Industrial Light and Magic doesn’t often open its doors to the press or the general public. But, Disney managed to sneak a bunch of pirates and mermaids into ILM’s Presidio-based headquarters recently to hype the Blu-ray release of the billion dollar grossing Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
The day-long press event in San Francisco was organized to examine the work ILM did on the Disney blockbuster – with special attention paid to the movie’s trademark mermaid sequence as Captain Jack Sparrow and Blackbeard brave dangerous waters to find the Fountain of Youth.
ILM's Ben Snow (visual-effects supervisor) and Aaron McBride (art director) joined reporters with a combination of video and art displays to detail the creative process that brought the mythical creatures to life.
Both VFX veterans acknowledged that the creation of these new Pirates of the Caribbeanmermaids were of particular important to Disney, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Rob Marshall because the mythical sea ladies have been a part of Disney folklore for decades. This would be the first time that a Disney product would feature evil mermaids, and ILM wanted to get it right.
"In the mythology of the sea, mermaids were historically beautiful, but deadly creatures," Snow said. "They lured sailors to their deaths. That’s a very appealing and sexy tradition, narratively. We were excited to bring them back to that tradition. But the challenge was developing creative concepts that preserved their beauty while making them scary again."
To explain how ILM’s mermaids evolved from the imagination to the finished, film, Snow and McBride showed off everything from pencil and ink art to elaborate digital imagery to fully realized 3D creatures. The collection documented how the creatures went from traditional representations to more alien and bestial undersea creations to the final beautiful, human finished products in the film.
McBride explained that one of the major challenges was blending the stunning models and actresses that made up the crew of live action mermaids with the monsters they become onscreen.
The most advanced ILM designs offered a more alien mermaid forged by a realistic marine environment. The FX crew researched real Earthly underwater species for reference points before rendering female creatures with the dark eyes of sharks, hair mixed with seaweed, and transparent skin similar to a jelly fish or deep sea luminescent creatures. But, none of that wowed the creators as much as the human beauty of the real world ladies on set.
"(Rob) Marshall cast these beautiful models and actresses in the film as these mermaids,” McBride said. “I think he looked at the more alien or marine designs we were doing and realized he really wanted that beauty onscreen. He decided he wanted the mermaids to be human above the water, and a more marine creature below it.”
“But, even when they were underwater, (Marshall) still wanted them to look more human than animalistic.”
Snow insisted he and his crew had no problem dialing their work back and returning a human face to the movie’s evil mermaids.
"That’s the process of creating something like this,” Snow said. “You want to fill the toy box with all kinds of options and choices – really blow it open in the design stage so the director has every possible look he could want. Maybe he picks one. Maybe he picks an element here or there. But that work needs to be done.”
“Then we work to pair that material down and to refine the design from those big original ideas to something that works for the story. We designed every sort of mermaid we could imagine with some very extreme looks — before we brought them a little more back to reality. And, if you see the film, you’ll see the mermaids could return. We’ll look forward to creating them again.”