'TMNT' Interview: Visual FX Supervisor Talks Motion-Capture Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Designs

Motion capture animation in blockbuster movies is all the rage these days. From The Hobbit to the new Planet of the Apes films to The Avengers, the line between acting and effects work has been so blurred that a debate has sprung up about whether or not these mo-cap performances - which, in some cases, have been phenomenal - deserve acting awards. Matt Reeves and Jonathan Liebesman, directors of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, think that the answer is a resounding yes.

Speaking of TMNT, it’s the next big film to utilize a significant amount of motion capture animation. All four Turtles, Splinter, and Shredder (to a degree) were created with the help of mo-cap technology - which, according to visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman, is possibly the most advanced mo-cap work that's ever been put to film.

Last year, we were invited to the set of Ninja Turtles and got the opportunity to talk to Pablo, who happens to be one of the most prolific FX people working today. He's been involved with everything from Indiana Jones to Star Wars to The War of the Worlds to Chronicles of Riddick to Men in Black to Independence Day, and his next big job is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot.

Much of what Pablo discussed with us was incredibly technical, to the point that it was occasionally difficult to grasp what was being intimated (and we were there!). But he also talked a bit about the difficulty of capturing emotional transitions, the design of the Turtles, Splinter, and Shredder, and trying not to use green screen. He even let slip a few plot details that the producers probably would've preferred he keep to himself.

(Note: When Pablo joined us, we had been checking out the motion-capture helmets that were used for the different Turtles.)

Pablo Helman Indian Jones Kingdom Crystal Skull
Pablo Helman working with Steven Spielberg on 'Indiana Jones 4'

We're a group of journalists. We were admiring all the rigs. 

Pablo Helman: Ah, okay. Well, we’re super excited about what we’re doing because this performance capture technology that we’re developing hasn’t been used before, maybe ever. So these two little cameras that you see there, they’re HD cameras and up to now all the performance capture that has been done has only been with one camera and with standard definition. So this is HD and two cameras. So we’re able to capture all kinds of nuances and define the performance.

How do you graft that onto the design of the turtles? What is it actually capturing that you’re able to use?

That part is called retargeting, and basically what you do is-there are two sides to it, there’s an A side and a B side. The A side is getting a digital double of the actors and that scan of the heads that you see is part of that digital double. And then you create a creature, and all those points that you see on the heads, they get retargeted to the creatures themselves. That would be one thing, and we’re developing the technology to retarget that.

Do they look human enough to really use one? We haven’t seen one.

Let’s look at them. [At this point, Pablo showed us the models of the Ninja Turtles.] They’re very heroic, the design is very dark. So you can see that some of the designs, they’re not quite human [in proportion], but they could be retargeted [for the animation]. In other words, the cheeks are where they are, the eyes are a little more separated, they are a lot taller because this is about 6' 5", Raphael is 6' 7", so they’re pretty big but you can see they’re pretty human-like.

We’re really conscious about the mythology of the franchise and what’s been done before, how we will evolve. It’s kind of a very heroic render of the Turtles and we’re thinking that’s why we went with the methodology of casting four actors and getting the performance [with motion capture technology] as best we can. We did a completely new pipeline and new ways to capture that technology. And we target that performance into these faces.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rap video

How many cameras are on set to pick up the external markers and the bodysuits?

Well, yeah, that’s the second part of it. So this project scientifically has to do with the performance capture of the face, also the performance capture of their bodies [...], and there are two HD cameras capturing basically what they do with their bodies, plus two cameras that are capturing the face. So the idea is that the director directs the actors on the set and the choices that are made in editorial have to do with what he shot.

So he shoots a movie like he normally would, and that also gives the movie a very kind of grounded look, it’s not a CGI environment anymore, it’s all kinds of smoke on the set, there’s no green screen anywhere because these guys - basically the actors are going to be erased. Um, we should clean plates and some other stuff that we normally do for these effects, but I try not to use green or blue screen, it’s just what it is. And the idea, again, is that Jonathan Liebesman and Michael Bay work together and we end up with something that is grounded and that is physically possible. Plus, all the amazing things that the Turtles can do because of their bodies and their power.

Does all the armor and everything end up getting computer-generated after the fact? Can they ever wear anything?

Sometimes they’re wearing things, it’s that whole thing about how do you come up with a methodology for the actors to do what they do. So Donatello has a lot of gear in there so when he’s on the set he has some stuff that he handles, there are some props that are hero props like the swords, and the nunchuks, and some of the weapons, they are real hero stuff because they throw it around, they show up as props. So it’s a combination of digital filmmaking and real filmmaking that we’re trying to do.

It looks like they all have really different armor and clothing, a lot of different choices here. Is any of it cobbled together from various sources?

I think that was a mandate, to make sure that if we’re going to go into this organic way of making a movie that the four characters are completely different. I mean, if you were to cast a movie with actors, you normally want four people that interact with each other. If you want to say, you know, he’s the funny one, he’s the strong one, and angry, he’s the smart one, and he’s a leader. So when you make those choices, you want those actors to reflect those kinds of behaviors and you want the characters to be completely different so that’s why their faces are completely different from each other, too. And they act differently, completely differently, and being that this is an origin stor,y you go back to seeing them grow a little bit and you understand why they act the way they do.

Michelangelo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Were these created before they cast the actors or...?

They were created before because it took, like, a couple years to come up with these and say, “This is the movie we want to make."

What’s the closest reference - is there a specific book that’s the closest reference for these?

Well, I mean, you know, I don’t know about other people, but for me it is about real references, so what you do is a study on the character. You say, ok, this guy is probably a Tom Hanks kind of a person, a heroic guy, quiet, this one is a very smart guy. So you go back to movies and you put clips together that more or less exemplify what kind of person the characters are. The funny one, and the very strong and angry one, like I said. So you do kind of a bible for every one of the characters, so when you’ve left the set after three months of shooting and then going to post-production for about a year or so, you’re not dealing with actors anymore, you’re dealing with animators that are basically getting the performances from the actors into these. Plus, whatever happens in editorial, and needs to be changed.

Do the actors need to learn how to move differently? How does that differ from humanoid?

Yes. I think it is humanoid movement, but it is about a pose. That’s why when you see these things they’re not in a rest pose, they’re acting. Every one of them has an acting position and a pose, a body pose the actors get into with the characters. We talked about the [characters] a lot, who these people are, given references and also because they’re four brothers it’s a lot about how they relate to each other and what kind of chemistry they have with each other. The funniest things happen when the camera is off. If you just take a look at the actors they’re really funny with each other and they play around. Sometimes we just look at them and record some stuff that they don’t even know, just to see how they interact with each other and incorporate that into the movie.

Does the audition process involve them putting on the suits? How do you know these guys can handle wearing a motion capture suit?

I don’t know, I think it was something that was told to them. But it wasn’t about that, it was about finding the character first - finding the voice and the tone and also seeing how they interact with each other. And it wasn’t about wearing the suits, although, besides the helmet they’re wearing, there's a - which is also a new technology, a motion capture technology that we’re developing with those grey suits - they’re not just grey suits with marks, they have a specific computer pattern [...] all over their bodies, so the computer knows exactly who every one of the characters are.

So they have to act like that. That’s why it’s important for those people to be on the set, [...] the blue screen stage, with smoke, with the actresses, with Megan and with Will, with Shredder, with Bill, with everybody else on the set and doing the dolly pieces and acting out the physicality of what they do.


NEXT: Who's Playing Shredder, Splinter Fighting & More


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hits theaters August 8, 2014.

Follow me on Twitter @benandrewmoore.

Sylvester Stallone Wants a Rambo Prequel

More in Movie News