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How VFX Turned Javier Bardem Into the Creepiest ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Ghost Villain Ever

MPC came up with special underwater visual effects for Javier Bardem's Salazar and his ghostly crew in the latest "Pirates" directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”

With Javier Bardem playing the vengeful ghost pirate Salazar in “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” the “Kon-Tiki” directing team of  Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg knew they had to come up with a unique look. So they seized on the idea of Salazar and his crew falling apart and trapped in an underwater-like, slow-motion atmosphere. Salazar has a cracked, peeling, Kabuki-like face and a tattered uniform. Best of all, his straggly hair moves around like it’s also submerged.

Creating Salazar’s Disintegrating Look

“We needed something graphic,”said Sandberg. “We felt this hair was a strong connection with the sea and drowning. And it also feels ghostly, and his disintegration adds to the loss that Jack Sparrow [Johnny Depp] gave him.”

“Everything needed to be defined from the bottom up about how the hair moved,” said Rønning:  lighting. Ultimately, it is Javier’s performance that makes you believe in him, seeing his pain [like a wounded bull].”

Visual effects house MPC in Montreal handled the look of Salazar and his crew, with the biggest challenge pertaining to the hair. “The directors wanted a very specific look but they also wanted to art- direct those scenes, and the overall behavior had to feel like it was underwater with slow, flowing, lagging movement,” said Patrick Ledda, MPC’s VFX supervisor. “It was difficult to to attach it to a real performer in real speed and real time.”

They needed proprietary software Furtility, which created millions of hair strands. Then, after the initial design, MPC created a further simulation system for the hair to move in slow-mo with lots of light after extensive R&D testing. MPC also made sure the strands of hair collided (using Maya nHair).

“Hair sim, usually done on a shot-by-shot basis, had to be created for entire sequences and was complicated by the need to be consistent and constantly in motion,” said Ledda. “So the effects animation was worked out in beats like a character performance.”

In terms of Salazar’s face, the front part was prosthetic makeup and MPC replaced his eyes and enhanced the cracked look of the rest of the makeup. MPC also replaced the side of the face with a massive wound. But, of course, they couldn’t be too gruesome. And there was a big hole at the back of his head that was CG. There was CG costume replacement as well.

The Near Invisible Ghost Crew

Salazar’s ghost crew is even worse shape. Three characters with invisible limbs were fully CG. With one character you see a cap and sword; one has no head; another merely has a few strands left of his costume. The animated performances were driven by motion capture.

“In this case, both hair and costumes had to behave like they were underwater,” said Ledda. “And the costumes rapidly disintegrate, so you see little particles floating like flakes of fish food in water.”

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”

In addition to a dozen hero pirates, there were another 40 background characters saved for wide shots, such as running on the beach. The average ghost crew member required 70% of CG work.

The Silent Mary Ghost Ship

For Salazar’s ship, the Silent Mary, the directors wanted a skeletal frame with a strong thematic connection to him. And it swallows ships like a whale.  “It’s almost like a rib cage,” said  Rønning. “We backed into that. I remember we went to LEGO Land and looking at the stuff and saying we should make something with the crashing of the ship because we knew they were going to make a LEGO ship.”

MPC made the CG version of the ship for shots at sea (also CG). The open, skeletal structure looked like a rig with many parts, lots of holes, rope, and seaweed; and the sails were tattered like the pirate costumes.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”

MPC London made the figurehead, which comes to life during the climactic battle between Salazar and Sparrow. “The idea was the directors wanted it very rigid because wood doesn’t bend so it can only break,” said Ledda. “And you see a few shots where she creates her own joints by cracking her neck, elbows, and knees.”

Added Sandberg: “It almost looks like a stop-motion animation from Ray Harryhausen, so, as a filmmaker, that’s fun.”

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