Thursday, July 06, 2006

Disney Catching up

Learn how the villain of "Pirates2" was unleashed

With Captain Jack Sparrow and crew ready to set sail again on July 7, excitement is running high. The much-beloved "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" left many of us hungry for more - and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" promises just that. Editor's Note: Yay! The movie I've REALLY been waiting for is here at last! (Superman who?) Back for the adventure are the three leads from the first film (Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley), such supporting characters as survived to sail again, and the original director (Gore Verbinski), writers, and most of the technical crew.

Davy and his crew -- each creature took months of painstaking work to create, and the results are unearthly.

But some elements are brand-new - and that includes its villain, Davy Jones. Played by distinguished British actor Bill Nighy, Davy is an awe-inspiring amalgam of human and ... well, not-so-human. Half creature of the sea, he looks like nothing we've seen before onscreen and is truly one of the landmark Disney villains. Editor's Note: Actually, he kinda looks like a Quarren. (You STAR WARS fiends know what I mean, yes?)

How did a nice guy like Bill become a tentacular terror? We spoke to Bill himself and to Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll, who brought the character to life visually.

"It was good fun to play somebody this scary, and somebody this weird-looking," says Bill. Although he did pay a price for the experience: "The only tough part was wearing the embarrassing computer-pajama suit. Lesser men than me would have run from the studio. Particularly when everyone else is dressed very glamorously as pirates, and I have to wear a skullcap with a bubble on the top and white dots all over my face".

He was wearing the "pajama suit" rather than a costume, because what we see of Davy onscreen is entirely computer-generated (known as "CG" in the trade). But John didn't want to simply place a computerized character into the shots - the intention was to show Bill's performance in every detail. So he was outfitted in a motion-capture shoot with dozens of sensors, and acted in the scenes directly with the rest of the cast. When they react, they react to his actual presence; and every move and facial expression we see in Davy was taken from Bill. Editor's Note: From what we've seen on screen in the past, I would bet Nighy's real presence is every bit as scary as the CG Davy Jones. (He tends to play very loopy characters). I can't even imagine all the scenery that got chewed between Nighy and Depp!

"The basic technical approach to doing all the Davy shots was that we had a really superb actor on-set in that role, and it was treated like any other live-action," John explains. "There's no doing the performance later on a motion-capture stage. There are no actors pretending to interact with someone who isn't there. It's shot just like any other live-action, with the intent that we'll shoot Bill Nighy there and he'll own the performance."

Getting there was a painstaking process, requiring months of creative energy and problem-solving. First concept drawings were done showing what the character might look like, then the visual effects team created a maquette - a clay full-size sculpture of Davy's head and shoulders, to allow the artists to visualize his appearance from every angle. Only then did the computers come into play; a 3D scan of Bill Nighy's head and body was done, so the character would fit his proportions. The underlying shape is correct because it's following the shape of his body. This allowed them to take Bill's performance on set and fit the CG character to him exactly. The joint lengths are the same - the ankle-to-knee length is the same on the CG Davy as it is on Bill.

Once the scenes had been filmed, powerful rendering computers were used to turn Bill's performance into Davy - and the result is unearthly. According to Bill, watching Davy onscreen was "a very spooky experience. Nothing quite prepares you for it, because it's a fantastic creature, beautifully achieved. And it's got your voice, and it's extremely weird, actually. It's quite unsettling."

And unsettling is just what John was shooting for. "We were always going for scary! The first scene where we meet him, Gore was very deliberate about 'We've got to light him in a scary way, and he's got scary dialogue.' He said, 'I want kids to have nightmares about this.'" Editor's Note: Oh goodie. We have Depp and Bloom and Knightley, PLUS we get to terrorize small children! Life IS good.

However, Davy isn't just a boogeyman, but a complex and intriguing character. "He's funny at times too, very entertaining. And we did occasionally go for the gross moment. We see him sleeping, and we gave him a bit of a runny nose - the blowhole has some postnasal drip," Editor's Note: Given my post-vacation cold, I can really relate to the whole dripping thing. (TMI?) John laughs. "Okay, it's gross! It was an opportunity we just couldn't let pass."

Although John stresses that many of the visual effects in "Dead Man's Chest" are unlike anything you've ever seen (in addition to Davy and his crew, there's a creature called the Kraken that you've got to see to believe), Bill and John agree that the flavor of the film is pure "Pirates" - no surprise, with so many of the alumni of the first film reunited to create this one.

"It has exactly the same feel. The writers are brilliant, and they've kind of taken it on in a very powerful and appropriate way,' says Bill. "And the performances are brilliant. Johnny is so extraordinary and he's kind of the heart of the movie, I suppose you could say. I think a large part of its appeal has to do with the fact that it's extremely good-hearted. Sort of friendly. I think that's a large part of the first movie's appeal - I can't see how, if you dug the first movie, you wouldn't get a big bang out of the second one!" Editor's Note: You'd better be right, or head's will ROLL!!!

John agrees. "It's faithful to the first one, because it's all the same creative leads. Same director of photography, same camera leads, same writers, same director, same editors. It's very much in the same character as the original. In fact, most of my crew is the same crew I had on the first film!"

It's no small trick to take audiences on a voyage that's unlike anything they've ever seen, but gives them more of what they've loved - but for this crew, it's all part of the adventure. !

Long John Silver might really be a pirate, but what skill does he use to get aboard the schooner Hispaniola?

The buccaneer villain of "Treasure Island' signs on to the Hispaniola's treasure voyage as ship's cook -- and he seems to be a pretty good one!

A classic article from the Disney Family Museum gives us a personal perspective on Walt
These are great times for the Walt Disney Family Museum. Exciting new projects are in the works, and soon to be announced. While we can't spill the beans just yet, we can give you a peek at what makes this "virtual museum" so very special - it offers unparalleled insight into the life and times of Walt Disney, from those who knew him best. Here's a sampling of what makes the museum a place like no other: A classic article from the curators about a momentous train trip Walt took with animator Ward Kimball.

In 1948, Ward Kimball accompanied Walt on what became a legendary train ride to the Railroad Fair in Chicago. During the trip, Walt reminisced about his life, chatted with the engineer in the front cab, and blew the whistle while posing for Ward's 16mm film camera. In an interview in late 1999, Ward talked about this memorable trip.

Ward (far left) and Walt listen to the whistle of Walt's Lilly Belle

"Walt called me up one day and he said, he'd gone down to the nurse, and she said, 'You want to take a vacation, you come down here Saturday and Sunday.' And we had a gag, a rule when he could tell how long you'd been working on a story board by the tint of the story sketches. You'd been working on it too long, it was turning yellow. So he thought about that and he'd read in the paper about this great locomotive fair in Chicago and the nurse said, 'Why don't you go back there with Ward, he runs a train?' And he says, 'Yes, I know.' So he calls me up and he says, 'Hi this is Walt.' And this is early in the morning and I'm just awake and I said, 'Walt who?' and he says, 'Walt Disney for gosh sakes!' And I said, 'Oh well you know I have other people I call Walt.' 'Anyway, how would you like to go back to the Chicago Railroad Fair?' And I was dreaming about that because all the locomotives were brought out of the museums, the De Witt, Clinton and the rest of them that I'd read about and they were all under steam and they'd put railroads on parade.

So we, I said, 'When are we going?' And he says, 'Next Monday.' Whatever it was and that gave me two days to get ready for it. And Lilly Disney and Betty saw us off at the Santa Fe station in Pasadena and we took our seats in our staterooms.

And then we would spend days, he'd go telling the story of his back history and I says, 'Gosh, I wish I had some way to record this thing,' as he told every little turn and twist of how he had Oswald Rabbit and so forth and how he invented Mickey Mouse on the train back from New York.

Walt looking over the shoulder of animator Ward Kimball.

Well, he had this conversation with his wife and said, 'I was thinking of a mouse. I had a little mouse back in Kansas City and he used to come up on the drawing board and we'd feed him things and maybe it should be a mouse.' He'd just lost Oswald Rabbit and a mouse would be good. He wanted to call him Maurice Mouse, something like that. And she said, 'Why don't you just call him Mickey Mouse? That'd sound better.' And that's the way it went. And when he got back one of the directors in the studio in his group, I don't know if it was Wilfred Jackson or one of the other guys, he made a drawing of it for the patent office, that was the first thing he did was make a drawing so that this time he would own it."

Shortly thereafter, Walt and Ward arrived at the Chicago Railroad fair.

"Well, first we did, we rode in the cab and I took movies of that. And Walt was over the edge in the air and it was a diesel, the new style diesel and all the way to Chicago, we'd pass these big steamers pulling freight trains and the engineer said, 'Well when you see a sign out the side that says 'W', you're supposed to blow the whistle.'
And so he got a kick out of blowing the whistle. And when we got to Gallop we decided to go back to the Stateroom and so Walt shook hands with the engineer and the fireman. I was taking pictures, on 16 mm."

We hope you've enjoyed this look at Disney history, and encourage you to explore all the museum has to offer. Keep an eye out in the weeks to come for some real excitement at the Walt Disney Family Museum site!


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