Last month, I was invited up to Industrial Light and Magic in San Francisco to speak with some of the visual artists behind Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which arrives on 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD October 18. I'll have a full report on the event in the very near future, where we got an early glimpse at one of the special features, a demonstration of Disney's Second Screen feature, and got to speak with visual effects supervisor Ben Snow and visual effects art director Aaron McBride. Aside from the roundtable interviews, I was given some time to speak exclusively with both Ben Snow and Aaron McBride.
Their primary responsibility on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides were shots involving the mermaid Syrena, portrayed by Astrid Berges-Frisbey and other effects-heavy moments of this Jack Sparrow adventure. Here's what they both had to say below.
Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Snow
I was up here recently for Rango, and it was interesting because that was the first animation movie ILM has produced, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is one of the first really big 3D movies ILM has produced. Can you talk about the level of preparation that goes into a 3D project of this magnitude?
Ben Snow: Yeah, it was important to think about that, because the studio was really concerned. 'Can you really pull this off?' The first thing we did was go down with a presentation of how we were going to do it. We outlined it and took them through the process and all the tools we would need. Also, they were actually interested in what we'd be doing on the set. One of the studio executives involved had actually done a couple of other 3D films. He was very happy with the answers we gave.
During the presentation, I was interested in the big glass coffin, that these huge guys were never carrying it. Did you even do one take with them carrying it, just for reference?
Ben Snow: We made a small coffin, that was maybe three feet across and a foot wide. We had a couple of our assistants carry it through. What we often do at the end of a shot are reference passes, so we had our hapless guys carry this big, sloshy coffin. The problem was, though, it was so small that the water went all over the place. It didn't actually help that much.
How much of the actual shoot were you there for?
Ben Snow: I was on set for all of the mermaid sequences and all of the stuff we were involved in, like Blackbeard, so I would say about 50 percent of the time.
This is (director) Rob Marshall's first big effects movie. Can you talk about working with him and how he adjusted to a production like this?
Ben Snow: Right. It's interesting. From our point of view, the technical department's point of view, he certainly doesn't tend to go into the planning as much as other directors. He's very actor-oriented and he did a great job with the actors. He's very much involved with the actors' and their performances. On the other Pirates movies, ILM had developed a lot of tools, like the on-set capture stuff, so we could be very low-profile on set, and not interfere on set. That served us in good stead. Certainly, if I had a concern, if something wasn't working or if we wanted Johnny (Depp) or Astrid (Berges-Frisbey) try something else, he would be there. If it was an effect where we didn't really know what was going to happen, he would call me up to describe it to the actors. There is a sequence where the actors all go into a cave, and all this water comes up to the ceiling. We tried to talk about it, but everybody was so busy and we didn't really have a chance. Everyone is standing around, Johnny and Penélope Cruz, and Rob goes, 'OK Ben, come in and tell everyone what's going to happen' (Laughs). 'Well, Rob, one of three things could happen at this point,' and we'd choose one.
You talked a bit earlier about how close you came down to the wire with this movie. How close was it? When did you lock picture, in terms of visuals?
Ben Snow: This happens with films like this. You'll get a deadline, right, and then you'll have the real deadline. I think we were originally scheduled to finish in early April, and we ended up locking on April 18. So, it was pretty close, closer than I ever want to be again. On King Kong, we actually did a new shot the Saturday before the Tuesday New York premiere of the film. We actually re-filmed out a whole reel, and someone took it to New York for the premiere. This is really as tight as I want to be, ever again.
Is there anything you can say about any future projects you're working on?
Ben Snow: No, I'm sorry. There are definitely some interesting film projects coming up. Hopefully the one I'm pursuing will come together and maybe we can talk again.
Can you talk about how that process works? Do you put in bids for certain projects you know will be coming to ILM?
Ben Snow: Yeah, sure. It's really interesting, because it's changed a lot. The last four films I did, which were Iron Man, Terminator Salvation, Iron Man 2, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, basically, they all had their own effects supervisor on the studio side. So, one would finish, and I'd go off onto the next after we finished the previous one. In general, my experiences between films had been a lot longer, but these films were just so quick, to get them done. After Pirates, I was like, 'OK, I need a break.' In that case, you can chase a project. One of the projects I'm dealing with now, the director just came to us. He had a script, and that's it. Sometimes a studio will come to us with a script, but no director. They've realized that we're going to be one of the biggest components of the project, so if they can work with us up front, it can work out quite well. We get a bit of both. I like it when we can get involved right at the ground level.
Is it helpful to get involved even before a director comes on board though?
Ben Snow: You don't necessarily come up with creative content, but the advantage of that is it may help the project get green lit. It might help the studio say, 'OK, we can afford to do this.' I can't imagine where there would be a situation like, 'OK, these are our ideas.' We don't work that way. We're serving what the director wants to do. It's interesting because you see it all in place.
Visual Effects Art Director Aaron McBride:
I talked a bit with Ben about the process of coming onto projects like this. Is there a bid process, or what does that actually entail?
Aaron McBride: Usually there's a script or a director attached. Sometimes there has been some initial design already done in L.A. Sometimes we come on in different parts of the process. We can come on when there's already some work done, or at the very beginning, in which case, you do a lot of blue-sky idea sketching and things like that. Other times, you come on and other artists have taken design passes at things, and it's more your job to refine them, so you see what they would look like in a photo-real environment, how it would look on screen.
For this movie, at what stage did you come in then? Did you come in right away?
Aaron McBride: We didn't come in right away. There had already been some initial design sketches and things like that. They were still playing back and forth as to how much creature they wanted to show, and how much human they wanted to show (with the mermaid). Every time we started venturing more towards the creature, you lose the seductive siren aspect of it. Then we broke it up into, out of the water, they're humans, and in water, they're creatures, but even in the water, we realized that a lot of how they're introduced and how they're portrayed is rising up out of the water as this seductive character. Rob Marshall and (producer) Jerry Bruckheimer had hired these beautiful models. They really liked their look, and they were absolutely gorgeous, and we didn't want to cover them up with a lot of creature-type qualities. We wanted to have their actions be the more ferocious aspect.
I think that actually works better too because it's a weird element to see these beautiful women attacking like that. It's one thing if you see them turn into something, but if you see a hot chick just attacking like that, with these teeth...
Aaron McBride: It almost felt like, when they first rise up, that it's almost too good to be true. Something has to be wrong here. You're just waiting for it to happen. I really liked that quality.
There is that scene where casket breaks, and she comes out, where you can see her legs form when she's out of water. It seemed that scene changed pretty late in the game. Ben said you couldn't see the legs forming as well. Can you talk about how that scene evolved?
Aaron McBride: Oh, when they had that? Yeah, that was trying to steer away from any moments where they seemed unattractive or creature-like. We wanted these to be elegant creatures. Even in the scene where Astrid is very vulnerable. She has just fallen out on dry land, and she's totally out of her element, but we still wanted her to have this other-worldly beauty. Doing things like hiding certain transformation aspects of her body, was just a way to keep their ethereal qualities. They're always graceful and beautiful.
Is there a particularly favorite scene or moment that will always stand out for you when you think back on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides?
Aaron McBride: There is a shot in the film where you see the underside of the boat, and there are just all these (mermaid) tails. You see this nice translation quality of the fins on these tails. It's this moment where you just go, 'These sailors have no idea. They are so screwed.'
The mermaids seem like one of the more popular qualities of this movie. Do you think they might bring them back for a fifth movie, when that time comes?
Aaron McBride: I have no idea. That's up to the writers, I guess.