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ILM reveals mermaid secrets for 'Pirates 4' Blu-ray

To promote Industrial Light and Magic's work on the billion-dollar-earning, Johnny Depp-starring "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," its artists offer a look at how they create mermaids to vex Captain Jack Sparrow.

Beau Ryan/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Disney spent the last couple of decades making mermaids into friendly, lovely creatures bursting with curiosity and love (see "The Little Mermaid" and "Splash"). It took about a year's work from the visual-effects pros at Industrial Light and Magic to return the fair ladies of the sea to their classical, bloodthirsty ways.

To show off the effects studio's work on the billion-dollar-grossing "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" as it arrives on Blu-ray next month, ILM's Ben Snow (visual-effects supervisor) and Aaron McBride (art director) sat down with reporters at George Lucas' Presidio compound here earlier this month to discuss the challenges of creating mermaids beautiful enough to lure Johnny Depp to water and ferocious enough to devour him.

"Classically, mermaids were beautiful but deadly creatures," Snow said. "We were excited to bring them back to that tradition. But the challenge was developing creative concepts that preserved their beauty while making them scary again."


Snow and McBride walked reporters through the creative process that brought the "Pirates of Caribbean" mermaids from pencil and ink sketches to elaborate digital paintings and then to fully realized 3D rendered creatures. McBride explained that many of the original ILM designs offered a more alien mermaid forged by a realistic marine environment and researched using real-world underwater species for reference points.

"We went through several rounds of design on the mermaids as they evolved into more alien and animalistic creatures, and then back into more human, more beautiful creations," McBride said.

Featured concept art (right) shows female creatures with the dark eyes of a shark, hair resembling seaweed tendrils, and transparent skin similar to a jelly fish's dome. But the filmmakers chose to return to a more feminine design for the big screen.

"[Director] Rob Marshall cast these beautiful models and actresses to become these mermaids, and he wanted that beauty onscreen," McBride said. "We decided the mermaids would be human above the water, but transform to a more marine appearance below it."

Added Snow, "You want to give the director every possible look, every possible tool. Then much of the process comes down to pulling back and refining the design from those big original ideas to something that works for the story. That's what we did here. We designed every sort of mermaid we could imagine with some very extreme looks--before we brought them a little more back to reality."

To preserve those realistic undersea elements from the original concept sketches, ILM's 3D designers and artists decided the mermaids' underwater rendered forms would include a membrane layer resembling gauzy fabric that would shield the breasts and buttocks of what are essentially nude women from young prying eyes. When the mermaids emerge above water, the CG membrane melts away like soapy water, revealing the beautiful woman within the mermaid. No naughty bits.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" arrives on Blu-ray October 18.