Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge VFX supervisors talk 'de-ageing' Johnny Depp, evolution of special effects, and savvier audiences

 Gary Brozenich and Sheldon Stopsack discuss the fifth Pirates film with The Independent

Jack Shepherd
Thursday 08 June 2017 15:30 BST

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge has been showing in cinemas for two weeks now, audiences having lapped up Johnny Depp's latest outing.

Many have been left in awe by the ground-breaking effects, particularly those on Javier Bardem's Salazar and the zombie-pirate crew.

VFX Supervisors Gary Brozenich and Sheldon Stopsack, from MPC (Moving Picture Company), both who worked on the film, sat down with The Independent to discuss working on the film.

Notable talking points include de-ageing Depp, the evolution of special effects, and how audiences are becoming savvier towards effects. Read the full interview below.

When did you get involved with Salazar’s Revenge?

Gary: I got involved over three years ago, at the film's very conception. I met Joachim [Rønning] and Espen [Sandberg, directors] and thought they would be very interesting filmmakers to get involved with.

Sheldon: I got involved later, two years ago, when Gary had covered most of the principle photography. They had been working together for a long time.

That seems like an incredibly long time to be working on a film. Is that how long these projects normally take?

G: I think you find, more and more on these bigger projects, they take this amount of time. We work to a release date, and we were shooting early. With the ability of what we all have to contribute to the filmmaking process now, people expand to fill that time.

How closely do you work with the directors? Are they alongside you all the time or do they allow you to play around?

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G: I was with them every day through pre-production and production. In post-production, I was based in Los Angeles, then Montreal, then the last few in London to help finish things off. During that period we had calls with Joachim and Espen, if not some sort of contact with them, on a daily basis for the last three years.

How much was physical effects and how much was digital?

G: It was a pretty healthy balance. There were a lot of massive ship builds. They were very decorative, something that you don’t often get. The practical side was very important. The costumes and make-up of Salazar and his crew was heavily significantly practical. We were either replacing or augmenting. There’s some stuff that hopefully people will never know we did.

Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge Clip - Ghosts

What was the hardest part to edit?

S: It’s difficult to identify one part as the hardest. There were a few big challenges we faced. Obviously, the ghost crew, their appearance, and Salazar was difficult. That underwater-ness — the floating hair, all those parts — that was one big patch that was very challenging. The other was the large amounts of water we had to recreate, the open oceans and more superficial water events such as Poseidon’s tomb.

G: I also think that, on Salazar’s crew, one of the huge challenges we worked with Joachim and Espen on was on Salazar and his overall appearance. He has a look of being underwater the entire film. He’s floating, his costume’s floating, he has holes in the back of his head. His entire crew has the same appearance. We didn't want to detract from his performance in any way. He has such a large on-screen presence, so we had to step back when we needed to, to make sure his performance was always the most dominant thing, and then enhancing it whenever possible.

S: It was more of a supportive effect really. Supporting the performance.

How much were you able to put into the creative process?

G: I had a lot of input with Nigel Phelps, the production designer. Typically, what the production designer maps out is the overall view of the film. Thankfully, in this case, that included the ghosts, the ship, the crew, the islands, and the underwater environments. Everything we had to make was with a unified vision that came through Nigel and the directors. We worked together to make sure the original intention made it to screen. There’s always a massive gap between what you put into a concept image and what can actually be a shot. We bridge that gap to make sure the original intention is there, bringing in all the moving components, those things you would have never thought of until you had a moving camera. That’s where we step in and build on the creative process. Our footprint and impact was significant on this, but it’s always to enhance rather than change.

S: Every VFX project comes down to the individual outlet. There are so many pieces missing from the concept. When you get to the shot level you realise how many questions remain unanswered and need figuring out. The individual artist then has something to contribute to an answer, to present and put into context. It’s a long, ongoing development project that’s worked on until the last second.

Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge Featurette - The Craft

It must be quite daunting and seeing how much is effects led. Did you stand back and think ‘this is a lot of work to get done?’

S: What I tend to do is approach these projects in a naive way, otherwise you’ll be too intimidated by it. There’s a risk of being overwhelmed right from the start and it’s always good to just go bit by bit and let it grow. By doing so, by the end of the production you get to a point and look back and realise the sheer amount of stuff that was created and developed. Then in becomes more intimidating, the aftermath.

G: There’s a maturity to the process that we all have to go through. There are a certain amount of steps and tasks you have to go through, answers that need to be solved along that road. We try to roadmap things along the way. It gets scary when you fall of course. But this process is becoming more and more refined with every film, and we get better and better at it. But the demands get bigger and bigger every project. It’s just becoming smarter about doing it. But I agree, when you look back at the film, you go ‘oh my God I can’t believe that!’

You worked on Stranger Tides as well. How did you want to improve on things from last time?

G: With this film, we knew from the start it was going to be very different. The Pirates franchise has a quality expectation that’s always there, that’s been set from the first film all the way through. In a way, that’s a blessing, because there will never be any compromise on quality. In terms of the way creatively we approached this, we were trying to get back to the spirit of the first films. We have so much more creative ability, so much more artistry that we can bring to special effects than they could then. It was trying to take that spirit and do what we can do to it. That’s, hopefully, what everyone will get seeing it.

Do you ever think, maybe we’re going overboard with the effects?

G: Um… No, not really. Audiences are smart now, in a way that we were not. People have a higher threshold for what they can visually take on compared to what they could five years ago. The younger generations of film viewers are so much more savvy about the technology. It’s much more integrated into the fabric of filmmaking.

S: The use of visual effects comes down to how they contribute to the narrative of the movie. You can completely overdo it, but at the same time, if it helps the story, you can completely strip it down and it will still work.

G: We used to do these films where there would be one small shot that would spike into this huge visual effects shot and completely change the fabric of the film. The audience would be so pulled out by that people would have negative reactions. The quality and quantity of the spectacle that we bring into that process is much more integrated into the story. Audiences are more accepting of crazy shots that they know are not real. As long as they’re well executed, they can take it on. It used to be impossible camera moves that would pull people out, because people knew they could not do that. What we do now, we still try to apply the rules of natural filmmaking, but we’re trying to push them. There’s a grey area that can make or break whether people hang onto that.

Javier Bardem "Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" Film - 2017

Were there any innovations on this film perhaps you hadn’t done before?

S: Plenty. You’re always trying to push boundaries, and each project presents another set of boundaries you’re trying to overcome, and you’re always trying to do better than the last. For this one, the ghost work, pirates, Salazar, all the water, was all a challenge. We developed a whole set of tools for those aspects. There are always things you’re trying to bring to the table.

G: There’s very little we did on this show that was run of the mill, that we took from the last one, just because that’s the evolutionary process of what we do. That’s not that we’re revolutionising on every single front, but we’re pushing forward.

It must be difficult to keep on top of new innovations all the time?

G: That’s the fun of the job. We’re sitting on top of 600 talented people that are also doing the same. It’s a privilege to sit here and talk to you, but we’re speaking for buildings full of people who worked on it.

For the young Jack Sparrow. That de-ageing process has cropped up numerous times recently in film. Is that technically similar to what they used in Rogue One for Peter Cushing? And is that going to become a more common occurrence?

G: Yes, it’s becoming a more acceptable occurrence. We didn’t use the same technology as Peter Cushing, but the same as on Iron Man in Civil War. The company was Lola, based in LA, and they are pushing the frontier on what you’re able to achieve with Youthification, trying to find ways to retain original actor presence and how to work that into the performance. The approach they take to every show isn’t so much the technology, but they’re a group of people who try to find different ways to create that effect. They were skinning that cat in various different ways on this shoot alone. While shooting, we took three approaches. Only in post-production did we decide how to apply the effects to those shots. The people we deal with at Lola are very good at that craft. Sheldon did young Arnold in the last Terminator which took a completely different approach. I actually supervised but Sheldon did all the work. We’re all still looking at how to approach it.

Sorry if this sounds naive, but was that Johnny Depp beneath the CGI? Or a body double?

G: That was him. We also shot with a body double, but that was more for reference underneath all that. That was one of the reasons I went with those guys. Because Jack Sparrow is so well known worldwide, every nuance of his performance. We’ve all tried and failed at our version. He’s so ingrained in film culture that I didn’t want to take a CG replacement of him, so we took an approach where Johnny did his performance and we did manipulation on top of that. It’s Johnny’s eyes, his mouth, and his performance throughout.

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