Aaron McBride Talks Mermaids, Effects, and 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides'

Monday, 17 October 2011 09:13 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Aaron McBride Talks Mermaids, Effects, and 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides'

As an audience, we're grown increasingly jaded regarding visual effects in our modern blockbusters.  The sheer number of blockbuster movies with show-stopping visual effects sequences has given us a shorthand, an easy and often unconscious understanding of what works and what doesn't.  The arrival of every new huge spectacular movie brings with it the expectation that the figurative bar will be raised, particularly when that would-be blockbuster is the latest installment in a franchise known for its envelope-pushing digital creations.

Such was the case for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth film in a franchise that has included undead pirates, fish-men, massive maritime battles, and even an ocean goddess.  For the first film in the series not directed by Gore Verbinski, the story saw the introduction of zombies, and more importantly, some truly memorably mermaids.  Aaron McBride has been crucial to the visual effects on all four Pirates films, serving as the art director on the first three and visual effects art director for On Stranger Tides.

In his time at Industrial Light and Magic, McBride has built up a resume that includes the likes of Minority Report, Iron Man, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, and Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith.  In a roundtable interview with entertainment writers from around the world promoting tomorrow's release of Pirates of Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, McBride discussed the unique challenges and accomplishments of the sequel.  It's an interview that sheds some light on the intricacies involved in creating those visual effects that often flash by in no time at all.

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. Sometimes early in pre-production we will generate design concept art for characters, vehicles or environments. Then once a design has been approved by the Director we will do supporting artwork for the CG artists, Technical Directors and Compositers of how a creature or vehicle will look in a shot or sequence of the final film once it is textured and lit.

Were there specific achievements in look and style your team wanted to achieve above and beyond the first three films?

McBride: One of the challenges of designing a look for the mermaids was that in the previous 3 Pirates of the Caribbean films the supernatural creatures were for the most part 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.

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

McBride: My favorite effects are the ones that service the story. Some times 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.

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

McBride: Matte paintings are all done digitally now. Some digimatte painting shots involve very elaborate camera moves so much that 3D is used.

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

I was a big fan of Effects films growing up. Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner. 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 VFX to overlight and show off all the detail.

What kind of research did you did into mermaid myths throughout history? Were there any particular images that influenced the look of these mermaids?

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 used 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 jelly fish membrane or sheets of kelp. So while we stayed faithful to the classic folklore imagery of mermaids, there were still some elements that we added to give them a more graceful and dramatic appearance when they moved through the water.

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

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 vicuous 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.

Were the mermaids fully CGI, motion capture, or actresses with effects added, e.g. the tail?

McBride: The mermaids were a combination of a lot of those techniques. Sometimes, as in the case with Gemma Ward's character when we see the mermaids face closeup as she comes in for the kill, it was her on set but then we added some slight digital elements to her appearance...sharper teeth, and a slight sense of shimmery fishscale 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.

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 constrictions because of the properties of water?

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.

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

McBride: I think it happened around the early to mid 90's when Photoshop was becoming more of a standard tool in VFX.

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?

McBride: Often times 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 film makers may decide to make changes or additions later on in post production that work better in the context of the film. Our pipeline has become more flexible in making these changes late in the process.

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+?

McBride: I'm a huge Star Wars fan and I grew up with all the movies that ILM made. So yes, it has definitely been a dream come true.

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

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 jelly fish Pirate, and Wyvern, the crusty Pirate embedded in the wall of the Flying Dutchman.

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

McBride: Storyboards are primarily a visual shorthand to communicate shot composition and how a design or effect will be featured in a shot.

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?

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 cheats that you can get away with on a second film don't work in 3D.

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

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

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

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.

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

McBride: We did a lot of concept art early on where the Mermaids were much more monsterous and creature looking. 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.

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

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

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?

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

What projects are you currently working on?

McBride: Currently I'm working on Marvel's "The Avengers".

Aaron, any final thoughts on PoftheC: On Stranger Tides?

McBride: I've really enjoyed working on all of the Pirate 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!

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides arrives on Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow, October 18th.

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