Director of photography Dariusz Wolski has been the cinematographer on all four of the visually-spectacular Pirates of the Caribbean blockbusters, devoting much of the last nine years to the series, During gaps between the productions, he has also lensed two movies for director Tim Burton, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Alice in Wonderland.
This year’s sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, is the first to be made in 3D, making for a much more complicated shoot. “It was a big challenge because there have been so few real 3D movies done, certainly none on this scale, and this was the first to be shot mainly on location,” notes the DP. “We had to learn how to adopt the 3D technology and make it flexible enough for a movie of this scale.”
The shoot took place in Hawaii on the islands of Kauai and Oahu for the beach and jungle sequences, in Puerto Rico where there was a historic Spanish fort, on a huge set in Los Angeles for the CGI-enhanced attack of the mermaids, and finally to London for more location filming and on sets at Pinewood Studio.
“It was very ambitious, and very scary because although everyone wants to make 3D movies, it wasn’t really figured out,” says Wolski, who had some previous experience with 3D technology, while preparing to lens Alice in Wonderland. Ultimately, it was decided to shoot in 2D and then convert to 3D, as is the case with many so-called 3D films.
The DP chose to shoot Pirates 4 with the RED ONE Mysterium-X digital camera. It was modified by Panavision so a wide range of Panavision lenses could be utilized. In total Panavision supplied 19 3D rigs. Wolski describes the demands of 3D capture: “We shot with two RED cameras rigged together, one shooting into a mirror. Everything has to be electronically coordinated, so there are a lot of cables, scientists and computers all over the set, and we also had a 3D monitor that we used to analyze the imagery while we were filming.”
“I treated the RED like a digital camera but shot like film. I wasn’t going to change my style,” he says. “And though there’s a constant learning curve, I still like to do my own cinematography.” Almost all the capture was done “in camera” and very little was changed during the digital intermediate phase in postproduction.
The light-sensitive RED cameras allowed Wolski to film 3D with great attention to historic detail and lighting. “We’re trying to be very true to the period in retaining candle and natural light, as you see in 18th century paintings,” he observes. “The RED is remarkable when it comes to low light level, which people relate to, as they do to a beautiful sunset.”
Wolski, 55, was born in Warsaw, Poland and came to New York as a teenager. He attended some classes at Columbia University film school but soon became a camera assistant which led to a job working on documentaries for the BBC where he cut his teeth as a cinematographer. Known for photographing The Crow and Dark City, iconic films directed by Alex Proyas, he has also done over 100 music videos for the likes of Sting, David Bowie and Elton John.
Wolski’s latest film is also in 3D, Prometheus, directed by Ridley Scott, with a sci-fi plot that taps themes from his 1979 hit Alien. For the movie, now in postproduction and set for release in the first half of 2012, the DP shot with the RED Epic, the improved and lighter-weight successor to the digital camera he used in Pirates 4. “The technology just doesn’t stop changing,” says the cinematographer.