When Oscar-nominated director Rob Marshall came aboard as the new captain of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, he was immediately possessed by the siren call of one particular element in the script — beautiful mermaids.
No one needs to explain cinematic possibilities of dangerous lust and predatory women to the director of “Chicago” and “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and when he took over the Disney buccaneer franchise he zeroed in on the script’s presentation of the magical aquatic creatures as a place to make his mark. “They are beautiful, seductive women but they use that beauty to lure men to their deaths,” Marshall said with an approving grin. “They are women but they are also animal. These are creatures and carnivores and they want to feed.”
And when they feed, sailors in salt water are the main course. Marshall made the mermaids a paramount priority for Ben Snow of Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects supervisor for “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” which opens Friday. Snow said months were spent in the concept stage working out questions about vision and visage when it came to the deadly beauties.
“It was a very long process and there were a lot of decisions,” Snow said. “In some of the concept art they became very beastly but Rob felt all along that they had to be attractive — even when they were about to kill you – although right before they strike you do get a sense of the predator.”
In many portrayals, the mermaid has a fish tail but is human from the waist up. Snow said the “Pirates” team opted to change that a bit — the division is more fluid, so to speak, with fish scales appearing over the body parts that are immersed. The waterline is the key — it’s fish scales below, human flesh above — although the opaque fish scales do not venture anywhere above the collarbone. There were, at one point, some concept proposals that gave the mermaids fearsome, fishy faces, but Marshall believed that would undermine the romance between a captured mermaid named Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and the handsome missionary Philip (Sam Claflin).
“We knew they would have a giant, long, elegant tail but there was a lot of to and fro about the way they would look beyond that and it was important to Rob that they not look too icky,” Snow said. “The big question: ‘How creature-y should they be?’ In the end the decision was made that they should always be appealing … some of the people here at ILM found the beastly mermaids attractive, too, but that’s just the way people are in this building.”
Snow said the team came up with a mythology, physiology and “set of rules” for the mermaids that never reaches the screen but makes the movie “internally consistent.” For ILM, with the reduction in the number of effects shots and the subtraction of any sea-battle scenes, there was a lot invested in the mermaids in ambition, emotion and time and Snow said the payoff in the film is very satisfying. “For all of us, you like your work to support a good film above all else; it’s not about the number of effects shots or making everything huge, it’s about the storytelling.”