Taking the Fifth
Barbara Robertson
June 27, 2017

Taking the Fifth

You just can’t keep a good pirate down, at least not if it’s Jack Sparrow, or, for that matter, any number of undead pirate hunters. For Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,  Disney’s fifth installment of films based on a theme park ride, Johnny Depp returns in his iconic role as the swashbuckling Captain Jack Sparrow.

Also rejoining the series after missing the fourth film are Orlando Bloom as Will Turner and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann. Geoffrey Rush returns as Hector Barbossa, the one-legged former captain of Sparrows’ Black Pearl. New to the franchise is Javier Bardem, Sparrow’s nemesis Captain Salazar, an undead pirate hunter. 

The film has garnered a reputation as the most expensive of 2017 and second of all time. All told, it has 2,000 visual effects shots, with 150 of those shots full-CG. The Moving Picture Company’s Gary Brozenich was overall visual effects supervisor, and MPC was the primary vendor.

“Half the film takes place at sea, but it was mostly shot on bluescreen,” Brozenich says. 

With 11 ships in the film, the task of bringing them in, redressing them in dry docks, and then sending them back out to sea would have extended the shooting schedule. Instead, although foredecks and rear decks for some ships were practical, CG ships often sailed the digital waters and pirates walked digital decks. 

“The biggest tasks were enhancing Salazar and his ghost crew, building the ship they were on, and creating the water that surrounded all the boats,” Brozenich says. “Also, the ocean divides and splits in two. Obviously that’s a supernatural effect. It sounds good on paper. But, it took a lot of head scratching.”

Leading the postproduction effort at MPC were Sheldon Stopsack in London and Patrick Ledda in Montreal. In addition to MPC, several other vendors worked on the film.

“Atomic Fiction was our next big creative vendor,” Brozenich says. “They did the opening sequences, the big town environment. There was a beautiful set, but anytime you can see beyond a four- or five-square-block area, you see their extensions. They also did some digital Jack Sparrow work when he’s on the way to be executed.”

Lola Visual Effects took Jack Sparrow [Johnny Depp] back to age 18. Rodeo FX composited around 400 shots, bringing them to life with added textures. CoSA VFX provided matte paintings. A small in-house team worked on the film, as well. 

“And ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] contributed some bonus work on the film,” Brozenich teased. “You’ll see.”

Brozenich cites the water as the biggest technical challenge. “The volume of water work we needed to do, the challenge of ensuring that it blended well with live-action plates and real water, and having it perform as needed for the film,” he points out. “When you see ships in the film, they’re typically surrounded by CG water and an environment created for them.”

Landlubbers at Sea

In Helensvale (Queensland), Australia, a massive bluescreen 150 feet long on each side and 70 foot tall surrounded the practical ship sets. The extension was so big it would block the sun and shorten the shooting day. So, the crew devised a system that would let the sun shine in.

“We had containers with inflatable bluescreens mounted on top,” Brozenich explains. “We mounted these air walls in 20- and 40-foot sections that we lowered and raised proportionally to allow the sun to creep in. By deflating them, we extended the shooting day by three hours.”

Because the on-set ships sailed on turntables, and because the weather was unpredictable, the crew decided it would have been too difficult to do data capture of actors playing the ghostly pirate hunters during filming.

“It was a huge disappointment,” Brozenich says. “Giant had come up with some amazing ideas on ways to create a capture volume, but the logistics became too much. It just didn’t make financial sense.”

Instead, the crew installed an extensive network of witness cameras: eight Sony a7s because of those cameras’ low light capability, and two Canon 5Ds that moved around the principal camera. 

“We had four quadrants on each ship and moved the cameras to the quadrant where the action was taking place,” Brozenich says. “Later, we did hand tracking [of the actors].”

To have live-action plates of the water for reference and to use in the film, Brozenich shot footage in Australia and Key West, Florida.

“The benefit of Key West is that it’s at the tip of Florida, so you can get a clear horizon at sunrise and sunset,” Brozenich says. “We used some of the water plates throughout the film with live-action skies comp’d behind, but directly cut those plates with CG water and skies. We hoped that if we kept mixing between them, no one would know.”

Creating environments for the ships on the bluescreen stage comprised the nuts and bolts of the water work for the film, but for some shots, the visual effects team needed to be able to direct the water. The director might want a big wave to hit a particular point, or want a certain quality of water, for example.

“We tried to base everything on the Beaufort scale to keep things as real as we could,” Brozenich says, referring to a measurement system that relates wind speed to ocean or land conditions. Rather than saying, for example, “strong wind and big seas,” the filmmakers and visual effects artists could be specific by using the Beaufort scale. 

To create the digital water, the MPC artists used a combination of techniques and software packages, including Side Effects’ Houdini, Scanline’s FlowLine, Auto-desk’s Bifrost within Maya, and Dr. Jerry Tessendorf’s algorithms.

“Water simulation software typically produces a bit of a look and feel that audiences have become familiar with,” Brozenich says. “So, we took an approach to break that curse and went into it with more of an open mind.”

Undead Pirates

Sailing Salazar’s ship is a crew of 50 ghost pirate hunters, some of whom are live--action actors augmented with digital and prosthetic makeup, and some, CG characters. 

“Salazar and his key officers all have damage that looks like they were hit with one cannonball,” Brozenich says. “One has his right side damaged, Salazar’s left side is damaged, one guy has the bottom half and front ripped out. When you look at the ghosts on the ship, there’s a narrative structure – one that we just made up.” 

Other ghosts were missing so much of their bodies that they became full-CG characters. One is only a cap and a hand. Salazar himself – that is, actor Javier Bardem – wears prosthetic makeup that’s enhanced digitally. 

“We also replaced his eyes to give Salazar a shadowed retina look, and took off the back of his head,” Brozenich says. “The biggest challenge on the film was trying to work with Javier’s performance in a supportive, non-disruptive way. We had to add so much onto him, we wanted to make sure we were supporting everything he was trying to do.”

But that wasn’t the only challenge. This film’s conceit is that all the ghosts are eternally trapped in an underwater environment.

“We had to make actors shot at a normal 24-frames-per-second speed look as if they were floating in water,” Brozenich says. “Every-thing that can float does. Medals on their chest. Their hair, clothing, rags, costumes.”

For reference, the crew spent a day filming a stunt actor wearing a period costume while underwater in a pool.

“It’s one thing to believe you understand what that would look like, and another to see it,” Brozenich says. 

Once they knew what the characters would look like underwater in full costume, they had to figure out how to replicate the look on dry land. 

“Sheldon, Patrick, and I spent a lot of time going through footage, trying to find the magic formula,” Brozenich says. 

On set, all the performers wore partial costumes to make it easier to add the digital cloth and run simulations later. Those who would appear in close-ups in long coats wore chopped coats that stopped at their rib cage.

“All the ghosts also have CG hair and digital prosthetics on their bodies,” Brozenich says. “Their legs, arms, hands might be digital. They are all a conglomeration of digital prosthetics and practical makeup and costumes. So, we made amazingly detailed and naturalized digi-doubles of all of them. In a lot of cases, it made sense to rotomate and add the necessary [digital] parts back in. It was really a harsh pipeline of people working at MPC in Bangalore getting in there and just doing it.”

Three of the four previous Pirates of the Caribbean films received Oscar nominations for best visual effects, with the 2006 film Dead Man’s Chest winning the Oscar. And, all four films were box-office successes. The first, The Curse of the Black Pearl, earned $653 million; the second, Dead Man’s Chest, and the fourth, On Stranger Tides, topped $1 billion worldwide; and the third, At World’s End, brought in $958 million. This fifth film has a lot to live up to. But, like the ones before, it has unique, state-of-the-art visual effects powering the story and, of course, Jack Sparrow. As the irreverent trickster puts it, “No matter how difficult, I will always prevail.”  

Barbara Robertson (BarbaraRR@comcast.net) is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for CGW.