Being a cinematographer on any movie presents its own set of challenges, but the experience of shooting a Pirates of the Caribbean film is uniquely tough. Not only is this a massive franchise with a lot of filming on the open seas, but as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales marks the fifth installment in the series, it follows the visually stunning collaboration of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and director Gore Verbinski on the initial trilogy as well as Wolski’s continued work with director Rob Marshall on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
But cinematographer Paul Cameron welcomed this challenge that was equal parts daunting and exciting. Cameron’s filmography is diverse and impressive, ranging from visually stylized films like Tony Scott’s Man on Fire and Déjà Vu to character dramas like In the Land of Women. Cameron was also at the forefront of digitial technology having worked on Michael Mann’s 2004 thriller Collateral, and he recently brought his talents to the small screen in a big way by serving as the cinematographer on the HBO sci-fi series Westworld.
I recently had the chance to speak with Cameron for an extended interview about his time on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and his career in general. He revealed how shifting the production from location shooting in Puerto Rico to mostly soundstage work in Australia altered his aesthetic approach, discussed the challenge of following in Wolski’s footsteps, and talked about using drone technology to capture intricate aerial shots in a fraction of the time a traditional method would take. We also talked about his work on Westworld and Collateral, his thoughts on the industry shift from film to digital, and what advice he’d give to people interested in entering the field of cinematography. It was a fascinating and fun conversation on my end, and I feel what Cameron had to say was illuminating about the work of a director of photography on such a massive film.
Additionally, I have to express my gratitude to Cameron—a technical snafu on my end resulted in our first conversation going un-recorded. He was gracious enough to speak with me again, so a sincere thanks for granting another interview.
Pirates of the Caribbean is this massive franchise. What’s the experience of shooting a Pirates movie like?
PAUL CAMERON: Well it’s a great opportunity to be able to shoot a franchise film of this size. The Pirates films have been kind of anticipated and revered by generations for a long time. It’s amazing, you’re on a boat heading back to land and there’s a boat in front of you with Johnny dressed as Jack Sparrow and you can see kids, 3, 4, 5 years old they haven’t even seen the movies yet and they already know who Jack Sparrow is as he comes to shore. It’s a daunting offer always because these films are so massive, but it’s a great challenge and you know there’s gonna be great opportunities to do big visual photography.
Well I know you guys were initially going to shoot in Puerto Rico before moving to Australia. So how did that location change kind of change your aesthetic approach to the film?
CAMERON: Well I think the significant difference—we started the film scouting down in Puerto Rico and scouting around the Caribbean to do most of the principal photography on the ships, building a few ships and redressing a few ships and shooting most of it at sea. And then there was a slight hiatus on the film, and when we drilled back content-wise things changed and there were quite a few more ships, and it became apparent we’d be spending many, many days on the water, and as we know with water and weather and logistics you can lose quite a number of days in principal photography. It’s challenging on the sea but for me it was a big shift just in methodology, having to wrap my head around the idea of all the ships being against massive green screens and blue screens and kind of recreating the feeling of the sea and the light, and not having shot the plates beforehand having to visualize exactly what would be the third part of each. As you know when you do practical photography on the sea it’s driven by light, water, and wind. There’s a certain energy that happens when you’re doing that and when you’re shooting static against greenscreen you’ve gotta recreate that energy, so hopefully between the light and special effects and photography we did that.
You said when you’re shooting the plates aren’t there yet. When you go back in in post-production, are you doing much alteration to match the new plates there?
CAMERON: No I think the general thing in terms of matching lighting ratios and looks, I had a methodology to maintain the correct look throughout a sequence knowing we’re at sea, it’s gonna be late afternoon, so the lighting ratio would be 3:1 or something like that. Not a bright day where it’s 4:1 but there’d be diffuse clouds, and perhaps in this particular scene we would stylize a little bit, maybe a flashback scene so we knew maybe we’d warm up the skies and warm up the key light and make it softer. So you get into this kind of committing to a visual patch for shots and sequences and hopefully they don’t reorder scenes, because that’s the biggest challenge with visual effects for me. It’s one thing if you shoot it real, there’s no way you can shoot a day scene and they can drop it in for a night scene. But there are times in films with visual effects where they do that, and so you lit something for day and suddenly it becomes night. Fortunately we didn’t have that here. But you know most of the sky and the feeling of the water and what they’re gonna do CG-wise that has to do more with the bigger kind of scenes with ghost ships and the bigger CG imagery, and that comes from working with the production designer and talking to them and getting clear about what the atmosphere is and what the transitions are. You’ll see a big sequence in this movie where the ship goes into this kind of Bermuda Triangle-type zone that’s cloud-covered. There’s big lighting effects and it’s all based on conceptual illustrations.
You’re also working with filmmakers who haven’t made a film of this scale before. When you first sat down with the directors in your early conversations, did you guys hit upon a specific aesthetic they wanted to capture? Was there a specific take on the Pirates franchise they wanted to capture visually?
CAMERON: Well I think the directors were hired to bring kind of a fresh look to the franchise while also a reverence for the franchise to date, and I think that’s what the guys accomplished and hopefully accomplished overall in the film. You know there’s a lot of pressure whether you’re experienced or not as a director walking into a project like this, and I think the bar is set very high for story and action sequences and certainly visually. The directors are well aware how big and kind of epic this franchise needs to be, and I think we all delivered pretty well on it. It’s hard because in this particular one, [director] Gore Verbinski and [cinematographer] Dariusz Wolski teamed up for the first three and then Darius stayed on to work with Rob Marshall, so there’s been a certain lineage (laughs). For me personally as a DP it’s obviously—you know I love Dariusz’s work in the past on the Pirates films and I think there’s similar styles and things we kind of share aesthetically in general, so it was a pleasure to kind of move into this project knowing that my taste level was similar to his and hopefully that I would do as good as or better than he’s done to date.
Yeah I mean you think about especially Gore’s movies in particular, it’s visually astounding. When you’re first approached to shoot a Pirates film is it daunting or exciting?
CAMERON: You know I think it’s both daunting and exciting, the prospect of photographing a franchise film like Pirates. Certainly you’ll see massive CG sequences but there’s also massive live-action sequences. They’re big scenes, they’re big set pieces, and there’s stuff that’s digitally enhanced by CG. Fortunately there’s the budget to support and do these sequences correctly, I mean obviously we start with a lot of pre-vis and storyboarding sequences, kind of collaboration to come up with the best ideas and make those sequences as impactful as possible. But yeah, it is a bit crazy when you drive down a dirt road and you pass a couple trees and you take a turn and you see tents larger than any circus you’ve ever seen and trucks, endless rows of trucks, and a massive location and people dressed in period outfits and a dozen actor trailers and camera trucks. Definitely on pressure there for sure (laughs).