Find out the tricks used to bring this awesome, visual spectacle to life
When Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) calls we certainly listen and this time MovieWeb got invited up to their Presidio location in Northern California for a look at the highly anticipated, December 4 release of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End on both Standard DVD and Blu-ray Disc.
As the age of piracy comes to a close, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly) must sail off the edge of the map, navigate treachery and betrayal, and make their final alliances for one last decisive battle. Our heroes must face Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and Admiral James Norrington (Jack Davenport) in a titanic showdown that could eliminate the freedom-loving pirates from the seven seas -- forever.
As we passed the iconic Yoda Fountain that greets viewers as they enter the ILM facility, we were soon taken into one of their large screening rooms to meet with revered Visual Effects Supervisor, John Knoll. Knoll explained to us that we were going to see three visual components that contributed to bringing Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End to life. They were:
- Davey and His Crew
Knoll began his presentation of Environments by showing us footage from the film with and without enhancements. He explained that in the "Tortuga environments they were put behind things that were difficult to extract." In creating the wrecked ships for these sequences they employed "2D techniques and stock footage." The almost desolate area where the opening of the film finds Captain Jack Sparrow and his ship, was shot in the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. He then showed us an area like Pirates Cove and explained, "It was very complicated geometrically. It took a single artist 8 months to execute. Then the shot got reordered and changed to the nighttime, that was an artistic challenge." Knoll went on to say that all the fleet shots in the movie were always computer generated.
We then moved into some of the creature work, specifically the scene where Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) became Calypso and rock crabs are flying everywhere. "Those were fun, little creatures," Knoll laughed. To create all those rock crabs they used 300,000 blue balls that one might find in a kid's play pit. They did one take with the actors and then they used stuntmen for the second take. Initially, he and his creative team thought that the 17 characters from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest were going to be enough for Davey's crew. "It wasn't. Due to the fighting and the need to be in particular places... we used different parts of each character and tried to make them unique. Characters like Man Ray, Jelly, Piper, Eel Man, etc."
(As an aside, that scene in the movie where Jack Sparrow pulls out his brain and licks it was the combined idea of Johnny Depp and Director Gore Verbinksi.)
Knoll then talked about Davey and His Crew and he explained that for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest the characters were created in the computer. Where as on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl they were all done manually. However, for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest they wanted a better "motion reference so the capture had to be done on set." Due to the shooting conditions Knoll mandated that the set-up be "robust." With traditional motion capture "it would have been way too much to bring to a location" so they developed a system called IMOCAP.
"It's a suit like motion capture but it can happen anywhere and the new software has allowed for this... I know that Iron Man is using it." Due to things like IMOCAP they can really shoot the movie like "it's live action. Bill Nighy really drives the performance. It all came about because Gore never felt like he'd seen a live action CGI character that was believable. We did it first with the Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) character."
The subject then came up regarding the "tentacle variation" that Davey Jones had. "He had 46 tentacles and they were meant to be alive. "We created behaviors that made them all animatable. We had control over a fairly complex series of objects." After this we moved to the ships at see and Knoll explained that he "tries to use a live action plate whenever possible to have something to build from. " A plate is a shot with an action similar to what actually happens in the movie. Then Knoll and his team animate over that image and blend it seamlessly into the shot. This happened in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End in scenes where the Black Pearl became the Endeavor. "The hard part is all the water interaction," Knoll maintains. "Having any object is helpful. The hardest part is the water and we get it from the live action plate."
Knoll concluded his discussion by talking about the Maelstrom sequence. Due to the nature of it they "couldn't shoot plates so they needed CG water. The entire sequence had to be blue screen." This was achieved by essentially taking over the Rockwell Aerospace Center in Palmdale, California. They had both The Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman set up there and they were all computer controlled. Utilizing 10,000 watts of power they shot the scene there and then did everything else in the computer. When they first did it "the water had been very shallow and Gore didn't like the first pass. So we flattened the Maelstrom out then did deformations" Knoll explains. As he did this we saw different shots to see how the final scene in the film evolved. This ended up becoming "the largest water simulation shot that ILM has ever done. However, we couldn't afford to do it for every shot. The problems started when all the boats had to be close together so we created custom simulations for that."
Three people worked on these simulations over the course of 6 months. "Rendering the image was complicated," Knoll offers, "building upon it layer by layer, foam, bubbles, spray." Knoll then gave us a look at before and after shots for storm sequences to emphasize his point. "Sometimes we had a lot of set to work with, sometimes none at all."
He concluded this discussion by showing us some bloopers that had inadvertently been created in the computer. We saw what can happen when clothes are not tacked down on a character, when the animation blows up, when tentacles go awry (which is actual a blooper that ended up making into the movie for Davey Jones), and we even saw Elizabeth battling some creatures using a lightsaber.
After this we were treated to a 10 minute featurette that is part of a longer featurette on the Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End DVD and Blu-ray Disc. Taken from the section Anatomy of a Scene: The Maelstrom viewers essentially get to see everything John Knoll revealed. However, it is presented very candidly as the events happened. Sure there are moments where you hear the usual Jerry Bruckheimer hyperbole, but it was really interesting seeing people like Gore Verbinski and John Knoll work together to pull off such an involved sequence. We also get to hear from the cast and crew about what Gore is like as a Director, how there were 2000 visual effects shots in the movie, and we also see Gore working at a computer console to point out and help fine tune the aforementioned visual shots. Apparently, this movie was up against a very tight schedule so there were "lots of sleepless nights and worrying." Closing out this small featurette was Bruckheimer talking about the seamless merging of practical and digital effects.
"When it's done well, it looks easy." He states.
After this we were taken into another room where we met with Aaron McBride who served as the Visual Effects Art Director for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. He continued on with a point that Knoll had brought up about the need for Davey Jones to have more characters in the Maelstrom sequence. He then showed us concept art from the film and explained that once they established who the characters would be "they wanted them to look like medical, horror stories." McBride then went on to explain that "Gore wanted the characters to color contrast, then they would all look different when we saw the light forms and the human forms intersecting."
Then he went through some of the characters like Jelly which was supposed to seem like he was "becoming liquified and translucent." With characters like Piper they "wanted to make them not look human since they were going to be digital." With the "encrusted Jack Sparrow" they examined "how much he'd be a part of the ship." After showing Gore concept designs for all of this stuff, he signs off on them and then the artists go about a process by which this designs become more detailed. For example Man Ray in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End was based around the idea of pantyhose that a serial killer might wear on his head. McBride said that there were "different concepts for this. Some of the tougher ones were the ones that Gore would use." The main goal was also finding ways to fuse human beings with sea life. "Gore didn't want things to be too gimmicky, he wanted them uncomfortable and haphazard."
This brought up the question if a character ever came across Gore's desk that was really great, yet it was too unpleasant for the final film? "Nothing was ever too unpleasant. As horrible as they looked some of them were presented in a humorous way that negated their shock value." To help inspire the artists they examined autopsy photos, diseases, crustaceans, primary sea life and degenerative skin diseases.
In closing McBride was asked if ILM was currently working on any character concepts for Pirates of the Caribbean 4?
"I don't know anything about it." He smiled.
The final stop in our tour was with Joakim Arnesson who served as the Sequence Supervisor on Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. "I was on it from it's development to the bitter end," Arnesson stated. He went on to say that their goal was to "reuse and improve the process... we don't have a library of shots, we have a library of techniques." He then explained that the entire look of the film really comes down to "computer power." Arnesson went on to say that "trying to simulate a 2000 foot wide maelstrom of water" called on "terabytes of data discs. There's a lot of steps and they all add up to an enormous amount of data."
In creating water shots like Arnesson and his team did it was often important for them to actually go and look at the real thing. "We went to look at water a lot of times." However, since the film had a "fixed budget, if something didn't look good we have to do something." He said that in creating all of these effects they "tend to look better now but they're not easier. We have faster computers but they're not easier."
Having been with Industrial Light & Magic since 1996, Arnesson feels that the biggest change is "the complexity of the work. We can show full CG shots. The work is more and more specialized." It's broken down into things like "fluid motion," "ship specialist" while "before it might have been one composite that one artist did."
In closing Arnesson discussed the Lord of the Rings trilogy in terms of its ability to expand on what visual effects could be done on screen. "It was good to see that there were other companies that could do this stuff. It wasn't just ILM." He also spoke about using real actors vs. synthetic performers all created in the computer. "We are not actors, you need that performance." ILM "is trying to do synthetic movies as realistic as possible."
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End comes to DVD and Blu-ray Disc on December 4 from Walt Disney Video.
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