Visual effects supervisor John Knoll is one of this year’s top contenders in the awards space for his work on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Yet this effects veteran has also overseen the transformation of a young Jedi into Darth Vader, the fusion of fish and human in Davy Jones’ nautical posse, and the awakening of a kraken for whom noshing on a wooden ship is akin to nibbling on a couple of Saltines.Knoll is now hard at work at ILM on the third and final Pirates installment, sweating over water. And it’s not just because, in Knoll’s view, “CG water is exceptionally difficult to do.” After all, the jolly crew at ILM has been down that road before in films like Poseidon and the most recent Harry Potter installment.But the climax of the whole Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy comes “in a battle in a storm.” Knoll isn’t sure how much more he’s allowed to say, in advance. But apparently, this particular storm, this particular batch of raging water, has certain characteristics.You’d think Knoll might be enjoying some down time, perhaps gearing up for the inevitable award nominations for the work he oversaw in the second Pirates chapter, the punningly-titled Dead Man’s Chest, but no: that embargoed-to-the-press stormy finale already beckons.”We’re already in factory mode,” he asserts. Two-thirds of the last film is done and “turned over to us,” but without “enough time to do it.” Knoll’s own deadline for wrapping up things piratical is April 12th – which only leaves him three days to get his taxes done.This is a guy who knows his stuff. After all, he has some Star Treks and Mission Impossibles under his belt, as well. And he wonders if FX magic has inflated studio expectations, which are now at a level than Knoll finds “unfortunate.” “I don’t see this trend going anywhere good,” Knoll says, of the move toward frenetic postproduction schedules, with work divvied up between multiple houses, and studios demanding things even sooner than last time, because, well, computers are faster now, aren’t they?And yet, Knoll observes, “render times have remained pretty constant,” since the early 90’s, when he found himself the computer graphics designer on another water-intensive film called “The Abyss.”That time runs three to hours a frame, though of course, each frame now has more digital bang for the buck: “We’re doing stuff that would’ve taken years to render.” In advance of getting virtual liquid to cooperate, Knoll “tweaked” ILM’s pipeline during what passed for “downtime” between “Chest” and the last installment, “At World’s End.” He was already satisfied with how the Davy Jones crew – the previous film’s biggest challenge – were lit and rendered. Now it was time for “continued development on water simulation” software. But since such “fluid sims” are extremely “computer intensive,” it can take “days more to see results” of changes in faux-water behavior.And with the April deadline looming – say, isn’t that just a few weeks after the Oscars? – Knoll isn’t really feeling the luxury of time. “Water is the thing that has us all sweaty,” he acknowledges.And he figures that eventually, it will take a “high profile blown deadline” for the studios to quit driving FX houses like oarsmen on a slave ship. However, he adds, “I just don’t want it to be on my show.”Here’s betting a bottle of rum it won’t be. Previous Noms and Wins: 2006: Nominated, VES Award, Best Single Visual Effect of the Year, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith; Nominated, VES Award, Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual Effects Driven Motion Picture, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. 2004: Nominated, Oscar, Best Visual Effects, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl; Nominated, BAFTA Award, Best Achievement is Special Visual Effects, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl; Nominated, VES Award, Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual Effects Driven Motion Picture, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. 2003: Nominated, Oscar, Best Visual Effects, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones; Nominated, VES Award, Best Visual Effects in an Effects Driven Motion Picture, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. 2000: Nominated, Oscar, Best Visual Effects, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace; Nominated, BAFTA Film Award, Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
Written by Mark London Williams