Blockbuster movies often have release dates before they have finished scripts or have completed casting. Such is the world of movies that now often cost over $200 Million dollars. That time crunch hits the effects teams directly as they’re often one of the last stages of the process. For Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’s Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Snow that’s the reality- that sometimes creatures can be redesigned mere weeks before it’s hitting theaters. We got to talk to Snow for the release of Pirates 4 on DVD and Blu-ray (out now), and it’s an interesting world to live in. Check it out.
It seems like they were very little practical make up on this film, is that more the way? It sounds like you were making decisions in January.
With the other mermaids it was March. And so at that point it’s like “they’ve got seaweed hair, and that has to become human hair.” I have talented artists I work with so it’s easier, but it’s been my experience on these films that it’s a short production schedule. But a lot of our tools allow us to think on our feet.
When making changes in March for a May release, are trailer shots first priority?
That happens even earlier than that – we were working on trailer shots back in October. I actually find the trailer a big boost, because you learn a heck of a lot doing a trailer shot and it gooses the crew. But often you want more than you achieve. In this case we had the beautiful women already, and we shot four or five other shots, so a lot of our key moments we had. But at that point, it’s all hands on deck.
So basically you had six weeks to make the change?
When did you come on?
I started when Iron Man 2 finished up, so April May of last year, but I think it was June when we were officially do it.
So if you finished with Iron Man 2 in April or May, that’s another picture that was worked on right up to release.
Yeah, absolutely. I definitely do think the next round of shows won’t be crazy like that, but that could be completely naïve.
It seems like every big effects films are up against the wall these days.
I just happened to a bunch of back to back ones.
Is it easier in situations like this to work with digital instead of film?
It was easier. I’d done Star Wars 2, which was digital. I was wary of the format going in, but now I’m a fan. We were able to deal with the camera department and get rushes, but it was a little clunky because everyone’s getting used to it. We also worked with the Red camera company to help perfect their color conversion pipeline as well. We did a bunch of tests that were helpful, and they implemented a number of fixes because of that. There’s a dynamic range issue, but the new generation of cameras are addressing that effectively.
I talked to Roger Deakins and he said that after shooting digital, he doesn’t know if he’s going back to film. And if Roger Deakins is convinced…
Exactly, for us grain is significantly reduced, extractions are better. There’s a lot of plusses to it. The trick was “can you make it look like film” and I think it can be done.
You say grain’s a headache, do you fake grain?
We always do. There’s noise in digital much like film, and if I make the camera change the ASA, you get a lot of grain on the low. It’s gotten better, but it’s still an issue. But when you put a mermaid on screen there’s always going to be a little bit of grain.
Is the transition to digital to film as extreme as 2-D to 3-D? It seems like 3-D would be harder.
I’d agree with that. The 3-D pipeline had been worked out in terms of shots. The digital to film pipeline was more a matter of procedure. For the film crew they still had to change the roll every nine minutes, but by doing that, they tapped into how a film crew works. And if we lost some footage, we didn’t lose a half day’s work – though that rarely happens.
It was reported that Steven Soderbergh was cutting Contagion after a day’s shooting, do you find digital speeds up the process for effects as well?
It totally does. The camera crew could slip us a drive at the end of the day. One of the first things we shot was (the mermaid) Syrena in the coffin, and we were worried about the rotoscoping, the tracking of her performance, and that meant I could look at the footage and say “I want this footage back at ILM” and then I’d still legitimately request them, but it gave us a big leg up on this material.
What would you say was the biggest challenge with the mermaids? I would imagine translucency is still difficult, even with a computer.
We just improved a lot of our lighting tools, but one of the first things we threw at it was this mermaid, which is magical and shimmering. So we broke the thing trying to make shimmery tails. Rob Marshall didn’t want to go with shimmery. I think all the water was a bigger problem, doing that in stereo. Once we got the other stuff worked out in pre-production, it wasn’t that bad, but every splash is a different story.
Splash is #1?
Fire and water used to be biggest headaches with CGI, are they still the worst?
Yeah. The change to the mermaids was a big deal, but when you throw 3-D in the mix? Getting those to match…
When the early rushes from Jaws came in, before the color had been graded down for night, executives said “what are we doing, making a porno?” With all the half-naked mermaids, was that ever an issue?
That was discussed early on, and Jerry said “they need to be covered.” They had a rubber prosthetic for their whole upper body. And originally we thought “maybe this should be like Barbarella?” But this is a Disney film.
When you’re working with Marshall or Jon Favreau, do you ever adjust the mise en scene for a better effect?
Definitely. You ask them and they say no or yes. So as long as you don’t mind being swiped down.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is on DVD and Blu-ray now.