The American Society of Cinematographers

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Pirates 3
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Darius Wolski, ASC and his crew re-enlist for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the third adventure based on the popular Disneyland attraction.

Unit Photography by Sam Emerson
Last summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest ended in a cliffhanger, as beloved scallywag Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) gallantly leaped into the giant maw of the Kraken, a hideous undersea creature. The latest chapter in the Pirates series, At World’s End, picks up as Jack’s friends, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), join forces with a former foe, Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), to get Jack back. Their quest soon leads to the ends of the Earth, literally.  

All three Pirates pictures were photographed by Dariusz Wolski, ASC (The Crow, Crimson Tide, Dark City) and directed by Gore Verbinski. The pair, who first collaborated on The Mexican, shot Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End back to back over two years beginning in 2005. “The success of the first Pirates was a bit of a surprise,” says Wolski. “The idea when we started the second film was to try to create visuals that were similar to what we’d done before. [The look] definitely evolved, and we tried some new things on the third one. I think At World’s End is the darkest of them all in terms of story and look.”  

Wolski’s trusted deckhands for all three voyages included 1st AC Trevor Loomis, camera operator Martin Schaer, gaffer Rafael Sanchez and key grip Mike Popovich. The trilogy was shot on stages in California and on location in The Bahamas, Dominica and Saint Vincent.  

Wolski shot At World’s End in Super 35mm with a camera package comprising Panaflex Platinums, a Panavision Lightweight, Arri 435 and 235 cameras, and Primo prime and 11:1 and 4:1 zoom lenses. Lens filtration was limited to NDs and polarizers for exterior work. “We shot the whole movie clean,” says Loomis. “We used a little diffusion on the first Pirates, but on the second and third film Dariusz opted not to use any. We worked mostly at three stops: exteriors were at T5.6-T8, night interiors were at T2.5, and the maelstrom at the end of the movie was at T4.”  

“We used some new Panavision intermediate-length lenses, including a 24mm, 30mm and 65mm,” says Wolski. “Gore is very specific in the way he shoots: 21mm, 24mm and 27mm are for masters, 40mm is for close-ups, and 65mm is for the really big close-ups. When we’re shooting something really large, we go to a 17mm and occasionally a 14mm. At World’s End has a bit more of an edgy look [than the first two films], but we were also dealing with a blockbuster franchise, so there was a fine line.”  

The cinematographer’s approach to film stocks was “very simple.” He explains, “For day exteriors, we used [Eastman EXR 50D] 5245, which Kodak actually discontinued during the shoot and replaced with [Vision2 50D] 5201, which is very similar. When you shoot a movie long enough, they come out with a new film stock! We used [Vision2 200T] 5217 for day exteriors when we were running out of light and for night scenes that involved big visual-effects shots. I was trying to avoid [500T] 5218 for effects work because the digital-effects companies don’t like the grain. We used 5218 for all other night material.”  

Because of the elaborate action sequences, and pervasive digital effects that enhanced characters as well as environments, the filmmakers made extensive use of previsualization. “Gore has very strong ideas and sees the movie very clearly in his mind,” says Wolski. “He loves a lot of coverage. We experienced tremendous challenges because of all the visual effects — you’re shooting elements without quite knowing how they’ll be put together. Should it be a helicopter, a Technocrane, or a crane with a small dolly and a digital hookup? You see the set and you adapt. Gore, [visual-effects supervisor] John Knoll and I were in constant communication throughout the shoot.”  

The film’s heroes first make port in Singapore to secure a map to World’s End from a Chinese pirate, Sao Feng (Yun-Fat Chow). “The exterior of Singapore was a set that was quite beautifully built by [production designer] Rick Heinrichs,” says Wolski. “For a cinematographer, it’s a great thing to have a set that’s complete so you can light it from beginning to end.” Heinrichs, who designed the second and third films, recalls, “Gore and Dariusz wanted that set to be controllable and all in camera, but with a sense of scope and space. We used Universal’s Stage 12, one of the taller stages in Hollywood. We were doing early 18th-century Singapore, and we didn’t have many historical references, so we used a hodge-podge of Asian and period aesthetics to create [it].”  

“That set was built all the way up to the rafters, and the only way to create ambient light was to put lights inside the rafters,” says Wolski. Sanchez explains, “We had 30 1,200-watt HMI Gaffair lighting balloons rigged in the rafters, all controlled by a dimmer board, creating a soft toplight. There were lanterns on the buildings with flicker effects and little huts we lit with firelight using Maxi-Brutes and DecaPods, just to create some warmth and texture. We also used a lot of the ropelights we’d made for Dead Man’s Chest to create fire effects. We ran them through Magic Gadgets fire-effects boxes or the dimmer board, depending on which elements were needed.”  

The heroes are pursued by the tentacled Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and his ship, the Flying Dutchman, along with the East India Trading Co., led by Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander). A motion-capture technique called Imocap, devised by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) under Knoll’s supervision, allowed actors playing CG characters such as Jones to be photographed live by the main unit, with their performances triangulated by high-resolution digital-video witness cameras on set. A “skeleton” matching the actor’s performance was derived from that data, and a fully CG character with lifelike movement and performance could then be driven with the data. “We wanted to shoot our CG characters just like live action,” says Knoll, who initially developed the technique for Dead Man’s Chest. “That way the crew could work the way they’re used to working, and we could also create digital effects that had the same visual aesthetic as the rest of the movie. Shooting it like live action gives these shots a wonderful realism.”  

One major action sequence — and Wolski’s biggest nighttime lighting challenge — is set on the open water. In it, Elizabeth tries to free her imprisoned crew aboard the Dutchman by having them climb along a 25' towrope to a Chinese junk, the Chinese Empress, that the Dutchman is towing. “That was all shot for real at night on big seas in the Caribbean,” says Wolski. “It presented a lot of logistical problems because we had to light action on two boats and in the area between them. We were working with our electrical team and also with a marine department. We set up two lighting barges; each had a 150-foot crane holding two 16K lighting balloons. When we wanted to move a light, it involved not only the gaffer but also a marine coordinator and five other boats moving around the barges. Moving them in the middle of the night was sometimes virtually impossible. We also used a 15-6K Bebee Night Light, and we had to decide whether to place it inside the reef or way outside the reef. Eventually you learn to judge the distance. Then, all of a sudden you lose exposure and realize the barge has lost anchor and drifted 800 feet! Working on the water requires a totally different way of thinking and takes a lot of very skilled people.”  

The crew eventually reaches Jones’ locker, where they locate Sparrow. Shot on location in the Guadalupe Dunes Preserve near Santa Maria, California, and in the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, these scenes diverge stylistically from the colorful look established in the series. “Davy Jones’ locker is like a pirate’s equivalent of Hell,” explains Wolski, “so we wanted to do something very different visually. The scenes are very monochromatic, like a digital version of what people used to do with skip-bleach. It’s very contrasty and stark. We came up with that idea at the beginning of the production and ended up exploring it more as we got into shooting.”

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