How the new Pirates of the Caribbean film defied physics and de-aged Johnny Depp

Each of the films in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise have offered up a visual spectacle, whether the action unfolds on land or (more often) on the high seas, and this year’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales raised the bar once again with its innovative visual effects.

Not only did the fifth installment of the franchise up the ante with a wide variety of unique, water-based digital effects, but Dead Men Tell No Tales also incorporated a series of scenes featuring a teenage Jack Sparrow, made possible by digitally de-aging franchise star Johnny Depp. The film’s extensive — and impressive — visual effects were guided by Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Gary Brozenich, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his work on 2013’s The Lone Ranger and an Emmy Award nomination for supervising the visual effects on HBO’s Rome. No stranger to the franchise, Brozenich previously served as the visual effects supervisor on 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

Digital Trends spoke to Brozenich about the challenges of whipping water into shape and taking one of Hollywood’s most iconic pirates back in time for Dead Men Tell No Tales.

Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Men Tell No Tales

Digital Trends: Of all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, this one seems to have relied the most on water effects — from the eternally underwater appearance of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) to that big scene when the ocean is parted around (and under) the characters. What were some of the challenges in bringing all of these water effects into the film?

Gary Brozenich: One thing for us that was a big challenge on the movie was all the different types of water we had to make. About half the movie takes place at sea, and often on ships at sea, but we only shot for about two days on the ocean. So any time the characters are actually on a boat and you see it — with the exception of some of the smaller vessels — the water you’re seeing is all computer-generated, and the environment and skies are [computer-generated] as well.

Even when there’s a small dialogue scene on a ship, typically we’d have to put CG water into it and a CG environment behind it.

You do some interesting things with that water, too — things that water typically isn’t supposed to do.

Well, that background water was one type of water, and on the other side of that we had to have what we called “performance water,” where it needed to have a directable quality to it. That’s always a bit of a challenge, because any time you try to impose rules and laws on water, that’s when it starts to fall apart and the audience smells something awry. We had everything from stormy oceans to, as you pointed out, the sea parting — which is an inherently unreal event for anyone to witness. Taking everybody along with you on that ride, even though they know that it’s not possible, that’s the other end of the spectrum of difficulty.

But they each have their own complexities, and we had a wide variety of challenges.

Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Men Tell No Tales

Captain Salazar is arguably the most visually unique villain in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise since Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). How did you go about creating that weird water effect that makes it look like he’s always underwater?

Early on in postproduction, before we even started to do final design, we hired a stunt guy in L.A. They made a costume for him — a basic, Napoleonic-era ship’s captain costume — and we put a long wig on him, and then we actually went into a swimming pool with him. The pool was in his backyard, and I dove in with the GoPro and filmed him for a whole day doing a series of actions underwater. [We filmed him] walking away from camera, [walking] from one camera to another, attempting to run, doing sword-fighting motions, and so on … He’s a proper stunt man, so he really gave it his all.

So we filmed him for hours and hours and had amazing footage of what that would look like, and that gave us a really good sense of what the rules are and what it should look like. It gave us a good, solid foundation.

And where did you go from there?

Well, that was a start, but when you try to mix two worlds of physics, well … Basically, Javier lives in our above-water world, and so he’s obviously obeying the laws of natural physics in the way he’s moving, talking, and acting around the ship or whatever set he’s on. We had to combine the laws of physics of the underwater world with the laws of physics of that above-water world, and do it in a way that was both interesting and beautiful. And most importantly, it couldn’t interfere with the main event, which was Javier and his performance.

That’s where we started, and where we ended was really on a shot-by-shot basis. We had to craft and sculpt the behavior of Javier’s costume and hair to the director’s needs and to the editor’s needs in one shot after another.

Going back to that big scene when the ocean parts and there’s a major battle in a corridor lined by walls of water, there’s action simultaneously happening on the sea floor and far above in the Black Pearl. Did that present any challenges for you on the visual effects side?

Well, a lot of the narrative of that scene is taken care of in the cuts. Because it’s such a large scale, it’s hard to see from one world into the next. When you’re up in the Black Pearl and skating along the edge of the chasm, you’re too high up and it’s too deep and too dark to see what’s happening down below. We had action down there, but from a narrative standpoint, it split quite neatly into two different art environments. When they come together, though, is when some of the characters get hoisted up on the Black Pearl’s anchor and the water collapses around them, but for the majority of the time, you’re in two very distinct places.

We actually spent a long time working with [director] Joachim Rønning to make sure we had clarity between the two environments. Obviously, when you jump to the top of the surface, the audience has blue skies and it’s sunny, and there are visual cues to orient yourself and know where the scene is at, but when you go back down to the bottom, in reality it would probably be black, but we bent the rules a bit and pushed the light to make sure you could see what was going on. That was a big part of the dialogue at the front end when we were developing the look of it, in order to let the audience know where they were.

One of the big effects in the film that didn’t involve water was the way Johnny Depp’s character was de-aged for several surprisingly long scenes. What went into creating those scenes with a young Jack Sparrow?

Yeah, there were quite a few shots with young Jack — around 25 in the end, I believe. We approached one specific company that does this type of work very, very well. It’s a company called Lola, based in L.A. They’ve been doing it for Disney films for nearly 10 years now, and they’re masters of that craft.

Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Men Tell No Tales

The difference between the way they approach it and the way other companies do it is that the underlying material in what you see on the screen [in Dead Men Tell No Tales] is Johnny. He was in the same young Jack costume and delivered his performance, and they worked with his material and shot a body double in the same space to essentially harvest and combine the shots in a way that keeps Johnny underneath it all.

It’s difficult to explain, but when you see Jack’s eyes, and his mouth, and his nose, and his lips moving with the dialogue, that’s still Johnny. The reasoning behind taking this approach is that Johnny is Jack Sparrow. We’ve all done a bad Jack Sparrow impression at some point, but the only guy in the world who can really do Jack Sparrow is Johnny. We wanted to make sure that what we were doing with him showed through.

There certainly wasn’t any lack of reference material for Johnny at a young age, given his career. Did that work in your favor?

Absolutely. And I think what’s really interesting is that the perception of age when you envision someone can be surprising. The target age for young Jack was originally around 19-21 years old, but as soon as you see someone and match them to references from that period — and thankfully there’s a lot of reference material from that age [for Johnny] — the tendency is to push it even younger. We ended up with a look that was somewhere around Johnny’s late teens in the end.

In talking to a lot of visual effects supervisors, it seems like it’s not always the big sequences that were the most memorable parts of working on a particular film for them. It’s often the stuff the audience doesn’t notice that they’re most proud of. Is there a particular effect you’re proud of in Dead Men Tell No Tales that’s likely to go unnoticed?

That would have to be that water work we discussed. Hopefully everyone believes that what they were seeing was shot at sea — even the most simple dialogue scenes. There were a lot of big, full CG shots with ships that looked like they were shot on the ocean, and for me, if everyone walked away believing they were shot on the ocean, I would consider that to be the invisible effect you’re talking about. That’s always the thing you’re most proud of — when people say, “Oh, I didn’t realize you did that.”

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is available now on Digital in HD and 4K Ultra HD, and will hit shelves October 3 on 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray Combo Pack and DVD, and be available via On-Demand.

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