Last month, I was lucky enough to go back to Industrial Light and Magic once again, my fifth trip to this wonderful San Francisco facility. This time I made the journey to explore the scurvy pirates from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which arrives on 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD October 18.
Our day started out in the ILM Theater, where we watched one of the special features on the five-disc 3D Blu-ray, entitled Under the Scene: Bringing the Mermaids to Life. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides brought several franchise stars back for this fourth movie, such as Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow, Geoffrey Rush's Barbosa, and Kevin McNally's Joshamee Gibbs. While much is the same in this pirates tale, there are many new faces aboard the high seas, including newcomer Astrid Berges-Frisbey, who plays the mermaid Syrena. This special feature delved into the mermaids in the movie, and we hear from director Rob Marshall, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and actors Geoffrey Rush and Kevin McNally who discussed teh addition of these sea beauties to the adventure.
We learned there were actually three groups of mermaids in the movie: characters who speak such as Astrid Berges-Frisbey and Gemma Ward, stunt mermaids, and Olympic synchronized swimmers. We hear from a number of these mermaids talking about their training, and get a glimpse of the synchronized swimmers in action, performing some amazing flips and other tricks in the water. Visual effects supervisor Ben Snow, who we were able to speak with at ILM, is seen on the set in this featurette, giving some guidance to the mermaids, who wore motion-capture suits in the water, so the VFX wizards can add their mermaid tails in post-production. There is also talk about how the "creature" aspect of these mermaids was pulled back a bit. This special feature shows an early version of Gemma Ward's "transformation," which looks much more horrific than the final version. It was explained that they tried to strike a balance between beauty and terror in the first mermaid scene, which I believe was definitely the right way to approach that important scene.
After watching this special feature, we went to speak with visual effects art director Aaron McBride, who began his career at ILM in 1999 as a matte painter on Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. He quickly rose through the ranks and has served as visual effects art director on Pirates of The Caribbean: The Curse of The Black Pearl, Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Iron Man 2, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Aaron McBride first talked to us about the challenges in creating the mermaids, and the references they went through when first deciding how to create the mermaids' look.
"We started off by looking at a lot of the old romantic illustrations of mermaids, and what it was about them, the folklore about why they were these irresistible sirens. There were some early sketches, which played with them as being very beautiful and human, but very streamlined like fish. The director was really interested in references of dancers underwater, playing with fabrics and translucent drapery. So, for our initial design pass, we played with trying to recreate that beauty of the female form and having sort of a shawl, translucent fabrics around her. We tried to recreate that by having this kelp membrane."
He explained that, in the script, they were described as very beautiful, but at some point, they became animalistic, tearing the sailors apart. They landed on the idea that while the mermaids were in the water, they were these fierce creatures, but when they were out of the water, they appeared to be human women. Aaron McBride also explained that Astrid Berges-Frisbey's character, Syrena, would be the most beautiful of all the mermaids, and her sisters would be the more evil and animalistic mermaids.
Aaron McBride said that one of the main challenges was the transition from mermaid to human, particularly the scene where Syrene's glass coffin breaks and we see her mermaid tail morph into human legs.
"We knew they would have their creature form underwater and they would be these beautiful actresses out of the water, but the transition between the two... the director was interested in never having it be unattractive, even in their transitioned form, that they were very beautiful. There's a scene where Syrene is being carried in a coffin of water, and the coffin breaks and she splashes out. We did some early storyboards of how that reveal could happen, how the water sort of washes away her membrane, revealing her legs. The mythology we set up was the water line would be what delineated between her human and her creature form. There would be this transition for her, above and below the water line, of her mermaid form."
He also showed us examples of the more animalistic mermaids they were first going for, and final shots of what ended up in the film. These early mermaids were much more horrific, but, as he explained, they didn't want to cover up these beautiful actresses they hired for the mermaids with gruesome effects, which I think was the right decision since the mermaid attack scene achieves the right level of terror. Aaron McBride also talked about working with director Rob Marshall, and how he compares to Gore Verbinski, who directed the first three movies in the franchise.
"One thing they have in common is they both compose gorgeous frames. They really can create just beautiful color and value compositions which move within the frame. I think Rob Marshall, because he comes from a stage background, that's where a lot of the reference for the ballet, in terms of looking for inspiration for reference. It didn't go directly to the animal creature first. It went to this sort of stage performer and dancer."
Next up, we went to speak with visual effects supervisor Ben Snow, a three-time Oscar nominee (Pearl Harbor, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, Iron Man) who has worked for ILM since 1994. He talked a bit about how they wanted the mermaid fins to look like.
"We were trying to get away from the idea of the mermaids being humans in suits. We started studying dolphins, sharks, large water mammals. Our earlier versions had this distinct bent knee, which we were trying to get away from."
Ben Snow also discussed the issue of the mermaids being, basically, naked women, and how they needed to get around that aspect.
"Also, dealing with the mermaids, you're essentially dealing with a naked woman, upper body. One of the things that's actually very tricky for us, in dealing with bare skin, is how their muscles move underneath, or how their bones move underneath. With a lot of our CG characters, they have fur or clothes, and there's a degree of forgiveness. With the mermaids, we had to put in a lot more muscle, so we could get the correct sort of behavior. We also had these flowing tresses of hair, and we knew we had to have control over that, we might need to drape them over their chest, for modesty reasons, because they were essentially topless. We needed to make the hair perform we wanted it to."
He also talked about how test screenings help shaped the look of the coffin scene, where Astrid Berges-Frisbey transforms from a mermaid into a human.
"The idea was that their upper bodies could transform at will, because they used that to ensnare their prey. But, when they're out of water for a long time, like when she's dropped out of the coffin, the idea was that they would almost shed their tail. When we did some test screenings though, the audience wasn't really reading her legs coming out of the tail, so we ended up going with a more traditional transformation, where the tail morphs into her legs."
After talking with Ben Snow, we were given a demonstration of the Second Screen special feature, which integrates the Blu-ray experience with your Flash-enabled laptop or tablet. John Bernstein walked us through this demonstration of Second Screen, which has only been previously used on Bambi, Tron: Legacy, and The Lion King Blu-ray titles. This feature allows viewers delve deeper into the movie by clicking on icons which brings up a number of different options. You can "check in" to various locations throughout the movie on Facebook and Twitter, which will earn you e-ticket rewards. These e-tickets will unlock even more material on the BD disc. Viewers can also "like" certain locations and parts of the film as well. Viewers can look at over 1,300 images of the production, concept art, deleted sequences, and even producer Jerry Bruckheimer's personal photos taken from the set. There are also 57 "Video Village" videos with behind-the-scenes footage, 30 segments with trivia and expanded stories, and visual effects passes where you can see, frame by frame, how a shot or a scene evolved from inception to completion.
The whole experience is synced up through the site DisneySecondScreen.Go.com, which really gives you a ton of information in real time while you're watching the movie. It looks very easy to use, and there are plenty of options which can also be found in a nifty Index, a feature which wasn't available in the first three iterations of Second Screen. You can also zoom in or out as much as you want with any of these photos and videos, to customize your viewing experience, and, if you connect through your Facebook or Twitter accounts, you can share the experience with your friends and/or followers every step of the way. It's quite a revolutionary tool that will bring movie-watching in the home to whole new levels.