VFX Soup: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : VFX Soup: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Within the first 15 minutes of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, audiences know they're in for another exhilarating ride. In the Disney/Bruckheimer franchise's fourth outing, pirate Jack Sparrow pretends to be a judge in order to free a friend before the court. Of course, it doesn't work out as planned, and the two end up in wild carriage ride through 18th Century London, taking audiences on a tour of the historic city in the process.
"PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES" Crowds throng towards the Old Bailey courthouse in London to witness a pirate's trial. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Captain Jack (JOHNNY DEPP) escapes from the clutches of King George and his Royal Guards by leaping from carriage to carriage. Photo Jonathan Prime. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.
"PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES" Captain Jack Sparrow (JOHNNY DEPP) drives a fiery coal cart while escaping from Royal Guards. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
This combination of charismatic actors--Ian McShane and Penelope Cruz join the fourth installment as Blackbeard and his daughter--old English history, the milieu of pirates and their dastardly deeds and adventures and, of course, a riotous helping of digital visual effects has kept Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides atop the box office charts. According to Box Office Mojo, as of June 27, the movie has grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide ($985,000,000). Directed by Rob Marshall, On Stranger Tides is also the franchise's first stereoscopic 3D outing, riding on a wave of S3D filmmaking that doubles the challenge for visual effects companies.
Visual effects supervisor Charles Gibson split the effects among numerous top VFX houses, including Industrial Light + Magic, Cinesite, The Moving Picture Company, Rising Sun Pictures, Hydraulx and miniature/models firm New Deal Studios, among others.
Cinesite Visual Effects Superisor Simon Stanley-Clamp
Unlike some films that have been converted to stereo 3D from 2D, On Stranger Tides was shot in native stereo 3D using Red One cameras on Pace 3D camera rigs. The challenge of creating believable digital visual effects is tasked to the extreme by the necessity of creating, rotoscoping, tracking and compositing two eyes for each frame. "The most challenging aspect of the carriage chase shot was, to be honest, the 3D agenda," says Cinesite visual effects supervisor Simon Stanley-Clamp. "Rotoscoping is tricky. Cleaning up plates is double the work, and tracking has to be spot on. Stereo means you have to be very, very accurate."
The afore-mentioned carriage chase is a great example of what stereoscopic 3D has added to the visual effects mix: This dramatic visual effect packs double the punch in 3D, but requires double the effort to pull off successfully. To handle this three-minute, 200-shot blue-screen sequence, Cinesite rose to the challenge by building a rock-solid 3D pipeline, crewing up to 98 people, writing crucial software tools and adding hardware for 3D viewing, editing and coloring.
The carriage chase spans four locations. "It starts at Hampton Court, goes into St. James Palace, which is a set, moves to Middle Temple in London and ends in a full-sized set exterior at Pinewood Studios," details Stanley-Clamp. The main body of the chase was shot over a three-week period, with an additional two-weeks at Pinewood Studios for the final sequence.
The core task was to create very large-scale photorealistic 3D environments to replace three large-scale on-location bluescreens, which hid current architecture and covered open-air parkland. In addition to creating full CG streets with highly detailed buildings, Cinesite also composited in 400 extras and added set and background extensions as well as smoke and fog to tie the look together.
The second unit camera team films part of the carriage chase scene in London's historic Middle Temple. Photo: Jonathan Prime. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
The second unit camera team films part of the carriage chase scene in London's historic Middle Temple. Photo: Jonathan Prime. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.
"There was limited previs," says Stanley-Clamp. "We had an animatic with traditional back-to-back boards. The way we worked was very organic. The production changed around the sequence, so there was never time to do a previs of every single shot." The Cinesite crew did do a photo-reconnaissance a couple of weeks before the shoot, to take stills of buildings at the location (which were later used to texture the CG models), survey the set and lay-out and generally absorb the location. "All this contributes to building the environment," he says. "And it helps us track the CG back into the environment."
Director of photography DARIUSZ WOLSKI gets an overview of the vast set at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England. Photo: Jonathan Prime. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Concurrent with the survey/photo-recon, Cinesite's modelers began building the set based on photogrammetry, a sophisticated technique long used in visual effects to determine an object's geometry from photographic images. "We started the builds, texturing and lighting and got to the point where we had all the layouts with CG models," says Stanley-Clamp. "From that, we produced a series of 'mood boards,' which are more than storyboards, a way of showing different colors, printed artwork and everything derived from our photos and CG builds." The boards were shown to On Stranger Tides' visual effects supervisor Gibson. "He was quick in making very few changes to the architecture," notes Stanley-Clamp.
While the models were built in Autodesk Maya and Renderman, the team also used Side Effects Houdini, Silhouette FX Roto for rotoscoping and 3D Equalizer for tracking.
To accommodate an S3D pipeline, Cinesite first expanded its physical footprint. At the beginning of 2010, Cinesite occupied approximately 30,000 square feet of custom designed post production space. They took on a new floor, adding 7,000 square feet to the facility. Cinesite also expanded its BlueArc Mercury storage capacity, adding almost half a petabyte of disc space and around 1,000 additional cores.
Cinesite also upgraded both of their screening rooms, outfitting its main 36-seat screening theatre with a Dolby Stereoscopic system and Barco projector and a RealD stereo system in their 30-seat Assimilate SCRATCH theatre. Additional expansion included adding a editing suites for stereo 3D. In April 2010, Cinesite added a site license for The Foundry's Nuke compositing software, and approximately 25 compositors were outfitted with stereo 3D monitors. Once the 3D pipeline was in place, Cinesite tested it, including some footage from its work on Clash of the Titans.
Cinesite's head of visual effects technology Michele Sciolette also led the effort to create new proprietary software to handle stereo 3D effects. Cinesite proprietary photogrammetry and 3D scene reconstruction software, called csPhotoMesh, was used extensively by the VFX company's environmental artists to build CG sets, including those that lined the road in the carriage chase. This solution begins with a set of digital images which are dropped into a directory and automatically reconstructed in Cinesite's renderfarm to produce a textured 3D mesh that accurately represents the scene geometry and the photos' camera positions.
The second piece of software that was created for On Stranger Tides was csStereoColourMatch, another fully automated tool designed to compensate for color differences between stereoscopic image pairs caused by the beam splitter in the stereo camera rig (or any other factor that introduces color shifts across stereo views). "The color matching is based on the hero eye, which is generally the left eye," explains Stanley-Clamp. "A disparity matte is developed from the left eye which is then used to recolor the right eye." Stereoscopic supervisor Tom Williamson also supervised the alignment of plates. "You might get misalignments between the two eyes, and they need to be aligned without skewing," explains Stanley-Clamp. "Every plate and shot is different, so it was partially a manual process."
Cinesite also honed an existing proprietary re-speeding tool. "Stereo complicates dynamic re-speeds," he says. "When you do a dynamic re-speed, any morphing taking place across the frame has to match. We developed the tool to enable you to try three ways of doing it: frame-based, blended and vector-based. You can try the best of these three techniques, bring them into the edit and compare them. We had a lot of re-speeds to do, so this was a very useful tool."
In addition to the carriage chase, Cinesite also created replaced actor Geoffrey Rush's blue sock with Barbossa's peg leg throughout the film. "The challenge was creating a clean plate whereby he had no leg," says Stanley-Clamp. "The physical leg was bigger than the peg leg that replaced it." The blue sock was adorned with tracking marks, which helped. "Tracking a CG leg was fine," he says. "Once tracked and the camera locked, the animation, although it required some hand animation to get the movement and timing correct, was okay."
"PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES" Captain Barbossa (GEOFFREY RUSH) enjoys a repast on the poop deck of the HMS Providence, as Groves (GREG ELLIS) stands by to inform him of the crew's complaints. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Cinesite's digital artists also had some fun creating a CG poison frog in four different colors (green, red, yellow and blue). "It was over-engineered," admits Stanley-Clamp, who says the frogs were built in great detail and much bigger than they appeared on the screen. "There were a lot of animation iterations to get it right. The little CG frog is incidental and only in six shots, but it looks fantastic, it's realistic and an amusing moment."
"PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES" Captain Barbossa (GEOFFREY RUSH) studies his collection of poisonous toads in a glass jar. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
That's the Zen of visual effects: slaving day and night over visual effects that only take up a few minutes'--or seconds--of screen time. The love of and dedication to the work sustains the day-to-day work; the satisfaction is the knowledge of contributing some spectacular imagery to the bigger picture.
In the case of Cinesite, building that 3D pipeline is already coming in handy for the next major project they're working on: the next Disney/Bruckheimer blockbuster, John Carter of Mars, slated for a March 2012 release. The heavily under-wraps project will debut its first trailer as a teaser in front of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. "It's a massive project and it's shooting in stereo," says Stanley-Clamp. "Every show we bid now definitely has a stereo agenda."