The recent global launch of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the latest entry in the multi-billion dollar film franchise that keeps Disney yo-ho-hoing all the way to the bank, was the culmination of an unusually complex and protracted two-year production marathon. After the the first installment, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, proved to be a worldwide box-office smash, executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer decided to shoot the next two sequels, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, at the same time while stars Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley and director Gore Verbinski remained available and hadn’t yet moved on to other projects.
But going the distance on two films simultaneously required the ultimate in advance preparation and logistical execution to get all the pieces of the production puzzle to come together. “It was like solving a Rubik’s Cube,” says Rick Heinrichs, the production designer who supervised the sets for all three films. “Not everything went perfectly smoothly, but all the pre-planning paid off enormously.”
Pushed to their limits, Academy Award winner Heinrichs and key collaborators (and fellow-Oscar recipients) John Knoll and Charles Gibson, the visual-effects wizards from Industrial Light and Magic; and John Frazier, the film’s special-effects supervisor, topped themselves. “Logistics were always difficult and it was confusing at times figuring out the right approach,” says Heinrichs, “but an excellent relationship had been worked out between the various departments. We had all developed well-traveled paths of communication and knew what to expect from each other.”
Such advance prep and coordination proved essential when the main locale of the At World’s End shoot shifted from St. Lucia, Domenica, and other islands in the Caribbean, to some of the biggest soundstages in Southern California. That’s where the most spectacular and technically demanding sequences in At World’s End were filmed in a final five-month sprint lasting from August to December. (Meanwhile, shooting continued at other locations, including Greenland, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, in the ocean off the nearby Palos Verdes Peninsula, and, finally, Hawaii, where after 284 days, photography wrapped.)
Heinrichs designed 18th century Singapore, built on Universal’s enormous Stage 12, as a fanciful entrepot teeming with smugglers, pirates and other unsavory characters. The elaborate set, employed for an important early action sequence in At World’s End, consisted of 40 separate structures as well as an extensive marketplace and a harbor with water pumped from an 80-foot by 130-foot tank beneath the set.
Disney’s Stage 2 was used to create several rotting ship hulls connected by rickety boardwalks, which served as the setting for the Brethren Court, an assemblage of some of the world’s most infamous pirates, and where most of the ships main characters also appeared. The set was lit by 3,500 candles.
And the film’s climactic maelstrom episode, an all-out battle amid a raging sea storm with a mile-wide vortex of water sucking ships under, was shot in an enormous hangar in Palmdale, 60 miles north of Los Angeles, that was once used to build B-1 bombers for the military and was used by director Steven Spielberg for The Terminal. In the 600-foot-long, 300-foot-wide and 700-foot deep space known as “Site 9,” Heinrichs was in charge of building full-size replicas of the decks and bulwarks of the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman, along with a third vessel. The ships were built on giant rigs with gimbals that could tilt and heave the massive structures by as much as 15 feet, designed by special-effects honcho Frazier. “It had to be lit properly so we needed plenty of overhead space because there was going to be a lot of rain and wind involved,” says Heinrichs. “It turns out the Palmdale stage was barely big enough in terms of vertical height and all the floor space we needed.”
Throughout the shoot, but particularly in the giant set pieces, there was always a trade-off. “A great deal of work during preproduction and during production was to test out how much of the movie would be caught in camera and how much would be created as CGI special effects on the other end,” says the production designer. Verbinski’s inclination was to go with the real elements to the extent possible, and use visual effects when necessary. Says Heinrichs: “Gore is trying to get this gritty reality within these fantastic spectacles within a real environment. There is no other way of doing it than to shoot as much as you can within camera. Getting all of the elements of the maelstrom on board the ship; getting all the actors on a pitched and heaving deck in the rain and in the wind; giving the visual effects artists the look of real light on real objects to work with. It establishes a bar for them that they meet and often surpass beautifully.
“That’s what I loved about this film,” he adds. “We sometimes wondered if we weren’t working on one of the last films to be done with so much real photography and enormous real set pieces.” There’s a widespread fear that technology at some point takes over almost entirely so a film is fabricated by computers. “I hope that’s not the case,” says Heinrichs. “The actors and the crew get so much out of a tactile environment. I know Johnny Depp likes to work on a set, so he can interact with what’s there and come up with spontaneous ideas about how he’s going to adapt the words in the script to his performance. Most actors are like that — they feed off an actual environment.”
One area where technology proved essential was in the reliance on the latest in previsualization during the preparation stage. Previz uses computers to envision a film scene-by-scene and even shot-by-shot in crude 3-D animation that is based on storyboards and other material. What you’re trying to do with previsualization is make all of the changes and all of the mistakes in the previsualization process before the big guns are committed to actually fabricating the film. Verbinski made the main decisions. ILM’s Gibson led the process, while previz expert Ron Frankel of Proof Inc. signed on to do the heavy lifting in terms of programming.
“It’s a director’s tool, but we’re all there looking at it at the same time,” says Heinrichs. “They were taking our illustrations, they were taking our models for our ships — there were three-dimensional matte shots in some cases — and creating these icons, of sets and characters, and moving them around in a way that gives the director and everyone else involved enough information on what the job is for everybody and how they need to interact.”
While Heinrichs was technically in charge of designing all three films, Verbinski from the very start was also deeply involved in conceptualizing major elements, even before the production designer arrived. “When I started on the project, Gore, who’s a very visually-attuned director, was already sitting there drawing pirate ships with tentacles coming out of the water pulling ships down,” he says. Artist Crash McCreery, a long-time Verbinski colleague, did the creature concepts, such as the innovative tentacle-faced look of the Davy Jones character. James Ward Byrkit, a close friend of Verbinski’s and a kind of jack-of-all-trades, is listed in the credits as conceptual consultant. Says Heinrichs: “We had an official dialogue going back and forth. We were cross-pollinating our sets with some of the conceptual characters at the same time. A lot of the research we were doing helped inform some of the things they were doing and vice versa.”
Meanwhile, Heinrichs had an enormous team working under him, including set decorator Cheryl Curasik. She has worked on four films with the production designer and also won an Oscar with Heinrichs for
their work on Sleepy Hollow. Curasik was also co-nominated last year with Heinrichs for an Academy Award for Dead Man’s Chest.
John Dexter was the supervising art director on the film. There were also three additional art directors. Bruce Crone, who had worked on Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, was in charge of designing most of the ships (including the Black Pearl, the Dutchman, and the Endeavor), as well as all the junks and many others. “He assembled an amazing team of set designers, working away in Burbank, they were almost a mini art department unto themselves,” says Heinrichs. Bringing all the elements together on the stage sets was art director Will Hawkins. Finally, Bill Skinner was the art director on the locations, responsible for the Port Royale and Cannibal Village sets built in the Caribbean.
Props also played a very big role in all three films, from Captain Jack’s compass to the actual Dead Man’s chest to the codex in At World’s End. Jerry Ross, the first prop master, fell ill and passed away in 2005. Kristopher Peck replaced him.
“Jerry was one of my favorite prop masters of all time, but Kris stepped up to the plate and did a fabulous job,” says Heinrichs. “He was very respectful of what Jerry had started and he just worked his butt off in fairly difficult circumstances. We were in far-flung parts of the world, so if you didn’t bring something in you couldn’t just run down to a store and find it. And because nearly all the props were custom-made, there never was an option of going to the prop warehouse and picking something up.”
Having spent three long years on the Pirates trilogy, Heinrichs is enjoying some time off and catching up with his family. Will there be a Pirates of the Caribbean 4? “If Jerry Bruckheimer and the writers decide there’s another story, I imagine there will be one — but I don’t know when they would put something like that in the pipeline,” he says.
Written by Jack Egan