VFX Men Aaron McBride and Ben Snow Talk PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES; Plus 15 Things I Learned on My Visit to ILM

     October 27, 2011



Recently, I was invited to visit the ILM Campus in the Bay Area to discuss the development of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and see some of the new Blu-ray features that Disney has developed for the disc. While touring the effects house, I got to talk to visual effects art director Aaron McBride and visual effects supervisor Ben Snow.

During the interviews, Snow and McBride told me about how pirate maps influence the design of the films, why they can’t reuse digital armatures, what it’s like to be nominated for an Oscar, how the director influences the effects work, and more.  Read on for the complete interviews and a list of the 15 things I learned.

Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-On-Stranger-Tides-movie-posterI know most of you out there don’t have time to read four or five articles on the same movie. So, here is a list of the top 15 things I learned during my visit. Look through it, and you’ll get a better idea of what might interest you in the other stories.

  • ILM’s campus includes posters for every film they have ever worked on, in chronological order.
  • The campus also includes a large public park for local residents to enjoy.
  • The building houses a massive collection of the coolest Star Wars stuff you could ever want to see. But it also features just as many props and mannequins from TV shows, commercials and smaller, sometimes independent films.
    The most memorable Star Wars piece was a doorway framed by Han Solo in carbonite on one side and Jar-Jar Binks in carbonite on the other. George Lucas apparently saw the fan-made statue of Binks at a convention and immediately bought it for display at the office.
  • Director Rob Marshall differentiated himself from Gore Verbinski by focusing more on the character dynamics of the film’s central love story, according to Snow.
  • Marshall was big on using photographs of dancers and models as points of reference whereas Verbinski was more technically-minded, thanks to his history with effects work, according to McBride.
  • This film’s script changed very little between the first script shown to Snow and the final product shown on screen.
  • McBride describes the inspiration behind the franchises monsters as being based around drawings on old pirate maps.
  • Snow has been nominated for four Oscars, but he has not yet won.
  • McBride is a bit of a wunderkind, graduating from his first ILM position as concept designer on A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, to art director for the original Pirates in just three years.
  • The effects budget and shooting schedule for this film was much tighter than on previous entries. Snow contends that this improved the final product.
  • Disney is releasing the Blu-Ray with ‘Second Screen’ technology which allows viewers to sync the disc with their iPad and access special features on their tablet. Previous films to employ this tool were Tron: Legacy and BambiClick here for more on Second Screen.
  • The mermaids in the film were originally far more extreme and almost unrecognizable as human.
  • The production only shifted to the final version of the mermaids less than four months before release.
  • Since the film was conceived with more elaborate mermaid creatures, effects artists had to go back through the film and digitally remove all of the tracking dots on the actress. This was even more difficult because of the 3D stereoscopic technology.

Aaron McBride

aaron-mcbride-image-02Collider: Working on Pirates 4 versus the first three, in the first three you had very big monsters: the Kraken, Davey Jones and his crew, an army of zombies. In this one, the mermaids are the main creature, but they’re much more subtle. They don’t have as big a set-piece as the giant monstrosities. Was that a change between Gore Verbinski always wanting to go very big and Rob Marshall wanting to approach it in a way that was closer to his dance choreography background?

Aaron McBride: I think it was part of the script. It was also a, ‘Let’s see something we haven’t seen before.’ We’ve already seen two cursed crews and a giant sea monster. We kind of looked at it like, or at least I saw it as… you know those old illustration maps that you see from before people knew that… you know, people thought that you’d sail off the earth? There were always these crazy illustrations of, ‘Okay. Well, over here there’s a sea monster and over here there’s a demon and over here there’s Poseidon’ and there’s all those cool kind of illustrations. It felt like we’d seen all those other, We had seen a photorealistic kind of… our enemy or the threat in all the other movies had been a giant monster of Davey Jones was kind of the sea god and Calypsa was kind of the god of the storms and stuff like that. We felt like we had kind of already seen all those other things and a mermaid felt like something you hadn’t seen in the Pirates universe that’s always on those maps too.

Do you have any input on what the creatures could be? Do you get to say, ‘I think in the next movie we should have X monster’?

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDESMcBride: No. Usually it’s established by Terry [Rossio] and Ted [Elliott] and then Gore [Verbinski] and Rob [Marshall] kind insert characters. Like they add additional characters in some instances. So, yeah. Little things, we’ve added little kind of flourishes to some of the characters. In the first Pirates movie there was little details like, one of the skeletons had a musket lodged in his head from a past battle and stuff like that. So we add little story details like that, but that’s sort of in the design art phase.

If you had your go of things, where else do you think the Pirates world could go?

McBride: It’s funny, because after the last one I didn’t know where else they were gonna go. But then when I heard they were going to do mermaids I though, ‘Oh, of course!’ because that’s what you see on the map. I have no idea, I’m anxious as anybody to see what they do for the next one.

You’ve worked with so many different kinds of directors. You’ve worked with everyone from Sonnenfeld on Men in Black II, to Spielberg, to Verbinski. Is there a different type of personality trait that influences if you get effects work that is really, really top notch and seamless or effects that are a bit more cartoony? Is it a choice or is it a budget issue? And is a director’s personality that causes it?

pirates-4-set-photo-johnny-depp-rob-marshall-01McBride: It’s usually… every one has their specific working style. I think it’s, I think some directors are, some of them come from an effects background, some of them have worked long enough in effects that they… We were talking about this in an earlier interview where, some directors, if they come from an effects background or if they’re familiar with the effects process, they can look at a sketch and know what it’s gonna be. I think Gore Verbinski had a background in effects, so a lot of times he could look at something in progress and know, ‘Oh yeah! I see where that’s going.’ And then, with Rob Marshall it was sort of like, he pulled a lot of reference. So he pulled a lot of reference of dancers and things. He was very familiar with photographing dancers and things and beautiful women in stage lit, very dramatic lighting enjoinments. So he could sort of direct us to the aesthetic strengths of that. So I think a lot of directors just sort of work to their strengths.

Ben Snow

Collider: I want to know, what is it like to be nominated for an Oscar?

ben-snow-imageBen Snow: You know what? It never loses its’ appeal! It’s funny because, when Iron Man II got nominated, I think it was my fourth time and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I’m still incredibly thrilled and going to the ceremony is still incredibly exciting. It would be nice to win one, one day…

Do you write speeches?

Snow: No…well, yeah. A little bit. You sort of… The first time I was nominated was Pearl Harbor and literally, my stomach was in knots. Since then, it becomes more like, ‘Wow, it would be nice if I got to win.’ But it’s less nerve wracking. The big thing for us is the bake off where we present our work to the visual effects branch. And there you actually get to talk about it and people can ask you questions from the audience. So that’s pretty nerve wracking. Ask me after I’ve stood up on TV in front of a billion people and I might have a different answer.

You did R&D work for Twister and Deep Impact. How does that differ from a project where you’re just coming on and not developing things or coming up with new concepts for how to do effects?

Snow: I think the projects that attract me are the ones that do involve some sort of new development. I may not be doing the hands on work in terms of developing or whatever, but I’m still contributing the ideas and stuff. Even on Iron Man II, we’d done Iron Man, but it was a way to explore some of the lighting tools that I’d developed…or that I’d asked to be developed. That we’d developed on Terminator, to get those into a more production ready thing. So I try to push, just something that attracts me to a project is if it’s something that will help us push the technology and help us make better shots.

Are you allowed to reuse framework or armatures between different projects? Like, do you use pieces of things? Or do you have to rebuild them from the ground up every time?

Snow: In theory you rebuild it from the ground up. You can actually buy stuff off the shelf now. Like, there’s a couple of good computer graphic suppliers, places like Turbo Squid and that sort of thing. But usually, to get it to a film ready version you end up doing a fair bit of work. And if you’re making a mermaid, there’s nothing to buy. So no. It’s hard to reuse assets and also, the strange thing is that technology is changing all the time. So, if you’ve, even on a Star Wars film where we had to restore something from an older Star Wars film, I was like, “Ahh! This doesn’t work! It’s broken!” I wish it was better actually, in that regard. But even if it were better, there’s the issue of, is it from the same studio? Who owns it? Definitely we have to be really careful with that sort of thing. But yeah, it does mean that we end up having to rebuild a lot of stuff.

With the first three Pirates movies, in the first film you had the zombies, in the second film you had the Kraken, in the third film you just had the massive battle between all the pirate ships. In this film, it’s kind of pulled back a little bit. When it’s pulled back a little bit, what kind of challenges does that offer you when you have to compare to the massive scale of parts two and three?

Snow: It is interesting, because obviously parts two and three were much bigger budget from an effects standpoint and much bigger crews and all that sort of thing. You have the challenge of being clever with how you spend your money. Haha! And it’s recognizing that you do less stuff but you try and do it as well as you can. So you try to keep up to the quality of the previous films but you don’t have as many shots and you don’t have as much going on. But it’s funny because Rob Marshall kind of changed it to a bit more story focused. And I personally found that pretty good. When I read the script I was like, ‘Wow, this is…’ I like the script. I mean, you know, some people like it, some people don’t. In a way, I look at the project as more of a movie; it’s more satisfying to me to work on a project where I like the movie as a whole and like the story as a whole and like everything about the movie. And if my effects are supporting a good film, even if it’s not one of those movies where the effects are the only thing that’s being called out about the film, I’d much rather be in the sort of situation where the effects are supporting than in the situation where you’re like, ‘The movie sucked, but I love the effects’. I didn’t mind it, I liked it.

pirates-4-movie-poster-mermaid-01With Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End there was a lot of discussion of how the script was being worked on during production and making parts up as they went. But with this film, because of the writers’ strike and other delays there was more time for the script to be worked on and to percolate. How close was that first script to what we saw on screen and were there any sequences that you lost that you wish could have been used?

Snow: There were a couple little bits of business. There weren’t really whole scenes. There were a couple bits of business… Hopefully, maybe the DVD will have some of that stuff in it. It actually didn’t evolve as much as other films I’ve been involved with. Certainly there was some conceptual development on things like, ‘How are we gonna kill Black Beard? How are they going to get into the fountain of youth?’ That sort of stuff. That kind of stuff is fun though. It wasn’t like they added whole scenes or took away whole scenes. It was actually pretty well, pretty similar. It didn’t feel like, obviously they had the writers there, so some stuff changed. But it didn’t feel like, it wasn’t like one of those films where they added a whole sequence at the end. Obviously we had the big change of the mermaids, but it was pretty consistent.

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