Pirates 5 VFX interview: How Terminator Genisys lessons improved young Jack Sparrow (exclusive)

Tom Butler
Senior Editor
The same VFX team who did young Arnie also did young Depp in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge’ (Disney/Paramount/Universal)

‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge’ (or ‘Pirates 5’ for brevity’s sake) showed us a new side to Jack Sparrow that we haven’t seen before: as a young man, before he became a pirate Captain. Except we have seen Johnny Depp – the actor who’s played Sparrow in all five ‘Pirates films – like that before: in 1990’s ‘Cry-Baby’.

Gary Brozenich, the visual effects supervisor on ‘Pirates 5’ at London-based visual effects company MPC (Moving Picture Company), says they used Johnny Depp’s likeness in the John Waters classic as a visual reference for the de-aged sequence that explored the origins of Captain Salazar’s beef with Jack Sparrow. Depp was 27 when he played greaser gang leader Cry-Baby, but Brozenich admits there was pressure to push Jack Sparrow to an even younger age.

“What typically happens,” Brozenich told Yahoo Movies, “and this is often the way that these processes go, is that once you get to that age people want to squeeze it a little younger.”

Young Jack Sparrow as glimpsed in one of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge’ trailers (Disney)

The Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor worked alongside MPC’s Sheldon Stopsack to achieve the CG “youthification” effect on Johnny Depp. Both men also worked on 2015’s ‘Terminator Genisys’ which restored Arnold Schwarzenegger back to his 1984 ‘The Terminator’ prime, but the filmmakers decided a new tack was needed for ‘Pirates 5’

“It was a very different approach to what was done in ‘Terminator Genisys’,” Stopsack told us.

How Kurt Russell was de-aged for Guardians Vol. 2
Actors who nearly played Jack Sparrow

Where ‘Genisys’ sought to digitally recreate a 37-year-old Arnie from scratch using body doubles on set for reference, the VFX supervisors opted to deploy CG digital makeup atop a real Johnny Depp performance for ‘Salazar’s Revenge’.

“When the idea came up to do that type of work, to me the approach that was taken for ‘Terminator Genisys’ was not necessarily the right approach,” Brozenich expanded. “I think that there were some significant differences just in terms of what the requirement was in the expectation and the performance.”

Young Jack springs into action (Disney)

Part of that expectation is Depp’s distinctive performance as Jack Sparrow. Anyone who’s had an interaction with a Covent Garden Jack Sparrow lookalike can attest: only Johnny Depp can truly do a convincing Jack Sparrow. The bulk of the de-ageing work was carried out by VFX house Lola who recently de-aged Kurt Russell for ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’.

“[Lola’s] approach is to get the actual actor to do the actual performance and then they work on top of that. So underneath everything that you’re seeing there, it isn’t like he’s a computer-generated Johnny Depp, it’s actually Johnny Depp’s performance of Jack Sparrow manipulated to look like a younger version of himself,” Brozenich explained.

“So it’s his eyes, his mouth, his lips. They’re enhanced but that is the actual man underneath it. For me the big difference [with ‘Terminator Genisys’] is that audiences are so in tune with Jack Sparrow, and it’s all about his performance – there’s no way to replace that. No matter how good you are technically, to try to recreate that spirit is not something that I never wanted to go near.”

CG Arnold in ‘Terminator Genisys’ (Paramount)

Depp shot his flashback scenes as the young Jack Sparrow, and then a younger body double was brought in to copy them, giving them a skin-tone reference for a younger man. All those elements were then combined to give us the de-aged Jack Sparrow we see in the film.

There are over 2000 visual effects shots in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge’, many of which a casual cinema-goer will never be able to spot, but both filmmakers agree that the most complicated effect to achieve was simply water.

“We had to deal with a broad range of water and water simulations,” Stopsack explained. “From the wide open oceans, to extensions of oceans, and the other stuff that needed to be art directable, and that enters the supernatural, artificial behaviour of water which is a very different beast.”

“There are certain shots in the film where the creation of the water probably had an artist or two artists working on it for upwards of four or five months, just to get that one component right,” adds Brozenich. “That’s something that often gets overlooked. They go by so quickly in the film – the average shot is 3-4 seconds – you blink and it’s over, but underneath it all there’s a huge amount of development at work.”

‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge’ is in cinemas now.

Watch: Jerry Bruckheimer explains how Paul McCartney’s ‘Pirates 5’ came about…


Read more
Pirates 5 crosses $500m
Bruckheimer: No Depp, no more Pirates
Actor ‘too fat’ to play obese supervillain