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A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Those Mesmerizing Mermaids of 'Pirates 4'

Davy Jones model at ILM
Robert DeSalvo

Warning: A visit to Industrial Light & Magic headquarters in San Francisco will likely trigger a nerdgasm of epic proportions.

As you approach the building, a serene Yoda fountain greets you before you proceed into a large glass-enclosed sitting room where the costumes of Darth Vader and Boba Fett are on display. Try to contain your excitement as you walk by props, models, costumes, matte paintings and other memorabilia from the annals of ILM films, including "Jurassic Park," "E.T.," "The Mummy," "Transformers" and many more, including the occasion for our visit: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."

Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow returns in the fourth chapter of the blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean" series to search for the Fountain of Youth. "On Stranger Tides" (available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3-D on October 18) features the return of Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa, and introduces Ian McShane as Blackbeard and Penélope Cruz as Blackbeard's daughter and Jack's love interest.

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Before Jack and company can exploit the power of the Fountain of Youth, they must obtain a single tear from a mermaid as part of the ritual. These sirens of the sea bear little resemblance to the cutesy red-haired "Little Mermaid" in the animated Disney movie. Instead, these mermaids are stunningly gorgeous until they morph into vicious sea monsters and drag seduced sailors to a watery grave. The complex mermaid sequence -- one of the best battle scenes in any of the "Pirates" movies -- is a wonder of ILM ingenuity that combines real-life actresses and CGI wizardry.

Visual effects art director Aaron McBride set out to create a "beautiful aesthetic" and treated the mermaids like "high fashion of the deep." He drew them with long flowing tendrils that billowed underwater like fabric and with bodies that had a pearlescent sheen that could catch the action in moonlight. The team even went to a fish market, bought a salmon and stuck it on a pole so they could film it and study how light moved over it. This is especially evident during a scene in the movie where the mermaid Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) is freed from her portable tank and the warm, goldfish-colored scales of her tail slowly morph into lovely human legs as she dries.

Mermaids in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Disney

While everyone was on the same page about the mermaids' bodies, there was much debate about how vicious the women should appear when they morphed into attack mode. Early designs for the first mermaid that we see transform, played by Gemma Ward, were of an aquatic horror that no longer appeared human or even remotely attractive. In the end, everyone agreed to scale back on the fright factor and let the mermaids show their fangs yet retain some of their allure.

To bring the mermaid sequence to life, the crew needed three sets of women: models for the close shots and dialogue, Olympic synchronized swimmers for athletic water work and stunt women for extreme action. Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Snow, the man who made Dracula's beautiful brides transform into hideous flying demons in "Van Helsing," has swum in these tricky waters before. "We didn't feel like we could pull off the CG brides in 'Van Helsing,' so we ended up filming blue screen elements and combining them with CG bodies," says Snow. "That was actually very challenging because we had LED lights built into their costumes and tracked them as we shot against a blue screen."

Astrid Berges Frisbey in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Disney

"On 'On Stranger Tides,'" Snow continues, "I kind of learned from that approach, and we wanted to shoot them on set and in the environment where they were going to be. The tracking technology has really evolved so much that I knew we would get a perfect match. We weren't confident back during 'Van Helsing' that we could fully reproduce their performances."

Although the crew could have attempted to make the mermaids total CG creations, once you see the natural-looking movements of the women underwater, you realize that it's way more convincing to have actresses get wet and animators fill in the details later. "Digitally realistic humans are still difficult to achieve," says McBride. "It's not often that there are compelling stories that call for the creation of a digitally realistic human. 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' was a great movie where it was justified, but we don't get a lot of scripts where that is called for. That's still a huge hurdle as far as technology is concerned."

"On Stranger Tides" is the first "Pirates" movie in 3-D, which makes the mermaids pop even more off the screen as they jettison themselves in and out of the water. The movie is Snow's first 3-D production, and, although he is a fan of the technology for some films, he doesn't quite see it as a natural progression like black and white to color. "When I worked on this film and saw 3-D on set every day, I definitely began to appreciate its potential," says Snow. "I don't think any film has fully exploited the potential of 3-D for storytelling. My feeling is that it's got to be a film that you think you want to see in 3-D. It has to have enough spectacle or something you think you want to see in 3-D. I think people will look at the trailer and say, 'You know, I think I want to see this in 3-D,' and it will be like people in the '50s who paid a little extra to see something in Cinemascope."

After exploring the leap in technology that has taken place from the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie to the intricate mermaids of "On Stranger Tides," one can only imagine what ILM will be capable of two, three or five years in the future. For now, the best way to explore the extent of ILM's wonderwork is to check out the "Under the Sea: Bringing Mermaids to Life" featurette found on the limited edition five-disc combo pack of Jack Sparrow's latest adventure.

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