Pros invent new ‘Pirates’ system

On-set motion-capture speeds production

Time is an increasingly scarce commodity for visual effects crews, especially when a huge project such as “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and another movie requires all your water experts.

“We gave them all up to ‘Poseidon’ so they could get through their difficult shots, with the knowledge that they were wrapping before we were. Then we could get them back,” says visual effects supervisor John Knoll, an ILM veteran of the original “Pirates” and all three “Star Wars” prequels.

That forced “Pirates” to push all its water work to the last six weeks of its already-tight post schedule, but the move worked out better than expected. “The advantage to that approach was we had all these very experienced people who just had gone through the ringer on ‘Poseidon’ and got to be very good at doing those types of shots, where they could burn through our ‘Pirates’ shots,” Knoll says. “It was a very harrowing thing to do at the last second. ”

Knoll says the Flying Dutchman breaching the surface was the most difficult water effect, with the Kraken’s tentacles reaching out of the ocean a close second. The show also required a lot of CG water drips and renders for characters and objects interacting with water. “Pirates 2’s” water work was extensive, but Knoll says the biggest breakthrough on the film came with the on-set motion-capture system.

Knoll says the system originated as the solution to a problem on the first “Pirates,” in which the effects crew had trouble accurately placing the joints for the CG skeletons on the footage shot on location of the actors in costume. Knoll and animation director Hal Hickel asked ILM’s researchers to come up with a way they could collect accurate motion capture data on location.

“Anything we did had to be bulletproof and couldn’t slow down production at all,” Knoll says.

The result was a system called iMoCap, a system whose software tools “know about the human range of motion and are very tolerant of abusive input,” Knoll says. That allowed actor Bill Nighy to play the role alongside the other actors and director Gore Verbinski, without having to later re-create the performance on a conventional motion-capture stage.

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