After five movies, the filmmakers behind Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean aren’t resting on their laurels. Like true high seas explorers, the stunts and VFX team of the newest installment, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, available now on Blu-ray and Digital HD, charted new territory to bring to life the latest chapter of Captain Jack Sparrow and his beloved Black Pearl.
From crafting its epic action sequences to making an aquatic zombie pirate so lifelike, here’s how the film’s stunts and visual effects masters pulled off the film’s greatest achievements.
Danger on the High Seas
Tommy Harper is new to Disney’s Pirates, but he is no stranger to Hollywood stunts. An industry veteran of twenty years, Harper has worked on everything from The Fast and the Furious to Marvel movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and both Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Bruckheimer called up Harper for Pirates of the Caribbean, hoping Harper can change things up with a grittier take on pirate action.
“He said, ‘I want this to be a little different, a little more gritty.’ Harper tells Inverse, “He knew what I was capable of.”
After studying past Pirates films, Harper said he decided to eschew the slapstick quality for something “a little more serious.” His reasoning was that Javier Bardem, who plays the film’s antagonist Captain Salazar, was a “heavier character” than previous Pirates baddies. “We just brought the action a bit where you saw it more. We took things further than you normally would in the franchise.”
Some of the film’s biggest set pieces were either master classes in black comedy — in one sequence, Captain Jack (Johnny Depp) is on a spinning guillotine with the blade yo-yoing just inches away from his nape — or logistical nightmares, where anything could go wrong. And some things did, in fact, went wrong; both Depp and co-star Kara Scodelario were injured during filming. Depp required surgery back in the United States, which held back filming for several weeks.
But Harper saw a way through these and other obstacles. Another big set-piece, Salazar and Jack Sparrow’s game of high-seas chicken on their ships, took a month to choreograph and two whole weeks to shoot. “That was two huge rigs we built, huge cannons that were made, overhead rigs with safety lines, and these two huge ships would travel up and down about 30 or 40 feet,” Harper explains. “The guys [on the ships] would jump back and forth between the two of them. It took a month just to choreograph that right.”
Old World, New Tech
Gary Brozenich has both an Oscar and an Emmy nomination for his visual effects work on The Lone Ranger and HBO’s period epic Rome respectively. But in spite of his accolades, Brozenich quickly acknowledges that he and his colleagues at Moving Picture Company couldn’t pull off the effects for Dead Men Tell No Tales just “five or six” years ago. And he should know: He supervised the last Pirates film, 2011’s On Stranger Tides.
“On a technical level, [we have] much greater confidence in our ability to create CG water on a high volume and direct it to the demands of the filmmakers,” Brozenich tells Inverse. “On a creative level, the industry has matured. There’s a lot of capable hands that can pick up a higher volume of work and create environments or city extensions, and you know that you won’t be wrestling the nitty gritty stuff we were back then.”
Javier Bardem’s Salazar, in particular, was an interesting challenge. Conceived on paper as a kind of zombie pirate, Salazar and his crew are meant to look like they’re underwater, even when they’re lumbering around on dry land. Six years ago, when Brozenich was doing On Stranger Tides, a character like Salazar would have been impossible. Today, Brozenich doesn’t think twice.
“Being able to take a character like Salazar and confidently say, ‘Of course we can make him,’ that to me is something maybe five or six years ago I’d not be quite so confident.”
To pull off the feat, Brozneich and his team hired a stuntman, dressed him in Salazar’s costume, and went deep into a backyard swimming pool to record hours of reference footage. “I jumped in with a GoPro on a monopod and [the stuntman] spent the whole day acting out basic behaviors of someone on a ship,” he says. “Walks, runs, fight sequences, dialogues. He shook his head, he looked up and down. We spent hours in there shooting reference of what a person looks like with similar characteristics underwater. That became the basis for all the digital prosthetics later. We referred to it all the way through post. It became a good kind of template for us.”
Another visual effects feat Brozenich and his team pulled off was bringing to life a younger Johnny Depp (think 21 Jump Street-era Depp) for a lengthy flashback sequence. Although the team did use a body double who recreated Depp’s performances from the set, Brozenich says it was still very much Depp underneath. The final product can be thought of as a smooth, highly-technical Frankenstein’s monster of polished CGI.
“The big thing people have a difficult time wrapping their head around is that it was still Johnny doing the performance,” Brozenich says. “Johnny would do the performance, and then we would have the body double watch Johnny to the smallest detail. What that gave us, the VFX team, was a target for what younger skin looks like: how it reacts, how, sadly, young flesh moves differently to older flesh. It gave us raw material. And on top of that [we would] take parts of the other.”
If the VFX team needed a “bit of a collar bone,” they’d use the double’s and “track” it over Depp. Although somewhat macabre in its process, the final result is nothing short of astounding.
The process is not unlike how Kurt Russell was de-aged for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, or the late Carrie Fisher for Rogue One. And Brozenich says there’s more like it on the way.
“I can already tell you there are films coming out in the next year where you’ll be seeing a lot more of it,” he says. “It’s an interesting use of the technology and the artists making it. There’s a novelty to bringing someone back or recreating something.” Brozenich adds that the novelty “will soon become normal, maybe even “tragically, a solution” to unfortunate things that may occur during filming. “People will do more creative work with it and it will become part of the story. That’s where everybody is heading with it.”
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is available now on Blu-ray and Digital HD.
If you liked this article, check out this video on 84 years of King Kong special effects.