High-Seas Disease: Infections Inspire Gruesome ‘Pirates’ Baddies

Special-effects team behind 'Caribbean' creatures looks to medical oddities for ideas.

SAN FRANCISCO — It used to be that about the worst thing a pirate feared on the high seas was a rather dogged case of scurvy.

With “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” and its sequel, “Dead Man’s Chest” — on DVD Tuesday (December 5) — the stakes have been raised. But even if you do find yourself press-ganged into Davy Jones’ crew, it’s still disease that will ultimately do you in, confessed Aaron McBride, the films’ visual art director.

On a recent tour of George Lucas’ special-effects studio Industrial Light and Magic, McBride said the look of Davy’s crew was mostly taken from infections and disorders. Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, and — wouldn’t you know it — not one had penicillin.

“The idea was that the longer you served on [Davy's ship] the Flying Dutchman, the more encrusted and calcified you became — caked with barnacles and sea life,” McBride explained, showing a series of photos from concept drawings to final stills. “What we tried to do was develop a hierarchy to the curse where it starts out as a low-level infection — rosacea or acne or boils. It was a way to motivate larger departures from the human form.”

Rosacea, acne, and boils (oh my!) are nothing compared to the diseases used as reference for those “larger departures,” which include the character Maccus, a pirate with the head and torso of a hammerhead shark.

“[On Maccus] we wanted it to look like a mutation or a deformity, so we got a lot of really nasty references to things like elephantitis and acromegalia from some cool books that we found,” McBride revealed. “We didn’t want it to look like a happy marriage, so there’s a lot of asymmetry — one eye is fully formed, while his human eye is swelling shut like you’d have with conjunctivitis or some kind of pink eye.”

Acromegalia, a hormone disorder that enlarges the bones of the hands and feet (think André the Giant or the Bond villain Jaws) and elephantitis, a lymphatic disorder that thickens the sufferer’s skin, are both rare but gruesome illnesses. McBride said he wasn’t worried, however, that “Pirates” director Gore Verbinski would find them too horrible to be used as references on a family film.

“That’s the cool thing about working with Gore — he really wants you to go as disturbing as possible. There wasn’t any real worry that anything would be too frightening or scary,” McBride said. “It’s not a lot of bloody gore or something like that, because a lot of people get desensitized to that. It’s just a very deformed kind of unsettling aesthetic.”

Maccus, like all of the Dutchman’s crew — including Davy Jones — were entirely computer-generated, a remarkable feat considering how much screen time the characters have with real-life actors. While arduous, McBride said this process allowed for more creative deformity, something animators wouldn’t have been able to do with a guy in a suit.

“Gore said that he didn’t want the guys to look gimmicky, to look high-concept where the gag was obvious. [If a guy] looked too much like a turtle, then he looked like a guy in a turtle costume,” he said. “So Maccus, for example, we really flattened the back of his head, smashed in his nose — obviously you can’t put a guy’s cranium into that.”

ILM is one of the best-known — and most successful — special-effects studios in the world. The studio has won 36 Oscars and is responsible for the effects in everything from “Star Wars” to “Harry Potter.” Located in the Presidio, a park on the city’s northern peninsula, ILM often keeps the same people on movie sequels for better continuity.

McBride said he’s already creating new creatures for the third “Pirates” film, “At World’s End,” which opens in May (see “Keira Knightley Could Tell You About ‘Pirates 3,’ But She’d Have To Kill You” ). “We just got approval for some of the designs [and] are actually working on between six and 10 new creatures,” he said.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”

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