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August 2014
Issue: May 1, 2007

VISUAL EFFECTS: 'PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN - AT WORLD'S END'

By: Iain Blair
SAN FRANCISCO — While Disney’s 2003 release Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a surprise hit, last year’s Dead Man’s Chest sequel was more of a calculated risk — and technically and visually a huge step forward, thanks to some 1,400 visual effects shots that included everything from a ship-swallowing sea monster to the all-CG Davy Jones and his tentacles.

The result? The sequel jumped off the plank and into movie history, becoming just the third film ever to sail past the billion-dollar mark and breaking every box office record along the way. So how do you top that? If you’re uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski, you up the ante, which is why stars Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley were joined by Rolling Stone Keith Richards as the crew set sail for the Far East in another swashbuckling tale in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Verbinski also set sail with many of the same key below-the-deck visual effects talent at ILM, including visual effects supervisors John Knoll and Roger Guyett and animation supervisor Hal Hickel.

“This was a huge challenge, partly due to the very short post schedule we had, and partly due to the complexity and scale of the visual effects, especially the water ones,” reports Guyett. “It was far and away the most complicated project I’ve ever done.”

Guyett should know. During the past 12 years, he has worked as the visual effects supervisor on some of ILM’s biggest jobs, including MI3, Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which earned him Oscar and BAFTA nominations.

“But Pirates 3 was also the tightest post ever — they only finished shooting in January, and we had to deliver it in April,” he notes. “That gave us just 12 weeks of post to complete all the 2,000 visual effects shots, of which we’re doing over 800.”

Guyett reports that several other effects houses, including Digital Domain, Asylum, The Orphanage, Method, CIS and Pac Title, were also brought on to help out. “It was a huge amount of work and obviously you want a director who’s had a chance to edit the film and can then focus on all the visual effects,” he says. “But when post is so compressed, they don’t have a chance to digest what they’re doing as they go through it, and everyone was up against it, from Gore and the effects houses, to music, sound effects, every aspect of post.”   

To anticipate this crunch, Knoll, who led the charge on At World’s End, and Guyett decided that having a second supervisor would be “very helpful, especially since John was away for over 100 days on the location shooting,” says Guyett. “We tried to prep it all as much as possible so when we did start post, we hit the ground running. I came on from day one.” The team also divided up the workload to keep it more manageable for deadlines.

THE WHIRLPOOL

Technically, the biggest challenge “without a doubt was creating the huge maelstrom effect,” he says. “Water is obviously still a huge CG challenge, even though ILM has a history of doing water shows, from The Perfect Storm to Poseidon, and we’ve collaborated a lot with some very smart people at Stanford University. We’ve done a lot of R&D into water simulation, where you’re not just taking a flat surface and wobbling it around a bit and pretending it’s like water, which is kind of how CG water began. Instead, you’re looking at whole volumes of material that water physically is, so you can put forces inside the water, and in many respects, in a very simple way, break it down to the real elemental components of water. You’re looking at the way the actual material as a volume behaves, and that’s a very extreme computational exercise with a lot of physical issues that you have to solve.”

And to make that happen took “a lot of firepower and a lot of computers,” he adds. “It involved a lot of math and equations, and we’d set up these huge simulations on our in-house program Physbam. We actually began working on the whirlpool last August, and it took over five months to get a version of it we were all happy with.”

The whirlpool is the climactic scene in the film, a monster that’s two miles across and which Knoll describes as “a very complicated toilet flush.” It functions like a traditional whirlpool, but it has the characteristics of rotational velocity, “which basically means that the water is rotating in a very specific way,” says Guyett. “And we were trying to simulate every wave in that whirlpool, so you can imagine the amount of information and data we had to process.”

When they began, Guyett and his team experimented with smaller scale simulations, hoping that they could join many together. “But at the end of the day, that didn’t go as well as we’d hoped, and we all felt that if we could do a huge simulation that worked, we could then put the camera wherever you want,” he adds. “So that’s the approach we took in the end, but it created a lot of problems we had to solve, since a whirlpool is far more three-dimensional than a wave. And the deeper it gets, the more the data grows exponentially.”

To handle all this, the team, which included ILM fluid simulation experts Frank Losasso Petterson and Joakim Arnesson, used “massive amounts of computer storage — terabytes,” he says. “And like any good director, Gore wanted to direct the simulation, which led to another whole range of creative problem-solving. But ultimately, we managed to create a great effect that will wow audiences.”

THE NEW CHARACTERS

For Hickel, whose credits include A.I. and the first two Pirates films (his work with Knoll on Dead Man’s Chest earned him an Oscar this year for Best Visual Effects), the new challenges of Pirates 3 revolved largely around integrating some new characters into the ghostly crew of Davy Jones and his men. “Because we’d really been able to figure out exactly how to do Davy Jones and his men on the last film, this time we could concentrate more on the new characters and some really subtle stuff,” he reports. “What happened was that as we headed into doing the big action sequences that cap the film, we discovered that we didn’t have enough crew members that were high rez so they could be seen in close up. We had about 17 hero characters last time around that served most of the needs of the pirates’ crew, and they could all be seen in close up. In addition, we also had some very low-res crew that we used just to fill up the decks of the ship in wide shots. But we had to quickly create 10 new detailed characters that we could use in hero action shots.”

Fortunately, because of all the R&D Hickel’s team of 60 animators had done on the last film, the design process went much faster this time. “And it was fun too since we got to explore some sea life elements that we just didn’t have time to do on Pirates 2,” he says. “So we have a new crew member covered in jellyfish, and another with big sea urchin spines poking out of him.”

Ultimately, Hickel had a team of 30 animators working on At World’s End, “fewer than on the last Pirates since we already had done so much R&D,” he says. The team worked on HP workstations and used Autodesk Maya to do all the early body motion, before moving into their own Zeno system to do all the facial animation. All the new characters were modeled in ILM’s in-house modeling software program and then put through the Maya/Zeno pipeline.

“In terms of all the new characters, everything went faster this time,” he adds. “Initial designs by Jim Burkett, Erin McBride and Crash McCreery were created very quickly, so we had a ton of ideas to look at. Gore then picked out the stuff he liked, and we then boiled it down to the 10 new characters. And once we had the 10 approved sketches, we moved straight to our CG modeling and just ran with it.”

DAVY JONES RETURNS

Davy Jones also presented a new challenge, “as this time he gets to do a lot of action stuff and sword fighting, and there wasn’t any of that in the last one,” notes Hickel. “In 2 we worked very hard on the simulation engine we built to handle his bearded tentacles, but he was mostly just talking and walking around a bit, and it’s pretty tame compared with the sort of action scenes we’re putting him through on 3. And that’s been a big learning curve, figuring out exactly what the tentacles do when he spins around or jumps.”

To deal with these action scenes, the team used a simulation engine that is part of Zeno, ILM’s platform for all their proprietary tools. “It’s part of the software we use for simulating cloth and stuff like that that we won’t be animating by hand,” he says. “When we began building Davy for 2, we looked at the design with its 46 tentacles and how they’d all interact, and we already had all that data in our simulation engine. But on top of that, we needed them to be alive and have certain behaviors that made them coil and uncoil around each other.”

Looking at the problem, Hickel and his team quickly realized that hand-animating the tentacles “would take forever,” he reports. “We wanted the computer to help us with all the physics and to make it all feel weighty and real.”

In the end, James Tooley, the team’s simulation guru, came up with a system that divided all the tentacles up into small blocks, “like cylinders,” he adds. “It basically motorized them, and while it’s not a push-button answer, it’s amazing how well it handled a broad range of action movements for Davy once we came up with some new settings for the program.”

The tentacles “really push the envelope in 3,” adds Hickel, “and then we also have some scenes with Davy where the tentacles do some pretty extraordinary things that they didn’t do in 2, and part of that was hand-animation of the tentacles, and part was using the simulation engine to do some really crazy things that no one expected.”

Summing up, Hickle says that, “3 should have been easier since we’d learned so much from 2, and we went straight into this. But the whole post schedule was so crazy that it ended up being very demanding, but I do feel it really delivers.”