We saw in the first installment of this blog that in the 1960’s huge money went into the set and the talent of the blockbuster Cleopatra. Do these heavy hitters still drive up movie production budgets today?
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is criticized for being a three-hour long filler piece, made to tie together obscure plot threads. Most of the film is talk, although beautiful talk shot in places like Black Point Beach on St. Vincent and Capucine Point on Dominica.
Hard to reach coastlines like on Hawaii’s Molokai are part of the reason budget went up, as helicopters flew in and out hauling equipment, and cast and crew scaled volcanic rocks to get to their places.
And where better to shoot the end of the world than at Niagara Falls? Producers used footage of the falls to create the base of the graphically altered edge of the world as experienced by the crew of the Black Pearl.
Despite Niagara Falls being a wonder of the world, here is where natural beauty reached it’s limit in POTC, and the unique blend of camera footage and CIG, expertly accomplished in this movie, began.
As for other locations, Singapore is central to the film but 18th century pirate-filled Singapore obviously doesn’t look like this.
So production designers constructed buildings designed loosely on Chinese and Malaysian cities of the same period within a tank. The tank was filled with water and used to create a naturally humid atmosphere with specific lighting, complete with real fungi.
While Cleopatra was shot primarily in one location, cast and crew (minimum 400 people) of POTC regularly packed their bags to head abroad, contributing to another substantial part of the budget.
Big Fancy Boat(s)
They weren’t necessarily traveling by pirate ship though (usually renting out commercial airplanes), and in fact the Black Pearl didn’t often travel with them. For At World’s End, three different replicas of the Pearl were constructed for three separate locations.
Shooting for Davy Jones’ Locker brought them to the Salt Flats of Utah, where the crew built a replica of the front half of the Black Pearl on the back of a semi-trailer.
The original Black Pearl was just a wooden front built upon a steel barge. This meant that it would float, but had to be towed into position for filming and constantly readjusted (for a great Behind the Scenes of The Curse of the Black Pearl click here).
For the second and third movies, producers decided to make the Pearl a sea-worthy sailing vessel. So in Bayou La Batre, Alabama they built her around the hull of the ship HMS Sunset, manufacturing all the pieces to match the period.
But Above All Else…
The incredible cost of At World’s End and the third Black Pearl (constructed for only one scene) can be summarized in one word. Maelstrom.
Maelstrom: 1. A large, powerful, or violent whirlpool. 2. A restless, disordered, or tumultuous states of affairs.
For two pirates ship lost in their final battle, what more fitting and dramatic than sticking them on opposing sides of a giant oceanic whirlpool, leading all parties involved to sure and imminent destruction? That’s what Director Gore Verbinski figured.
Visual Artist and Production Designer Rick Heinrichs is quoted to say that “this is one of the most elaborate and ambitious action sequences I’ve ever seen conceived for a film.”
Producers wanted a hyper-extended special-effect action climax, in old-Hollywood style. Verbinski said these types of movies don’t come along often anymore, since producing them became too expensive. But “with the advances in digital animation you have started to see these types of movies coming back,” and bring it back he did.
For interviews with Verbinski, Heinrichs, and more of the crew on the inspiration for and construction and creation of this incredible sequence, as well as mind-blowing numbers and trivia, watch this amazing behind the scenes feature.
A combination and coordination of several departments – visual effects, stunt crews, special effects, etc. – shot with one of the biggest blue screens in film history in an air hanger in Palmdale, California to create an epic pirate battle on the open stormy seas.
Here they rebuilt a full-sized replica of the Black Pearl for the final time, as well as the enemy ship the Flying Dutchman. The ships were built deck-up and mounted on a massive hydraulic motion base, with the ability to lift either end of the ships up 15 feet, simulating the motion of the ocean.
The building process took three months, from building the ship decks, welding the towers, designing the computer operational system, and tuning the hydraulics. See a time-lapse of building the set here.
The rain seen in the movie is real, not CGI (computer-generated imagery). Such a massive volume of water was falling that it could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in 13 minutes. The water was then collected and pumped back up to fall again.
Once built, a team of up to 100 stunt actors accompanied the character leads in filming an intricately choreographed battle (for more about their training see this clip and this).
Besides sword fighting at 30-degree angles, the cast had to wear wetsuits under their costumes; and crew suffered in freezing conditions throughout the whole shoot because the set was kept cold to prevent bacteria growth in the recycled rainwater.
That was just the physical set.
As mentioned before, the Maelstrom was shot with the biggest blue screens in film history. A lot of the scene was CGI. A lot of the characters were too. Check out this comparison shot of pre- vs. post-production to get an idea of the role of CGI.
Many in the industry cite visual effect prices as the source of increased production costs. It is true that the visual effect budget for movies like At World’s End can be close to half of the total budget (i.e. reaching $250 million).
But when you see the depth of Verbinski’s involvement in each and every sequence (really, watch this feature!), you see what visual effects can contribute to realizing a director’s vision.
The visual effect teams are involved with everybody from stunt directors to cinematographers to costume designers to understand and make the difficult or impossible possible. In order to create outstanding visual effects as they did in At World’s End, each shot needs specific references and Verbinski allowed for the appropriate time, budget, and preparation for smooth combinations of footage and effect.
Prices run high because of the often very short and hurried time-spans crews are given to finish a piece. At World’s End visual effect team finished their work in 5 months, compared to the 2 year span that shooting took place.
The work itself is incredibly precise and detail-oriented and good artists have a competitive salary, while studios often minimize their profits to compete with outsourced workers.
It boils down to the fact that it is cheaper to create a Maelstrom in post-production than it is to build two pirate ships and drag them out into the ocean during a storm. Not to mention safer.
For more information about the value and cost of visual effects have a look at this nice blog.
If VFX took the 1st half of the budget, Johnny Depp took the 2nd.
OK, not really. But dear Captain Jack did walk away with $75 million in just one year of shooting the POTC series. He is the highest paid actor in Hollywood.
We have to be grateful that a chuck of change was reserved for cushy salaries, because it ensured that the talent stuck around.
But, Johnny Depp bought new water proof jackets for 500 crew members on the set to protect them from the cold weather. He spent a total of $64,200 from his own pocket, so whatever.
Fun fact, Johnny Depp’s pirate sash was made specifically for him by a hill tribe in Turkey. Wonder what that cost?
I can’t emphasize how massive this undertaking was. If you haven’t yet, check the video. Verbinski says, “take a moment to enjoy the fact that we will never make a film this big, ever again, in your life. It’s the end of an era my friend.”
Why would it be the end of an era? Could 300 million dollar films not be sustainable?
Stay tuned, we will take a look at the environmental cost of big production films. The question remains, is it worth it?
-Christy from your SynopsiTV team