Visual Effects Art Director Aaron McBride Talks ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’

Aaron McBride, visual effects art director for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, answered some questions about the making-of the film, available on 3D Blu-ray, DVD and Blu-ray on October 18.

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Q: What exactly is a visual effects art director? (as distinct from an art director or a visual effects creator)?

Aaron McBride: A Visual Effects Art Director generates artwork to serve as a ‘look target’ or visual guide for the CG artists, modelers and viewpainters. Often times early in pre-production we will generate design concept art for characters, vehicles, environments or particular effects. Then, once a design has been approved by the Director we will do supporting artwork for the CG Artists, Technical Directors and Compositors of how a creature or vehicle will look in a shot or sequence of the final film once it is textured and lit.

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Q: Were there any specific achievements in the “look” and “style” that your team wanted to achieve above and beyond the first three films?

Aaron McBride: One of the challenges of designing a look for the mermaids was that, in the previous three Pirates of the Caribbean films, the supernatural creatures were, by design, monster-like and frightening. The Mermaids were these supernatural creatures that needed to be beautiful, seductive sirens which we hadn’t seen before in the previous Pirates films. They were not the rotting cursed skeletons or encrusted with the marine life like the creatures in the previous films had been…. but they needed to look like they belonged in that same world.

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Q: How do you think special effects should fit into a movie? Should they be impressive and attention-getting in their own right?

Aaron McBride: My favorite effects are the ones that service the story. Sometimes when there are so many amazing things to look at on-screen it can be like eye-candy overload and compete for your eye’s attention. It can make for a very busy frame of film. I like effects that make sense in the context of the story and really serve the narrative.

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Q: How are matte paintings used now? Are they actually painted or is it all done by computer?

Aaron McBride: Our matte paintings are all created digitally now, though by many of the same artists that used to work traditionally in oil on glass. Some ‘digimatte’ painting shots involve very elaborate camera moves so much that our teams create entire 3D environments.

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Q: How did you decide to go into film and specifically visual effects? Were there any particular films/people/events that inspired you?

Aaron McBride: I was a big fan of effects films growing up. Star Wars, Alien, Bladerunner. I was a big fan of Ridley Scott and how he used so much atmosphere in his films. All the same aesthetics that he used in filming the sets and the actors were the same as the effects shots. There were areas of the frame that would fall to just a rimlight silhouette. Nowadays with visual effects being digital there is sometimes a tendency in the work to over light and show off all the detail and we’re always conscious of that.

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Q: What kind of research did you do for the mermaids? Did you go into mermaid myths throughout history? Were there any particular images that influenced the look of these mermaids?

Aaron McBride: We looked at a lot of the traditional representations of mermaids in classic paintings and literature where they are often portrayed in a very romantic way. We also looked at some references of ballet dancers performing underwater. They would use these large pieces of translucent fabric in large sweeping gestural moves. It created this cool veiled look to the dancers, so we tried to find a way to incorporate this in our mermaids. We tried giving the mermaids drapery that could hang from them like strands or tendrils of translucent fish fin or jellyfish membrane or sheets of kelp. So while we stayed faithful to the classic folklore imagery of the mermaids, there were still elements that we added to give them a more graceful and dramatic appearance when they moved through the water.

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Q: I know a lot of design happens before filming, so how hands on where you on set?

Aaron McBride: We started by meeting with Rob Marshall the director to get a sense of what he liked and how he wanted the mermaids to look and behave on film. He showed us a lot of reference of qualities he liked. So we did an initial rough design pass, casting the net wide and exploring a lot of different possibilities. We experimented with finding a good balance between the mermaids being very beautiful while also being these ferocious creatures that had very vicious predatory qualities as well. Then we presented some concept paintings to Rob based on what he liked and he responded positively too. So we then proceeded in that direction and did more, tighter iterations to refine the final details.

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Q: Were the mermaids fully CGI motion capture or actresses with an effects added tail?

Aaron McBride: The mermaids were a combination of a lot of those techniques. We ranged from completely digital mermaids to the actresses which were digitally augmented. Sometimes, as in the case with Gemma Ward’s character when we see the mermaids face close-up as she comes in for the kill, it was her on set but then we added some digital elements to her appearance…shaper teeth, and a slight sense of shimmery fish scale qualities to her skin. Rob really wanted to retain as much of the actresses true beauty appearances in their faces as possible. They needed to be these creatures that had evolved to be the perfect seductive predator. The idea was that they could appear very beautiful but that their actions should be very vicious like ferocious animals.

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Q: What challenges does water, or being underwater, bring to art direction in scenes like these? Are there aspects that give you more freedom to experiment? Are there more restrictions because of the properties of water?

Aaron McBride: In working on all the Pirates of the Caribbean films there’s almost always a scene or shot underwater. When you compose or design something for an underwater sequence it’s always fun because there’s always more atmospherics underwater. You get a lot of depth fall-off when forms become dark silhouettes quickly and when they moved away from you. Also you get a lot of light shards and caustics. It’s naturally a very haunting and dense environment to play with. Designing something like the mermaids was fun because you could play with various dramatic ways to compose them.

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Q: When did the change from matte paintings to digital matte art happen?

Aaron McBride: For ILM it happened around the early-to-mid 90′s when Photoshop was becoming more of a standard tool in our visual effects work.

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Q: How often do you have to redo a sequence of effects, either because it doesn’t work as hoped or the director changes his mind or doesn’t like it?

Aaron McBride: Oftentimes a design or concept is revisited once principal photography starts and we start seeing the rushes or dailies and how the scenes play out as they are edited together. The filmmakers may decide to make changes or additions later on in post-production that work better in the context of the film. Fortunately, our pipeline is very flexible and accommodates changes that need to be made late in the process.

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Q: What initially brought you to ILM back in 1999? Was it a dream come true for you? Is it still as much fun 10 years+?

Aaron McBride: I’m a huge Star Wars fan and I grew up with all the movies that ILM worked on. So yes, it has definitely been a dream comes true.

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Q: Having contributed to all four films in the “Pirates” franchise, are there any characters or designs that really stand out for you?

Aaron McBride: The “cursed” pirate characters that served on Davy Jones crew were really fun and challenging to work on. I especially liked working on the hammerhead shark Pirate character, ‘Maccus’ from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Also the jellyfish Pirate, and Wyvern, the crusty Pirate embedded in the wall of the Flying Dutchman.

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Q: Can you tell us what makes a good storyboard for a film? Is it pre-visualizing a lot of detail? Pacing?

Aaron McBride: Storyboards are primarily a visual shorthand to communicate shot composition and how a design or effect will be featured in a shot. A good storyboard will provide enough visual information to serve as a blueprint for a shot.

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Q: Was the latest Pirates film filmed in 3-D or converted afterwards? What are the challenges in doing both/either from an FX point of view?

Aaron McBride: It was filmed in 3D using the ‘Red’ camera system. There are a lot of technical reasons why stereoscopic films are more challenging to work on. Many of the VFX tricks that you can get away with on a 2D film don’t work in 3D.

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Q: Did you work with Jerry Bruckheimer in your role as VFX Art Director on this or in any of the other Pirates films? If so what is he like to work with? How important is art direction to him?

Aaron McBride: Yes, we met with Rob Marshall and Jerry Bruckheimer early on and both were instrumental in defining the look of the mermaids.

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Q: Is it harder or easier to create whole imaginary beings and environments than real ones? Why?

Aaron McBride: It’s always more challenging to create whole imaginary characters or creatures and environments but at the same time it’s a lot of fun. Even with the craziest creatures we still have to find ways to ground them in reality so they look believable on screen.

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Q: Was it ever considered or storyboarded that the mermaids might be more ‘fish’ or ‘monstrous looking’ or were they always supposed to be beautiful at least on the surface?

Aaron McBride: We did a lot of concept art early on where the Mermaids were much more monstrous and creature looking and then trying to strike that balance between sea creature and the beautiful seductive siren. We played with adding more elements to them that would make them look more like predatory fish. Early concepts had serrated, razor-like piranha teeth….some had shark teeth and distended jaws like a shark. We explored giving them serrated dorsal ridges and very silvery skin like a swordfish. And those lifeless black eyes like a great white.

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Q: Can you give an example of a VFX trick that works in 2D but not in 3D?

Aaron McBride: Sure. For instance with an animated character like the mermaids, a pose may look great from one camera view but off in the other. All the details that we resolve for one eye perspective we then need to resolve for the other eye as well.

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Q: Do you think 3-D is here to stay this time? Will it become the norm or used mostly in animated and special effects-heavy films?

Aaron McBride: 3D is simply another tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal. It may not be right for telling every story but it can be fun when it enhances a scene.

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Q: What projects are you currently working on?

Aaron McBride: Currently I’m working on Disney/Marvel’s “The Avengers”.

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Q: Any final thoughts on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides?

Aaron McBride: I’ve really enjoyed working on all of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. It’s always a really great opportunity to play in that world and especially rewarding to see it on screen. Thank you all for your time!

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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is now available on 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVD.

For more information on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides , visit the official Pirates of the Caribbean web site.

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