It’s all hands on deck as blockbuster cinematographer Paul Cameron ASC takes the helm for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales on the Gold Coast for the fifth chapter in the mammoth Disney series.
With an impeccable eye, breadth of cinematographic knowledge and a talent for staying within admittedly large cost restraints, Paul Cameron ASC is becoming more and more well known for blockbuster productions. Following an extensive slate of top shelf, big budget studio projects like Dominic Sena’s Swordfish (2001) and Len Wiseman’s redux of Total Recall (2012), he very recently set the tone for the masterful HBO series Westworld (2016) by filming the pilot for director Jonathan Nolan and producer J.J. Abrams.
Shot on 35mm, his work on Westworld was nominated in 2016 for the Camerimage International Film Festival’s First Look TV Pilots competition as well as by the American Society of Cinematographers that same year for outstanding achievement in TV, Movie, Miniseries or Pilot. Hailing originally from Montréal but based for nearly two decades in Los Angeles, he was invited as a member of the American Society of Cinematographers in 2006. Cameron is also the recipient of the BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Cinematography thanks to his highly regarded work with Australia’s Dion Beebe ACS ASC on the Michael Mann film Collateral (2004).
Referring to his trilogy of films with director Tony Scott as “action and adventure with a reality to them,” he says it was his work on Scott’s Man on Fire (2004) and Deja Vu (2006), both with star Denzel Washington, that most helped to put him on the map with A-list directors looking for technically proficient, highly stylised camerawork from a cinematographer that could also run an efficient crew. In 2011, this career trajectory led to Cameron taking over the reins from previous cinematographer Dariusz Wolski on Disney’s monstrously successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Filmed on Queensland’s Gold Coast and produced by the legendary Jerry Bruckheimer, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales once more stars Johnny Depp as the famous Captain Jack Sparrow, this time opposite Oscar-winners Javier Bardem and Australia’s Geoffrey Rush who reprises his role as Captain Hector Barbossa from the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, well-known for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-nominee Kon-Tiki (2012), which was shot largely off the islands of Malta and the Maldives, were new to the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
Although the fifth chapter in the series featured a number of technical firsts under Cameron, including drone work which surprisingly had not been used on on Pirates of the Caribbean previously. Working with XM2, an exclusive partner with Panavision throughout Australasia, he also had to invent a new drone system that could employ ARRI’s Open Gate format using the modular ARRI Alexa XT M system, used alongside the ARRI Alexa XT as primary camera.
He says that he gladly accepted the opportunity to build on the work of Wolski, who had run camera on all four previous Pirates films. “I’ve known Dariusz Wolski’s work for many, many years,” he says about the Polish cinematographer, who is also known for fairly gothic faire like The Crow (2004), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and Prometheus (2012). “We share a lot of similarities and certain tastes. But it wasn’t about emulating previous Pirates films, it was more about staying true to the brilliance,” says Cameron.
Though preparation for the film had begun four years earlier in Puerto Rico and New Orleans, the film was planned originally for open water and production faced numerous scheduling difficulties as well as weather and location challenges, ultimately settling for the Gold Coast. The production was given a shooting timeframe of one-hundred days, with principal photography beginning in February of 2015. Due to a two-week hiatus caused by an off-set injury to Depp’s hand, shooting wrapped in July after a 95-day shoot.
The three-time Clio Award-winning cinematographer had worked on a bounty of commercials in Sydney and Melbourne, but this was Cameron’s first production experience in Queensland. Chosen for the ideal weather, bright sunlight and the open spaces needed for the film’s large sets to be built by local crews, in addition to a hefty tax incentive for the production, the majority of the studio work was done out of Village Roadshow Studios alongside MovieWorld on the Gold Coast. Sourcing the majority of the 850-plus crew from local talent, Cameron was overly enthusiastic about his experience with the Gold Coast.
“The best surprise for me was the Australian crew!” Cameron says. “I was able to bring down some keys who have been part of the Pirates franchise since the beginning, but I was able to get Australian-local Shaun Conway as Gaffer. That gave me two of the best gaffers in the world!”
“I can’t say enough about the Australian crew, and Conway’s expertise and abilities, as well as Toby Copping and his crew for key grip,” he added. “He can put a camera anywhere, he can fly cable cam, he can do massive green screens and he does it all with a smile. I can’t say enough about those guys.”
Cameron, who had worked on fishing boats when he was younger, says that during the initial planning he had expected to be shooting six or seven vessels, the final script had expanded that cast to a total of fourteen ships. “When we tooled back up to do the film, suddenly I got a plane ticket to Australia instead of Puerto Rico,” he laughs. “That much photography on the water was proving a challenge. We were shooting a lot of ships which required blue screens, and we had drones, and we had aerials and all that cool stuff. We were shooting changing skies, too, so we had a lot of lights rigged for chasing backlight… and all of it while shooting from the decks!”
“I began conversations with production and soon realised that the methodology had changed, and it was a much different challenge, a big process, not only in finding enough land that was close to the studio but areas that would work well without light pollution or below areas where it would flood.”
Luckily, he says, Disney and executive producer Joseph M. Caracciolo Jr. involved him early on in the scouting process, which took more than a week of dedicated survey along the Gold Coast. He says that Disney was incredibly supportive of his decisions throughout the process, including the choice to build not one but two blue screen arenas that would be big enough and strong enough to hold the frigates on enormous volumes of water as well as the equipment to make it all happen. He would also need a fully-reinforced concrete parking lot that helped to support the arena system as well as stow the assembled ships and gear when not in use.
“Between Visual Effects Supervisor Gary Brozenich and myself we designed open arenas that were literally 600-linear-feet across and five shipping containers high. They were massive. Two arenas the size of IKEA buildings. Some of the ships were planned to be roughly 160-feet and out of the fourteen, four of them would also have to be on a gimbal in the bigger arena for various action and fight sequences.”
“We were looking south for the most part of the shooting day, but I also requested being able to spin the ship to the natural light as much as possible,” he says, explaining that each of the ships could be manoeuvred 360-degrees, as well, to maximise the natural light of the sun.
He plotted the zenith every day in advance so the crew would be able to set accordingly. “I had the second arena built so that I could put the larger ships on casters, which obviously
increased the cost,” he continues. “Ideally, we would have just put the ships on scaffolding, but the caster system worked out better, because it was quite easy to drive an aircraft tug in there, hook up, and tow the ship around by 45-degrees, or whatever was needed for best light.”
The construction of the gimbals and caster system required a sophisticated degree of planning and execution. They allowed the deck and production crew on each of the four ships to be raised or lowered by up to an extra forty-feet. To light scenes on these principal ships, he used a long soft-box affixed to a 100-foot spine, which ran roughly 150-feet down the centre. The ships themselves of course also required quite a bit of meticulous construction with fully-detailed ship exteriors and in some cases masts, sails and fully-equipped cannons.
“It was quite amazing to see the progression of ships during photography,” he says. “They were all so interesting, using much of the same chassis, and much of the same exteriors, but unique sails, ropes, banner-drapes and banisters. There’s a special ghost ship in this version as well, which is just beautiful.” To achieve altitudinal angles, aside from drones, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales also had Technocranes at 21-feet, 30-feet and 51-feet in length, provided by Toby Copping Grip Services in Sydney. Cameron says these could be coupled with the gimbaling system for even more height.
“We were up a distance from the main deck,” he says, bemused. “It was quite the little dance of equipment there, between camera, and visual effects, sliding in extra screens, taking cranes up and down, and fans everywhere to blow the sails. It was a lot of machinery that would occur in a short period of time.” At the top of both blue screen arenas, Cameron had 26-foot inflatable air-walls installed so he could lower eastern walls in the morning and western walls in the evening. That gave him extended daylight, roughly forty-five minutes prior of extra sunrise plus forty-five more minutes to chase the sunset. He also incorporated a silk diffusion system rigged to the masts of the main ship that they used during the first six weeks of the shoot, since the sun in the Gold Coast was often overpowering.
“We frequently had to shoot during the middle of the day,” he explains. “It was quite an elaborate system that Copping designed, which was basically an overhead truss mounted to the mast of the ship. We were able to retrofit diffusion or blacks. We also had to have a system where they could just hit a button [Cameron snaps his fingers] and pull in the barrier to allow the rain to come down, because we did get hit with a lot of rain. Quite massive rain in fact!”
Otherwise, he says that the weather in the Gold Coast wasn’t too temperamental, though they did have to accommodate for rapidly changing cloud cover. For overhead control, and simply to shoot when the sun wasn’t an option, that included four 120-foot Condors that each held three ARRI 18K Arrimax HMIs that were used with ARRI MaxMover mounts to remotely operate rotation and focus. They also had giant soft-boxes on hand that could quickly diffuse the 18K systems, plus box lights on lifts for more exact lighting, and special effect lights for action sequences and fire flicker.
“I had firepower,” he says. “But, again, these ships were 160-feet long, and the lights were 200-feet away, so at any given time we were chasing the Condors around the backside of the arena all day long, everyday. If the sun went into a cloud, we would pan twelve 18K lights in and just keep rolling. Then if the sun came out, we would pan them away. It was fairly seamless.”
To construct underwater sequences, Cameron had twenty 10’ x 10’ water trays with four automated Bad Boy CMY fixtures, capable of 48,000 lumens respectively, from FX and lighting company Production Resource Group (PRG) Australia. Switchable between cyan, magenta and yellow, the Bad Boy CMY lights have a zooming range from spot at 7° to wide flood of 56º, as well as full dimming and remote control pan-and-tilt, which gave him a lot of possibilities for shooting through water.
“With two world-class gaffers, fortunately I was able to get ahead on a lot of sets,” Cameron says, as his crew also needed to accommodate several night time sequences on the set despite frequently commanding ten-hour days, back-to-back. “It made my job a lot easier to go in at half the time that I usually have to go in while sets are being rigged.” In addition to the blue screen arenas, which were built in Helensvale, the production constructed a large Caribbean town from scratch outside of Maudsland. Both towns lay near the Gold Coast.
“Production Designer Nigel Phelps and the Australian Supervising Art Director Ian Gracie, and their teams, did a tremendous job designing,” he continues. “I mean, these guys pulled off an amazing turnaround!” Second unit, under cinematographer Brad Shields ACS, provided a number of instrumental shots. The team had minimal location work, but Cameron said they were extremely effective for secondary coverage during bigger ship sequences, including an extended, culminating battle, as well as supplementals for a serpentine chase through the Caribbean town.
Facing several output formats via post-conversion, including IMAX 3D and RealD 3D, as well as release via branded Disney Digital 3D projection, Cameron decided to go with the ARRI Alexa XT for principal photography using ARRI RAW in Open Gate which offers full-pixel resolution of the sensor at 3414 x 2198 photo-sites. Panavision Sydney was heavily influential throughout the shoot, providing the ARRI camera systems as well as spherical Panavision glass that could cover the sensor. Employing Panavision Primo V Primes, which ranged between 17.5mm to 150mm, Cameron also had several high quality Panavision Primo Zooms on hand, including the 8” 19-90mm PCZ (Primo Compact Zoom), the SLZ11 24-275mm Primo 11:1 zoom and the SLZ3 135-420mm Primo 3:1 zoom.
“Originally, when I started the film, we were shooting 35mm film, on anamorphic, and for various reasons we switched to digital,” says Cameron, who chose a 2:40 aspect ratio. “We went with Open Gate, because you’re getting more resolution off of the sensor. But it’s also difficult when you’re shooting Open Gate, spherical, at 2:40. You’re basically using less of the sensor, obviously, than if you were using anamorphic, or even 4:3. Every bit of resolution at the pixel can help, and it was definitely a challenge for a film of this size. I’ve been doing the DI for the last two weeks, and it’s super sharp and visual effects are gorgeous. You’d never know whether it was 2K or 4K.”
With unprecedented coverage of the ships and battle sequences via drones, the production had to secure special permits from the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority for the shoot. Cameron was at first hesitant to employ drones, as he is a great fan of helicopter work and the pilots that make those shots happen, but he had to make a few compromises after deciding to shoot largely within the blue screen arenas.
“In the previous films, where they were doing ocean photography, it was possible to fly a helicopter towards and around ships at sea,” Cameron explains. “The challenge for me was how to do these aerial shots in and around 50-foot-tall shipping containers and blue screen everywhere. By the time you’ve got a good shot, you have to lift up and get out of the way before colliding with the arena walls”
“We tested the XM2 Drone with the flight team in both the arenas and the Caribbean town that we built, so I was able to show how dynamic the shots were, and how close we could get, as well as how proficient we could be in doing it. After the first or second day of principal photography, suddenly the drone was everybody’s favourite thing. Jerry Bruckheimer specifically loved it and said this is the first time they were able to get these kinds of shots in a Pirates film. The guys at XM2 did a fabulous job,” Cameron says.
When asked if he was able to shoot at any of the iconic locations that Australia is known for, Cameron says that with such a tight schedule they mostly had to work from the two sets and Village Roadshow Studios, but despite the lack of location work, he was overjoyed to be able to wrap near on Great Barrier Reef. “I think everybody can attest to that as one of the most gorgeous places in the world, if not the most,” he says, “so that was a fabulous opportunity, to film a few scenes with everybody at the end of the shoot, and to finish the movie up there.”
David Alexander Willis is a filmmaker, journalist and photographer based out of Los Angeles.