For ILM, the visual effects for Pirates of the Caribbean fell into three categories: the matte paintings, the ships at sea (since there weren’t complete ships for the Black Pearl and the Dauntless), and the skeletal pirates.
A large portion of the digital effects for Pirates of the Caribbean involved the pirates turning into living skeletons in the moonlight, and the full CGI undead pirates. John Knoll’s team at ILM were entrusted with the job of bringing these undead to life (no pun intended). Under an intensive deadline, Knoll and Animation Supervisor Hal Hickel started with sketches and an animatronic sample. Knoll, Bruckheimer, Verbinski and Bruce Hendricks spent countless hours discussing just how to go about illustrating the pirates to find the perfect balance between being alive yet decomposing.
Digital effects are used not only when the actors are seen transforming into skeletons, but also when each character becomes a completely animated skeleton. As the filmmakers did not want to use animatronics or stop motion photography, full CGI skeletons had to be built and animated.
“John Knoll and his team came up with some unique images that really impressed us,” says Bruckheimer. “The time constraints ILM had to work under were unspeakable. It’s amazing the detail and care that’s been taken.”
Creating the skeletal pirates was the most exciting aspect of the job for Knoll. “It's such a bold image. You only see them as skeletons in the moonlight, so it's always very spooky circumstances to begin with. These are cool shots.”
The process of designing the skeleton pirate characters began with taking photographs of the actors in wardrobe and makeup. “Then VFX Art Director Aaron McBride spent time painting a version of each of them in skeletal form,” says Knoll. “We went through a couple of revisions until we got approval from Gore on what these characters should look like.”
From there, 3D scans for each of the characters were taken. “So for each of the actors we've got a full body scan and we have a more detailed head scan,” continues Knoll. “We built one very detailed skeleton that has all the right bones in it. Since everyone’s skeleton is a little bit different from everyone else’s, the first step is to take the skeleton and kind of fit it properly inside the particular person’s envelope, or 3-D scan. There's a lot of scaling and smushing to get it to fit.”
A few layers of skin are then built. Designers scanned turkey jerky to replicate the dried and desiccated meat look of the skin of the skeleton pirates. The skin is then painted with different textures and transparencies for a complex look. As all the characters have hair, clothing and props, the digital wardrobe dynamics had to be simulated so that all the clothing folds properly, interacting with props such as sashes, muskets, swords and necklaces.