Interview with Visual Effects Director John Knoll

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Visual effects supervisor John Knoll and his team at ILM were the artists who turned pirate captain Barbossa and his ill-fated crew into those unforgettably creepy animated skeletons in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. In the sequel to that film, the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, everyone’s favorite pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), must deal with a blood debt he owes to the legendary Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), Ruler of the Ocean Depths and captain of the ghostly Flying Dutchman. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) are, of course, along for what’s sure to be a thrilling ride, and so are John Knoll and the clever folks at ILM who, among other things, have made Davy Jones into a gruesome, intimidating mix of man and multi-tentacled octopus. Knoll, whose other credits include the three Star Wars films, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, spoke to us from ILM’s headquarters in San Francisco about the challenges and rewards of working at the cutting edge of Hollywood’s digital revolution.

Dead Man’s Chest is full of new characters. Which ones did you work on?
The main ones are Davy Jones and the crew of his ship, The Flying Dutchman, and the Kraken. Davy Jones has been cursed to sail forever and has gradually become cold and evil. His head is an octopus with a beard of tentacles. The Kraken is a sea monster, like a giant squid, also with an enormous number of tentacles. It attacks ships and you see its arms grabbing sailors off the decks. Davy Jones in particular is quite a scary character.

Did these characters require different techniques from the ones you used in The Curse of the Black Pearl?
The big difference was that in the case of the first film, when Barbossa and his crew became skeletons in the moonlight, the characters were making the transition from costumed actors to computer graphics. On Dead Man’s Chest our CG characters are CG throughout — we don’t see them in live action at all.

But you still used actors to play these characters?
Yes, except for the Kraken of course. We had to start our job with a real performance before we animated the characters and Bill Nighy plays Davy Jones and was on set with all the other actors. That was the fundamental part of our shooting methodology. Davy Jones and his crew are all of relatively human proportions and the way I wanted to work was to cast actors in all those roles, have them on set and photograph them like it was any other part of the movie. I didn’t want to rely on motion capture after the movie was done or actors playing to nobody against a blue screen and we wanted to make sure there was no stylistic difference between the visual effects and the rest of the live action. By having the actors on set, you also have the same dynamic between the actors and the director, interaction with the other actors, and the camera operator can frame up on the actor just like he would for any other character. Basically we treated it as if it was nothing special.

So for the cast it was just like giving a real performance?
The only difference was that the actors were in these admittedly goofy-looking suits because we needed tracking marks on them. And that’s certainly a challenge to the actors. On The Curse of the Black Pearl even when they were skeletons we still filmed the actors in full makeup and wardrobe. So they put the pirate gear on and went out on set with their sword in their hand. I mean, they couldn’t help but feel piratical. Bill Nighy didn’t have that advantage as Davy Jones. I thought we’d keep him and the crew in some sort of costume so at least they’d feel pirate-like. But the more we talked about it, the more we realized we couldn’t have the actors be any bulkier than they needed to be. The silhouette couldn’t be larger than necessary and there couldn’t be any bits of the costume disguising the tracking marks. So they ended up in grey jump suits with the tracking marks on them. My concern was that the actors would feel silly.

And how do you use the tracking marks?
We use the tracking marks on the suits to capture the skeletal movements of the characters, their physical presence. As for the facial expressions of Davy Jones, they were produced by a team of animators at ILM who studied Bill’s performance on film and tried to capture every nuance and translate that into the CG version of him. Davy Jones doesn’t have a nose and the shape of his mouth is different, so it isn’t always easy.

How did Bill Nighy cope?
Bill Nighy was fantastic. The whole Flying Dutchman crew was amazing in fact. They soon got over any initial embarrassment they may have had and just gave full-on performances.

Did you also create Davy Jones’ ship, The Flying Dutchman?
There was a real ship that was built and was used for a lot of the filming, but we came up with a version that was used for all the wide shots. We elected to use computer graphics because the Dutchman had to do things that couldn’t be done with a real ship or with miniatures: it travels underwater like a submarine, breaches to the surface in surprising an enemy, and so on.

So how does Davy Jones compare with the other characters you’ve created for the Star Wars films and for The Curse of the Black Pearl?
Davy Jones is a complicated character and was probably the most difficult simply because we always use everything we’ve learned on every other project that we’ve done and go one step further. We take advantage of computers getting faster all the time and memories getting larger and the challenge is to create a character that can stand up to close-ups and have all the richness and detail you’d see in a live-action character.

Does it bother you that screenwriters probably think they can now write any outlandish character they like and just leave it up to you computer guys to sort it out?
Oh no! We pride ourselves that if you write it, we’ll find one way or another to put it on screen. We love good ideas!

Is it hard to impress today’s movie audiences who may think they’ve seen it all?
Audiences have certainly become very demanding. But when audiences seem bored, I don’t think the problem is visual, it’s more about the story and characters. No matter how good CGI is, it can’t save a bad movie. And unfortunately it’s as much work to work on a bad movie as a good one.

What do you see as the highlight of your job?
I’m involved on a film like Dead Man’s Chest for a year, a year and a half, and the first part of it is consumed by technical breakdowns of how we’re going to shoot this or that and how long we think it should take and loads and loads of planning. Then scenes are shot and turned over for us to do finished work on and there’s a period where we talk to the director so we can get in sync about the look of the film and so on. And it’s only then that we finally get into the real shot production where we know what the stuff should look like and we’re finally producing the images that will appear in the film. I love that part because it’s when you get past all the talking and actually do what it is you’re good at doing.

What qualities does someone need to be a great visual FX supervisor?
You have to become a student of reality. You have to look at the world, see how light plays in the real world, the same way if you were an illustrator you would have to know perspective and shading. You also have to be good with people because you have a whole bunch of artists working for you and you have to gauge people’s personality and decide which type of feedback will be the most helpful.

And you have to be a computer geek, don’t you?
Well, you have to understand a computer, but the computer is a tool. It doesn’t do the work any more than a paintbrush paints a picture. Computers are tools that allow an artist to be very productive, but it’s still the artist that’s doing the work.

After Dead Man’s Chest you’re working on another Pirates film, aren’t you? Any clues about what you’re coming up with for that film?
It’s funny because my first reaction when Gore called me for Dead Man’s Chest was to say what can we do that hasn’t already been done on The Curse of the Black Pearl? I thought we’d done quite a good job of weaving in all the elements you expect from a pirate film, so what do you do that isn’t a retread of the first one? But I shouldn’t have had any doubts. Davy Jones, the Kraken, The Flying Dutchman, Cannibal Island, there are some great new and original elements in Dead Man’s Chest. And I don’t want to give away any secrets about the next Pirates film, but trust me when I say that Gore and the writers aren’t out of ideas. There’s some really cool stuff coming up in Pirates 3.