For a generation of film fans, ILM is where the magic happened. From Star Wars on, the company was one of the great pioneers of special effects, and they seamlessly transitioned into the digital era. For the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I got a chance to talk to Aaron McBride, the film’s visual effects art director. McBride had worked on all of the previous Pirates films, so he saw the transition from Gore Vebinski to Rob Marshall. But for him it was all about the Mermaids. Check it out…

How did the design process start?

We started by looking at designs of mermaids that had the folklore of being irresistible siren, and there were early sketches that had them streamlined. The director was really interested in dancers playing with fabrics underwater. So we tried to recreate that beauty, with shawls or drapes, translucent, hanging around them. We slowly tried to introduce some scarier elements. It’s a long process.

How many iterations did you go through for the design?

We didn’t do a lot, but the most were for Syrena (the lead mermaid, played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), because she was going to be featured the most, and the love interest. Then Gemma (Ward), who plays the evil sister mermaid. Just because she needed to be super-seductive.

Would you say this is normal for the process?

Yeah.

Do you often start with a wider spectrum of possibilities?

We call it the “blue sky” phase, because you cast the net as wide as possible, and play with different things. If something comes to later, it’s always nice to entertain every idea.

What’s the thing you’ve gone through the most versions of  in your career?

I think I’ve been fortunate, I think I had to go more versions early on in my work just because the technology has gotten better. Now we use photo-shop so we can show the director what it would look like. So being able to work a little tighter I think that reduces the guesswork.

And being able to push a button and change hair color…

Yeah, back in the day you’d have to redraw something to lower a shoulder, fix a neckline, and now it’s a lot easier to do that without breaking out the pencils.

Was there anything you felt like you got right away?

The initial design for the mermaids went pretty quick, and then when we were going to do something different with the hair – that was relatively easy.

What would say are the creative differences between Gore Verbinski and Rob Marshall?

Rob Marshall, he was a choreographer, and he made musicals, so he gave us gorgeous frames. Both create beautiful color and value compositions, and I think Rob – because he comes from a stage background – brought in references to ballet. It didn’t go directly to the animal creature first. Some of the earlier Pirates films, passes were done by Gore and his team, and a lot of it was referencing animal life. They draw inspiration from different worlds but they both create great frames.

When I talked to you for Pirates of the Caribbean 3, in the background you had these very elaborate creatures, this seems a much more stripped down approach, which do you enjoy more?

It’s fun to do both, you do the deformed, cursed pirates for a while – and I loved doing that because you’re trying to be as disturbing as possible. But when we first heard about mermaids the question became “how do you beautiful in this world?” It felt like in the earlier movies all the supernatural elements had been frightening, and the kind of things when you see them you know they’re a threat. This time, it’s like “oh, they’re beautiful.” And you don’t know they’re a threat. And that was fascinating.

We talked to Ben (Snow). And he said there was the first stage of development, and then in March there was a complete shift on the thought process on the mermaids. Which is two months before the film came out. Walk me through your role, you’re mostly on for pre-production, right?

I’m on for pre-production, but I’m in for dallies and I work with Ben and offer up shot concepts. “We know what the design looks like, but in this light…” not changing the design but lighting concepts, and it stays on model – on target for the approved look the director liked. I stay on through the visual effect process, but I’m not designing stuff, it’s more shot art direction, where you paint on frames.

How was this different with that late design change?

We’ve had on other shows late design changes, and character additions later on in production – in Pirates 3 we added much more characters for the boarding party in the maelstrom. And we weren’t aware of that right away. Crusty Jack Sparrow was a later addition – sometimes they happen closer to the end than others, but our pipeline has gotten flexible enough we can accommodate a lot of these things.

When I talked to Jon Knoll for Pirates 3 he said something like “it will be the biggest film you will ever be involved with.” How was it then going into On Stranger Tides, was there less of that scale and pressure?

It’s funny, on every show there’s challenges, and if you’re not feeling challenged… But going into this one it was “how do you achieve the beautiful?” All the accents that you can add to make something attractive can also make it unattractive. It’ll look real, but it may not look as seductive. They cast all these beautiful actresses and models, and we wanted our creatures to elicit the same response as them. And it got to a point where a character would want to kiss a mermaid, having membranes and tentacles, fish-fin membrane glistening off of her may not elicit the same response as seeing that beautiful model in just a human form.

Is this film where you’ve had to look at the most naked women for the job?

No. (Laughs) I don’t remember, but I don’t think it’s this one, they’re all wearing body suits and their hair was artfully placed.

Well, you showed us some design images of naked women swimming.

(Laughs) It’s all about making the design right.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.