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PP-Post Supervisor-Pirates 2


Even Ray Harryhausen, the cinematic master of special FX character animation, had to acknowledge how things have changed: “I only had eight snakes on my medusa.” That would be his slithering medusa in Clash of the Titans, her head sporting a half dozen-and-two latex snakes, each of them animated by hand. Harryhausen was expressing his appreciation of Hal Hickel’s work on Davy Jones’ “beard” in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean installment, Dead Man’s Chest. Hickel supervised character animation on the much-anticipated sequel.Harryhausen swung by digital effects’ land of Ur, Industrial Light and Magic, during a recent book tour of California.The beard in question, sported, sort of, by versatile actor Bill Nighy, who plays the denizen of the deep demanding Depp’s deliverance in the anticipated sequel to the “avast thar, matey!” original, is really a jumble of what Hickel describes as “tentacles.” Each is an eel or squid-like appendage, with a mind of its own, writhing and, well, snaking around as Nighy, as Jones, comes looking for the soul Capt. Jack Sparrow owes him.Jones pals around with a nautically themed piratical posse, each member of which also has a “pescado punim”—a fish face, acquired from spending too much time both dead and underwater. But none of these faces were rendered in any complete way by “makeup”—indeed, Hickel describes the retinue as “basically walking tide pools,” most of whose look was originally concocted by legendary designer Ralph “Crash” McQuarrie, rendered in black and white and color sketches while working with director Gore Verbinski, and re-rendered by Aaron McBride.Some of the finny faces “remain true to Crash’s designs, some evolved past (them),” Hickel says of the pre- and postproduction phases. Part of that evolution included field trips to the Monterey Aquarium to “find barnacles, mussels… sea life.” All of which led to “other ideas, and we’d go with [them].”Those included not just Nighy’s post-Medusa whiskers, but faces—indeed whole heads—resembling human-animal hybrids, in this case, folks combined with hammerhead sharks, puffer fish, blowfish, and other sea-based flora and fauna.Hickel and his crew were also in charge of the Krakken, a legendary creature of the deep that was, perhaps not coincidentally, last rendered on-screen by Harryhausen in Titans. “If we’d only be doing the Krakken in this film, I’d say it was a little harder (than the first Pirates),” Hickel offers. “But Davy and his crew were definitely harder than anything I’d worked on before.”And Hickel has had a fairly storied “before.” He’s done digital character animation on The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Star Wars: Episode 1 –The Phantom Menace, and served as animation supervisor for A.I., Star Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones, and the first Pirates installment.But given the array of tools Hickel has assembled with such a pedigree, when it came to the Chest gang, he wasn’t looking for short cuts: “We didn’t want to do motion capture,” he says. “We wanted all the acting, all the magic, to happen in one place.”In Hickel’s estimation, “motion capture takes some of the authorship out of the performance,” and Nighy’s performance was particularly “cool to work on—everybody wanted to work on those shots.”In part, this was because “Bill immediately destroyed” everyone’s preconceived notion of the villain role, bringing a “strange whimsy and humor we didn’t expect.”But Nighy and his 2 Wet Crew didn’t even have costumes—let alone their eventual digital faces—with which to realize their characters. They only had “marked suits,” with which the performances could later be fed into ILM’s data banks. Hickel stresses that the actors’ shadows were real shadows.The characters “ended up composited—we shot clean plates, but no motion control,” he explains, a process he describes as “a collaboration between the animators and the actors on set.” On those sets, Nighy, as the ostensible leader of the bunch, did have a little more to work with: not only the suits—which costume department folk would also mark up for later digital “cloth cutting”—but a pirate-y hat and a claw. The crab claw was at Gore’s insistence, Hickel says; the director feeling there were certain spatial, and perhaps even emotional, issues to bearing a crab claw where a hand used to be, that couldn’t be made up in post.So ILM’s “model shop built it,” out of fiberglass, and armed, so to speak, with barely anything more than pathos, Nighy was on his way. “On the first day of shooting,” Hickel recalls, “(Bill) had to pick up a prop. He snapped it right up with that claw.”For all the non-fiberglass, which was everything else, most of the postproduction modeling was done with ILM’s reliable Zeno software toolkit, but Zbrush—a Pixologic rendering tool which shares a coincidental “Z” with Zeno—was used “for all the complex textural details.”Which is to say, everything fishy. Hickel’s group also “wrote some tools” to get that beard of tentacles to “look natural,” the criterion for that being something along the lines of what “octopuses would do.”This led to the invention of the word “sticktion”—meaning both stickiness and friction, the way an octopus tentacle will slither and slide along a surface, sometimes stick to it, and sometimes pop off when the stickiness gives way.Hickel notes there were “over 200 shots of Davy —the beard had to look good. Plus,” he continues, “there’s sort of two big things you need to with a tentacle. You want controls to be in a hierarchy [and you want] the base to be different than the top.”Meaning, you don’t want to use your controller to render a single move that forces the whole tentacle in a single direction at once [from the base], or from the top, where “everything stays put.” The tentacles have to, yes, undulate. Base, top, middle—each doing its own thing. There was “a good long while where we refined and refined our controls for tentacles.”Luckily, much of the refining was done by the time Harryhausen came for his visit. Hickel is now getting ready for the next Pirates installment, which will have Davy Jones back for more.Will there still be plenty of tentacles?Hickel’s answer is succinct: “Oh yeah.”

Written by Mark London Williams

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