Ship Shape
Issue: Volume: 30 Issue: 7 (July 2007)

Ship Shape

It can be extremely difficult for the general public to determine what is real and what is computer-generated in today’s blockbusters. Consider the Pirates of the Caribbean films. By now, everyone is aware that those movies, particularly the last two, featured a treasure trove of computer graphics: Cutting-edge 3D animation created the skeletal crew and the monstrous Kraken (see “Yo Ho Ho!,” July 2006, pg. 16, and
“All Hands on Deck,” May 2007, pg. 18). For the heroic efforts on the first release, The Curse of the Black Pearl, John Knoll and the visual effects group received an Academy Award nomination; for the second one, Dead Man’s Chest, the crew struck Oscar gold. And there is a good chance there could be a repeat performance for the work on the third release.

With all the publicity from the film’s box-office booty and Oscar hype, theater-goers might assume that the pirate ships are computer creations, as well. And they are, to an extent. They were crafted in the computer, albeit using 3D visualization and design software. But rather than sailing under the flag of visual effects, these 3D models served as blueprints for the construction of actual boats used in both Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. And for this work, production designer Rick Heinrichs received his own Academy Award nomination, for Art Direction on Dead Man’s Chest.      

As part of the art department, Heinrichs served as production designer on the last two Pirates films, working out all the visualization and construction issues among director Gore Verbinski, the art directors, and the company that would fabricate the ships. Because Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End were filmed back to back, Heinrichs and his team approached the work as a single, three-year-long project.

In total, the crew designed and built six full-size vessels: the Black Pearl (Jack Sparrow’s ship), the Flying Dutchman (helmed by Davy Jones), the Endeavor (Lord Cutler Beckett’s boat), the Empress (a Chinese junk sailed by Sao Feng), the Edinburgh (a merchant ship split apart by Kraken), and the Hai Ping (another Chinese junk). In addition, several variations of these were designed and built for special shots. All these ships had a specific role to play in the films and, thus, had to look the part, from the spooky Dutchman to the richly adorned Endeavor. But the bigger challenge was making the ships seaworthy, as a good deal of the action, particularly in the third movie, occurred on water.

“Having these boat designs in the computer gave us the ability to send and e-mail the files to marine architects, who determined whether the boats would float or not,” says Heinrichs.

To design and build the boats, Heinrichs worked alongside supervising art director John Dexter and art director Bruce Crone, and directed illustrators, set designers, graphic designers, draftsmen, sculptors, model makers, actual boat builders, and others. In fact, a hybrid scheme of traditional and digital methods was used to create the Pirates ships. Initially, Heinrichs and a team of illustrators made sketches that served as the basis for the styles, some of which were later modeled in 3D.
At times, physical scale models were built as well. Then, the team crafted working designs, providing 3D views and sections that were carefully studied by the director and others to ensure that the smoothness and shapes were correct and that Verbinski’s vision and requirements for specific camera angles were met. After the files were sent to a naval architect for approval, shipbuilders in the Bahamas fabricated the vessels. The ornamentation, however, was designed and built by Disney artists and craftsmen.

“I am used to having beautiful pencil draftings from set designers and three-dimensional [physical] character models that show textures and colors, as well as the physical proportions of the set,” says Heinrichs of these unusual nautical movie sets. Still getting accustomed to CAD-created drawings, Heinrichs found the computer a great tool for working out specific issues, and the hand drawings extremely useful for more detailed elements that have to show character and texture.

For each boat, the design process differed slightly; for instance, the Dutchman’s look was based on a physical model; the Empress, a 2D illustration; and the Edinburgh, historical research. Nevertheless, after the initial phase, they sailed through a similar course.

The team redesigned Jack Sparrow’s beloved Black Pearl for
the second and third movies, transforming the previous boat,
which floated atop a barge, into a fully operational vessel.
The Black Pearl

In the first movie, as convincing as it was, the Pearl was built on a barge that was pulled behind a tugboat and achieved all of 1 to 2 knots at top speed (which is evident upon closer viewing). In fact, Disney used this technique for a number of the ships in that release. For the second and third movies, though, Verbinski wanted the Pearl to build up speed in the water and generate a strong bow wave in the front. So Disney commissioned a full-sized, fully operational version of the Pearl, built from hull to keel, for the sequels.

“From the beginning, the mission from the director was to create the Black Pearl as a fully operational sailing vessel that he could shoot in motion and create the hero shots of the Pearl sailing in the ocean, bowsprit bobbing up and down as it plowed through the water,” says Clint Wallace, art director and set designer, who spent more than two years as part of the crew on the last two Pirates films.

A crucial component of the design was to integrate an operational vessel hidden in the hull that would power the ship. The new Pearl would be built atop the Sunset, a steel ship with twin diesel engines. “While we had all the original drawings from the first Pirates that largely determined the overall look of the ship, in terms of the hull design, it was an entirely new problem we had to deal with,” says Wallace.

In July 2004, the group launched into the design work for the Pearl, which had to be ready for shooting by April of the following year. Working under the flag of a mini “ship art department,” the team based the look on the first film’s Pearl, designed by production designer Brian Morris for the floating barge, and exaggerated the shape with a refined sleekness and a more swoopy and sexy stern. The design was adapted in pencil first and then brought into the computer.

After the Disney Marine Department located the Sunset, the new hull shape was crafted to both hide the Sunset within the new hull and give Heinrichs the look he wanted. Using the Auto-des-sys FormZ solids and surface modeler running on a Dell XPS laptop, Wallace and his group developed a 3D model from the initial hand drawings. The shape, modeled using NURBS lofting, enabled the designers to smooth out the hull shape and optimize the control lines. “Minimizing both the number of control points in each lofting line and minimizing the number of lofting lines created the smoothest, most efficient hull shape,” says Wallace. Afterward, they trimmed the NURBS surface to achieve the correct shape at the top of the bulwark, bow, and the gun ports.

Next, the group sent the model as an IGES file to naval architect Andy Davis of Tri-Coastal, who then imported the data into various CFD and other software that would provide data on buoyancy, weight distribution, stability, constructability, and more. Davis then ran the file through AeroHydro’s SurfaceWorks Marine/Multi­Surf, a version of SolidWorks optimized for marine applications and basic structural analysis.

“I ensured that our model was synched to [Davis’s] and then constructed the remainder of the decks, bow, and stern, and laid out the station lines, the critical reference lines that run the length of the ship that would become the steel hull structure for the vessel,” explains Wallace. (The station lines are independent of the lofting lines, since the station line spacing is a requirement of the physical, structural build for the ship.)

After the group completed the engineering, it used the FormZ NURBS model to cut the appropriate sections along the predetermined station lines that synched with the structural plans, and then printed the sections full size on a large-format printer. These sections were used as full-scale templates to cut the ribs that formed the shape of the hull, upon which two layers of marine plywood and a finish layer of planking were attached with 2-inch-wide metal strapping that ran from fore to aft.

Using the section tool in FormZ, the team cut the hull and deck sections along each station line, and imported that information into Autodesk’s AutoCAD, where the crew began the 2D construction drawing layout. According to Wallace, once the sections were cut, they became the bible for the ship. “The final FormZ model served as the definitive resource from which all the detail drawings were generated, providing a critical single point of reference from which all details were referenced,” says Wallace. “This allowed the design team to work efficiently throughout the process.”

In the end, Tri-Coastal engineered the physical hull and attached it to the Sunset. Then, all the details of the ship were applied—the bowsprit, quarter-galley windows, masts, rigging, paint, etc. After nearly five months of design and construction, the vessel was launched in November 2004 from its shipyard in Mobile, Alabama, where the Sunset had been stripped for its new role. From there, it sailed thousands of miles to its shooting destination in the southern Caribbean.
Steps in the Pearl design sequence included (from left):
the untrimmed hull, the trimmed hull, the naval architects’
reworked hull, the final trimmed hull, and the completed Pearl

The Flying Dutchman

Appearing in Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, the Flying Dutchman is a ghost ship drawn by Mark Hitchler and captained by Davy Jones. “It was the largest and most challenging ship we designed,” Heinrichs points out.

Initially, the group thought that the Dutchman would float on a barge, like the original Pearl. “There were various reasons why that didn’t work—mainly, the size and proportion of the ship would make it unstable on a barge,” says Heinrichs. “Barges, for the most part, draft a certain number of feet, and what our architect said about the Dutchman was that given the various elements of wind, surge, and swell, as well as the number of people on deck, we would have to construct a stiffened hull. And when naval architects tell you their opinion, you listen to them; they have the software programs and computer models to determine at what point a boat will tip over.”

Designed from scratch, the Dutchman had to evolve from a number of directions simultaneously. Heinrichs and Hitchler made a number of pencil sketches, using historical information for reference. The Flying Dutchman’s name and origin are taken from an old sea legend, though its look was inspired by the 17th century Dutch “fluyt” vessels and the Vasa, a Swedish warship that sank on its maiden voyage in the early 1600s but was resurrected in the early 1960s. “While the cause of the sinking is still debated today, it is clear that the extremely tall, narrow proportion of the hull was not an optimal shape for stability. But the unusual shape and eccentric decoration made it an excellent starting point for the creation of the Flying Dutchman,” says Wallace.

The Dutchman is very organic, Heinrichs points out. So this time, the crew began its computer work by generating a 3D model in NewTek’s LightWave, work that was done by Tim Flattery, who is an illustrator, not a set designer. This enabled the group to see what the complex design looked like before it got into the stringent, mechanical design process. “We did this early on and looked at the model from various points of view, to examine the overall shapes. We could rotate it, and we built a miniature from it,” says Heinrichs.

Next, the crew made an eight-inch-scale physical model so the design could be further fleshed out, particularly for all the ornamentation. At each interval, the group added more organic character to the model. “By the time we had a package of drawings together, we had been going back and forth between real dimensional models, CAD drawings, and 3D computer models, cross-pollinating among them,” explains Heinrichs.

In FormZ, designer Richard Reynolds created a NURBS model of the Dutchman’s hull, using the scale model and LightWave model as references. Similar to what it did for the Pearl, the group then sent data to Davis for stability analysis, “to ensure that our ship didn’t suffer the same fate as the original Vasa,” says Wallace. Thus, the hull was modified several times until everyone—Verbinski, the designers, and the naval architect—was satisfied with the final look and structure.

The designers cut the FormZ model along its station lines, again using FormZ drafting tools and AutoCAD, and sent the information to an engineer in the Bahamas, where the ship was ultimately constructed. After the crew completed the engineering drawings, it sent the files directly to the shipyard’s plasma cutter, where the final quarter-inch steel ribs—which created the shape for the entire vessel—were cut.

A good deal of the detail that required careful integration to the hull was developed in FormZ and synchronized to the FormZ model, including the stern gallery “beehives,” several levels, and the skeletal bowsprit. The ornamentation—the sculpture and organic elements—were crafted in Burbank, California, and shipped to the Bahamas.

In the end, the ship was so large—157 feet long and 60 feet high—that it could not fit within the shipyard’s warehouse and, thus, had to be constructed in two halves and assembled outdoors, along with the rigging, planking, and finish. Lastly, the vessel was launched and sailed (without tipping over) to its destination in the Bahamas.

“The Dutchman was the most technically complex of all the vessels, and it was a complete invention, not based on precedent from the first movie or matching another ship,” explains Wallace. “And the fact that it lived underwater meant that every surface on the ship had to be custom fabricated, including every piece of hull planking, which was made of custom-cast rubber to look like submerged, shipwrecked wood.” As a final touch, the ship was covered with seaweed, shells, and plants. While far more complex, the Dutchman took about the same amount of time to complete as the Pearl.

The Edinburgh

Early in filming, Disney had rented a ship called the Bounty (from the Mel Gibson movie of the same name), and used it as a stand-in for the Edinburgh in sailing shots. When the rental was up, the design group was asked to fashion and build a full-size duplicate. Because principal photography had not yet finished, the director needed a completely detailed ship. But there was an even bigger reason why a double was required: The Edinburgh was to be snapped in half by Kraken.

The design process, says Wallace, was very similar to that of the Dutchman, except in this case the hull was built on top of two barges that would allow the two halves of the ship to float once the ship was broken apart. Yet again, the hull and barges were modeled in FormZ, and then handed off to the engineers and special effects crew, who would devise the structural and exploding devices to allow the ship to break apart in the correct spot.

“Sure enough, when the day came for the giant Kraken arm (a steel tube filled with concrete) to be dropped on the ship, the stunt worked perfectly, creating the precise sinking motion that the director asked for and that the 3D modeling and engineering group predicted,” Wallace says.

After the Kraken scene, the ship was turned into another set, a scuttled ship that appears when the Dutchman first comes into view in Dead Man’s Chest. “Both were Kraken-attacked, so we had to repaint [the Edinburgh] and make it look like a totally different ship,” says Heinrichs.
The Empress and the Hai Ping

The most unusual ship and the last one designed and built was the Empress, a Chinese junk that appears in the last film as a Chinese pirate ship. Like the others, the Empress, along with the Hai Ping, was modeled in FormZ but constructed and reassembled directly from the FormZ drafting and AutoCAD files that the group had sent to the steel fabricator. This was because extensive naval engineering was not required.

The reason for that, says Wallace, was twofold. First, the Empress was built in Los Angeles, and Greg Callas and his construction crew were able to supply sufficient labor and resources from their home base as to negate the ship having to be built on location. Second, the art and construction departments had accumulated sufficient knowledge and experience in building four full-size ships, and by then knew how to put together the steel framework that comprised the structure of the ships. The Empress design was checked by a conventional engineer and a naval engineer for stability analysis and basic structural soundness, though this time the designers produced the engineering data in-house, which saved substantial time and streamlined the build process. 

Interestingly, the entire ship had to be completely constructed in modules that could be taken apart and fit on containers—which were shipped to the Bahamas—and then rebuilt on site on the island. So, as Wallace points out, the ship was essentially built twice.

“I worked on Pirates full time for two years. We created five full-size ships and a couple of partial ones. By the end of preproduction, when we were designing the Chinese junks, the Empress and Hai Ping, the process had become streamlined,  those designs came together fairly quickly, in a matter of a few months,” says Wallace.
Ship Ahoy

For both Heinrichs and Wallace, their work on Pirates marked the first time either had crafted ships. “The learning curve, particularly the language and the history of shipbuilding, was fascinating,” says Wallace. “Counter transoms, deadeyes, hancing pieces, sheavs—these all became part of my everyday language.”

While the boats made for unusual sets, Heinrichs doesn’t see how else the filming could have been accomplished. Indeed, the group had examined the process used on sea-oriented films, “and we learned from other production experiences,” he says. As Heinrichs points out, it is unusual and expensive to build this many ships. “If there would have been an acceptable way to do this cheaper, we would have,” he notes.

To augment the vessels in the movies, Disney rented various ships to fill out the fleet seen in the harbor, and ILM added digital ships to the Royal Navy. 

“In the last two films, Verbinski tried to correct the form from the original experience by incorporating more of a sense of adventure—and the audience feels as if it is really there watching the action unfold,” says Heinrichs. “There are helicopter shots wherein you can see the crew onboard and the ship flying through the water. He wanted the scenes to be in a real place rather than shooting it on a beach in Malibu. And in doing so, he took the audience on an exotic journey.”

So, where are these famous ships now? The Dutchman, says Heinrichs, never made it out of the Bahamas, and the hull remains at the Disney-owned island Castaway Cay. The Pearl, meanwhile, sits in a berth in Mexico, awaiting its close-up on the next film, Heinrichs says with a baiting chuckle.

“I have never worked on a project of such scale and complexity,” concludes Wallace. “The immense size of these builds and the number of people involved has rarely been done in the history of film, so it was an honor to be part of that.”

Heinrichs feels similarly, adding that the movies contained some difficult shoots, yet nothing substantial went wrong, at least not from a design standpoint of the boat sets. “When challenges arose, they had to do with other elements, and not because our set was too dangerous or there was not enough room for lighting. Those are the worst possible mistakes you could make because they shut down production.”

So, it goes without saying, that the boat designs kept these multimillion-dollar Pirates productions afloat.

Stormy Seas
Much has been made of Industrial Light & Magic’s incredible digital effects in the At World’s End maelstrom sequence. Yet, not all the action, or the boats, were digital. According to production designer Rick Heinrichs, his crew constructed replicas of the Black Pearl and Flying Dutchman decks and finished exteriors to just below deck level.
Underneath were special effects gimbals. The decks were pitched approximately 30 degrees. So it was in Palmdale, California, where most of the action for the culminating sequence unfolded. In general, the close-ups were filmed on the decks of the FormZ-designed boats; the distant action unfolded through visual effects. —KM  

Karen Moltenbrey is chief editor of Computer Graphics World.