Steve Daly talks to effects supervisor John Knoll about how he made Davy Jones, Bill Nighy's creepy villain in the ''Pirates'' sequel, look so real
Credit: Inset of Bill Nighy: Kevin Parry/

”Pirates”: Why Davy Jones looks so amazing

For years, Hollywood folks have been talking about creating ”virtual actors.” But every time someone uses CG trickery to try creating photographically real humans — for instance, in Final Fantasy and The Polar Express — the characters wind up looking like creepy automatons with weirdly dead eyes. Realistic? More like cadaverous. (Princess Fiona and her parents in the Shrek movies have come closer to the mark than anything else so far.) Meantime, in the realm of more fantastical, only-vaguely-humanoid characters, filmmakers have already hit the so-real-you-believe-it jackpot.

The trail was blazed by a nervy experiment that didn’t quite work: the widely reviled Jar-Jar Binks, the Stepin-Fetchit-esque, Jamaican-patois-spouting sidekick from George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. He wasn’t ever physically convincing — that limbs-akimbo walk looked too rubbery — and he wasn’t likable. But then Peter Jackson and company, far away in New Zealand, picked up the baton by really nailing Gollum for the Lord of the Rings films, using a mix of CG and ”performance capture” done with actor Andy Serkis. Jackson pushed the trick further in King Kong, making a 24-foot-tall ape look incredibly simian in some shots — again based on performances by Serkis.

Now the bar’s been set higher still with Davy Jones, the Octopus-faced undersea villain from Disney’s phenomenally popular Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Whatever you think of the films overall — and many critics, including our own Lisa Schwarzbaum, have not been fans — you’d have to agree that something dazzling happens every time Davy Jones strides onscreen. Sporting beardlike, sucker-covered tentacles that wriggle and writhe and can even be used to play mean organ-keyboard licks, Davy looks more alive, more real, more solidly spatial, than any CG character in history.

How did ILM, the birthplace of poor Jar-Jar, find a way to make Davy Jones work so astonishingly well? We caught up with visual effects supervisor John Knoll (an Oscar nominee for the Star Wars prequels and the first Pirates movie) to find out.

GREAT CG STARTS WITH GREAT ACTORS. What’s the most important ingredient in the extremely complicated Davy Jones technical sandwich? Two words: Bill Nighy. He’s the deliciously dry English actor who played an over-the-hill pop star so memorably in Love, Actually, and Pirates director Gore Verbinski believed Nighy could bring the same insousciant air to Davy Jones.

But before Nighy could get to work on set, John Knoll’s crew at ILM had to invent an entirely new way of doing an established trick called ”motion capture.” Explaining all the details would make your eyes glaze over faster than a dead buccanneer’s. But basically, the profound improvement that Knoll and company hit upon was a way to do the motion-capturing right on the main movie sets, instead of trying to re-create all of Davy Jones’ actions on an isolated bluescreen soundstage months after principal photography was finished. Ever wonder why so many performances in the Star Wars prequels sound and look so stifled, so robotic? It’s partly because the actors typically had nothing physical to work off of, since every part of the scenery and the CG-creature supporting cast was put in later. (There was an on-set stand-in for Jar-Jar, actor Ahmed Best, but somehow that didn’t help much.)

Not so with Dead Man’s Chest. The actors were almost always working on either physical sets or actual locations, and their fellow cast members were right there next to them, interacting in real time with them, to keep line readings and physical bits of business much fresher. That means you get moments like Nighy’s Davy Jones making an odd popping sound with his upper lip to express puzzlement, or jerking his head in certain querulous, highly humorous ways. ”On a soundstage with 25 technicians staring at Bill and nobody to play off of, that quirkiness would all have gotten ironed out,” says Knoll. ”Somebody would say, That gesture is too off or too odd. It could have become a real sort of committee effort.” Instead, Nighy had to please only one chief — Verbinski — and thus gave an especially lively performance.

Working on stunning-looking locations instead of dull bluescreen stages also made the action choreography much more dynamic. For instance, there’s a shot of the Flying Dutchman pirate crew coming out of the milky-blue Caribbean waters to charge after Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley, who are in the midst of a swordfight on a white-sand beach. The shot looks as photorealistic as an island-vacation commercial — a breathtaking step forward in CG imagery. Knoll and company achieved it by first putting real actors in sensor-studded outfits right there in the water on a real beach, in the crazy-beautiful Exuma Islands of the Bahamas. That worked a lot better than trying to animate a CG group from scratch because the FX crew, which later CG-ized each actor into a barnacle-encrusted pirate monstrosity, had tremendously helpful details to work with. They could study the live-action footage carefully to see exactly how the light should look, exactly how the water should run off the pirates’ bodies, exactly how they should shift their weight while stepping into sand as they became CG figures instead of actors in suits. The result, by and large, is more convincing CG character movements — and better CG lighting effects — than we’ve seen before.

According to John Knoll, Bill Nighy was at first leery of the whole motion-capture-to-CG process. He was jealous that his costume consisted only of what he called ”pirate pajamas.” Depp and company got to wear resplendent outfits on set, complete with feathers, boots, period pantaloons, blackened teeth, you name it — all of which can greatly help an actor in formulating a believable character. All Nighy got to wear, says Knoll, was ”this bizarre Devo jumpsuit sort of thing.” It was a track-suit-type ensemble, topped by a skull cap with a sort of headband in front — and all of it marked with bold, black-and-white checkered patterns. (In unfinished raw footage, Nighy looks almost like he’s playing an escaped prison convict or a harlequin clown in a striped outfit.) But Nighy’s less-than-piratical duds were crucial for helping the animators later track his body movements into a CG version of Davy Jones.

FROM ACTUAL TO VIRTUAL. Because of ILM’s deployment of a revolutionary, on-the-spot ”mo-cap” system, director Gore Verbinski could use hand-held cameras a lot, and could also frame close-ups that lasted a long time onscreen. Both elements help convince an audience they’re seeing something real and off-the-cuff, not something staged and planned and noodled to death. And make no mistake: Every shot with Nighy involved months of noodling each tiny little movement and expression and gesture. An animation crew led by Hal Hickel (a CG veteran who worked on the first Toy Story film) performed insanely laborious work translating all of Nighy’s on-set actions into a final performance, but always using the actor’s work as their guiding light.

Frankly, says Knoll, it all came out much better than director Verbinski expected — especially Davy Jones’ eyes. ”There was a lot of concern at the beginning that since we had to do tight close-ups with Davy, the CG eyes would never hold up. Gore was really concerned about that. He felt nobody had done CG eyes that had the kind of life you get from an actual film performance by an actor.”

Knoll and crew made elaborate preparations to blend Nighy’s actual eyes into an otherwise CG figure, just as they’d done for certain moments in the first Pirates movie. Remember the shot when Captain Barbosa, played by Geoffrey Rush, steps into a shaft of moonlight for the first time and becomes a living skeleton? ”I did a trick there,” says Knoll. ”I hung on to Geoffrey Rush’s live-action eyes for about two or three seconds after that transition. So for a few moments after he becomes a skeleton, it’s all CG except his eyes. They’re Geoffrey’s eyes right up until the first time Barbosa blinks, and then they become CG. That really helped sell the transition.”

Verbinski initially wanted the same sleight-of-eye trick for Davy Jones, Knoll recalls. ”He felt like, when we’re in tight, if the CGI doesn’t turn out to work well, I want to be able to use Bill’s real eyes.” But ILM’s crack team did so well at creating watery, sparkly orbs in CG form, simply using Nighy’s darting eyes as reference, that Verbinski never demanded the real thing. As convincing as the eyes look in those close-ups, according to Knoll they are not the actor’s actual eyes.

Pardon me for gushing, readers, but that just blows my mind. Every time Davy Jones fills the frame in close-up, I am amazed, stunned, transported. It’s the kind of rhapsodically convincing visual wizardry you seek in summer movies but so seldom find. Sure, Dead Man’s Chest has tons of other effects and showcase moments: the fight on the water wheel, Johnny Depp’s pole-vault with the shish kebab stick, the attacks of the huge Kraken beastie that snaps ships’ hulls like walnuts. But it’s only Bill Nighy’s octopussy-faced Davy Jones that makes me yell, like a giddy kid sucking on sugary candy, ”Oh my God — that is so money shot!”

Do you agree? Is Davy Jones the coolest effect in Dead Man’s Chest? Does Davy whup Superman’s ass, cool-effects-wise? How about Tom Cruise’s CG-assisted stuntwork in M:I3, or the Magneto scenes in X-Men 3? Avast, start pounding yer keyboards, mateys, and weigh in.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
  • Movie
  • 153 minutes