice.” Not only does a director take the time to develop a character with an actor for many months prior to production, but once on set, that character is still influx and adapts to the director’s notes as well as the actor’s relationships with his or her co-cast. After all of that, the end result should be a believable performance. However, Helman noted, “In CG, we don’t have that.”
Just as every actor is different, so are the animators. Helman pointed out that they’ve got 15 animators on this and all of them have a different way of animating each of the characters. Helman likened them to actors. “It’s the same as if the director were to cast Robert DeNiro for one scene and then when you come back to the same scene, it’s reversed and you cast Al Pacino for the same character. It’s different. Animators are different.” And that essentially turns Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into one big VFX puzzle that Helman and his team needed to figure out how to put together.
Step 1: The Basis of the Design. A top priority for Helman and his team was to ensure that the Turtles were organic and by going that route, it meant that they each had to be very unique in terms of their size, stature, accessories and personality. However, in addition to the VFX design work, Helman also noted that we’ll get some of that through the narrative of the movie as well. “Being that this is kind of an origin story, you go back to seeing them grow a little bit and you understand then why they act the way they do.” However, Helman was quick to point out that we won’t see a “Hulk-ish” transformation. It’s more of a gradual thing.
We’ll also get to see the effect the Turtles’ isolation has on them in the movie. Helman explained, “They’re always fighting in shadows. They’re never being seen outside. They’re always going through manholes and things like that because they don’t want to be seen. But they also don’t want to be seen because they feel somehow shortchanged, right? They’re different from everybody else. That’s part of the movie.”
Step 2: The Maquettes. Prior to shooting Helman and his VFX team produced maquettes for each of the Turtles and one for Shredder as well. He explained, “They were created before because it took, like, a couple of years to come up with these and say, this is the movie we want to make.” In order to figure out what they wanted the Turtles to look like, they turned to references – as in real life references. Helman offered this as an example; “You say, ‘Okay, this guy is probably a Tom Hanks kind of a person, it’s a heroic guy, quiet.’ So you go back to movies and you put clips together that more or less exemplify what kind of person the characters are.”
Now these maquettes, which Helman described as the heroic and dark designs of the Turtles, aren’t just incredibly detailed enormous action figures that Liebesman and Michael Bay can put on display after filming; they’re also part of Helman’s “bible.” By creating thorough material that reflects every single little nuance of the characters early on, Helman can then take that and the work that the actors do on set and pass it along to the animators in post-production to ensure everything stays consistent. (However, Helman did also point out that some of those models really will likely wind up in Liebesman and Bay’s offices.)
Helman also admitted that the model work isn’t something you have to do before jumping into a project like this, but he does think it’s the best way to nail the final design. He explained, “[It’s] something you don’t have to do because we’re working with the computer and they’re digital characters, so you don’t have to do that, but again, my background is from trying to not do just only one technique of computer. Just because you can do it on a computer doesn’t mean you should do it on a computer.”
Step 3: The Cameras. Helman really beefed up the motion capture system on this one. Whereas most films typically use just one standard definition camera to get the facial performances, Helman’s got two high definition cameras attached to the Turtles’ helmets. On top of that, they’ve also got to capture their body movements and for that, they throw two more HD cameras into the mix.
From there, the data is transmitted via recorders attached to the motion capture suits to two technicians on set, one of which is checking it out on an iPad and the other is stationed at a computer. Helman added, “Then the data that is recorded and every one of these guys gets taken out on a card and transferred.”
They’ve got six digital characters in this film – the Turtles, Shredder and Splinter. That’s a lot of data that needs recording, so in addition to developing the technology needed to capture it, Helman and the folks at ILM had to figure out a way to streamline all of it, too. Helman elaborated, “It’s terabytes of stuff, to the point that part of the research on the ground that we have to do has to do with developing the pipeline that can handle that amount of information.”
Step 4: Retargeting. After all this data is collected, it then needs to be “retargeted.” You get a digital double of the actors and then all of the specific points marked on the actors are “retargeted” to the creatures.
Step 5: Stunts. Capturing the Turtles while they’re talking is one thing, but stunts require a different process. Helman pointed out second unit director David Leitch and noted that he’s the guy responsible for orchestrating the fights. “All that stuff is done with stunts, and the stunts, they’re not wearing helmets because the performance comes from the actors, but the stunts are wearing the mo-cap suits and we’re capturing that motion.” After that’s done, the actors playing the Turtles check out the footage and then do their part of it, acting out the necessary exertion, punches, pain, etc., and then it all gets married together.
Step 6: Non-Character Work. On top of bringing the Turtles, Shredder and Splinter to life, Helman’s also responsible for creating some CG environments. He stressed that all of the film is shot on location and that nothing is entirely digital, but he did note that he had to survey different parts of New York City, recreate them and then ready them for destruction so that they could pull off “very complicated explosions.”
Shredder is part live-action, part CG. In addition to the Turtle maquettes, Helman also brought out the one they created for Shredder and while it was just as detailed as the Turtle models, the abundance of rather sharp and vicious looking costume components was particularly striking. In fact, because the costume is so elaborate, the Turtles team decided to make him part live-action and part digital simply because the outfit would be too heavy. Helman highlighted, “At the end there’s a section that he does some natural things so in that case, he’s half what we shoot and half CG because we only built 50% of the suit, but it’s Bill Fichtner who is wearing the suit.” Helman also added, “The choice would be to either have a stunt person that is wearing this and can’t do much and then he has to be replaced, or at least have half of him so you have the presence of the actor, you have the delivery, the eye line and the interaction with the other actors all in there and then only do the bottom part.”
- Shredder’s look will involve an escalation technique. As the film goes on, his costume will build, some of the pieces will move and he’ll discover different things he can do with them.
- Splinter is about four feet tall.
- Michelangelo is the shortest Turtle at 6’2”.
- Even when they’re not filming, Helman and co. are watching the actors playing the Turtles because that’s when “the funniest things happen.” What they were doing when they were just playing around on set was recorded and incorporated into the film.
- Liebesman told us that Raphael was based on Clint Eastwood in the Sergio Leone movies, Leonardo has Russell Crowe’s eyes and Nelson Mandela’s lips, Donatello has a little Leonard Nimoy and Spock in him, and Splinter was based on Toshiro Mifune. In fact, his hairstyle is straight out of a Kurosawa movie.
You can also catch our on-set interview with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stars Megan Fox and Will Arnett by clicking here.