Pirates of the Caribbean 3: A High-Speed Near-Fiasco

By Shea Lord |
October 26th, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean 3: A High-Speed Near-Fiasco

By Shea Lord |
October 26th, 2011

A professor of mine, who will remain anonymous, is an expert on high speed motion picture cameras. Back when shooting 1000 frames per second was still a technical feat (about five years ago), he made a comfortable living by working exclusively with these cameras. He is my primary source for this post- and whether or not you put stock in the events described below is up to you.

In Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End there is a scene that shows the demise of Lord Beckett in an awesome, fiery, slow motion explosion. He goes down with his ship, as an honorable Captain would, and the camera pulls out very slowly to capture the beautiful moment. Click the image to watch the scene on YouTube. It’s truly an awesome scene- and I think that people tend to underrate big-budget feature effects as if everything is CGI and thus not very impressive. The only compositing done on this scene is the superimposition of Lord Beckett over the explosion- which is very real.

Now, think of this logistically. Put yourself in the FX coordinator’s shoes (see factor 10). There is one ship (prop) that cost maybe half a million dollars to build- and you not only get to blow it up, but it has to be captured perfectly on a million-dollar high-speed film camera, while dollying out slowly. The obvious point first: you only get one shot! Failure to get it right the first time will cost the production millions. The more complicated issue, the slow camera pull, may need some explanation.

This is what will physically happen on set: The ship will explode gloriously and extremely fast. The high-speed camera, which captures real-time at 1000 frames per second, will burn (and I mean you will see smoke) through an entire magazine of film in no time. In fact, chances are it will not even last long enough to capture the entirety of the explosion- but that’s okay. You only need the beginning (watch scene for reference). Everything will happen very quickly on set, even though the outcome of the scene will be an ultra-slow montage.

It must be clarified: this is a professional set- there are no cutting corners with zooms. A camera pull means a dolly. So to get this super-slow pull, the camera needs to move backward extremely fast. After much research and thorough calculations, the FX crew built a rocket-powered-dolly to shoot the camera down the track fast enough to keep in time with the explosion and create a pull, which would come out very slow once the 1000fps footage was laid on a normal 24fps playback track.

It was a slightly crazy plan, but it worked in the end. Only one shot was filmed, and it is in the final cut of the movie. However, the FX crew (or whoever was in charge) made one very large miscalculation. One which no one who wasn’t personally on set that day, I’m sure, was ever meant to know about.

When they built the track for this rocket-powered-dolly shot, somehow not one person thought, “Hey, this is going to be moving really fast! It’s gonna need enough track to slow down.” Nope. No one even considered how to stop the rocket.

Director calls ACTION: the ship blows, the camera shoots down the track… and doesn’t stop. Well, the tripod, which is the dolly itself, comes to a shuddering halt where the track ends. The million dollar high speed camera flies right off the plate, 30 feet into the air, and lands 90 feet away from the 1st AC- right on its half-million dollar lens.

Luckily, these high speed cameras are built like tanks- and amazingly (supposedly) there wasn’t a scratch of damage. As previously stated, this was the only shot taken and it is in the final cut. This is a fantastic example of special equipment use/misuse (or rather, ill-prepared use) by a professional crew, nonetheless! It also is further evidence to prove that Murphy’s Law is not exclusive to amateur sets.

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