I am a very blessed human being in that I have a host of wonderful friends who appreciate succulent meals and mind-blowing aesthetics as much as I do. So naturally we have a lot of boozy potluck movie nights. And there is so much appreciative screaming.
This past weekend, our entourage chose the eloquent theme of “Caribbean stuff and guac and pirates” (the guac and mojitos were AMAZING by the way–I’ll snap a picture next time. No camera yet…curse you shipping time). But that didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was how incredibly beautiful the images and shots in the original Pirates of the Caribbean really are.
I saw this movie for the first time when I was in 8th grade (I had just gotten my first camera, a little Canon 4MP point-and-shoot, and was beginning to have thoughts like “that is a good picture” “that is a bad picture”). Admittedly, I saw this movie four times in theaters. I was obsessed. So was my best friend. It had Johnny Depp (*swoon*), boats (I’m from Arizona. Water is mysterious and magical. And possibly a myth.), a badass lady (yeah Elizabeth) who happened to share a name with my best friend, incredible period costumes, Johnny Depp (*still swooning*), the best movie score ever made in the history of ever, and something downright stunning about the visuals that kept me coming back for more. And until this viewing of the film, I never got why I loved the look so much.
Obviously we all enjoyed Captain Jack’s dramatic entrance in this scene, but look at the placement of those boats. Besides the logistics of getting all these boats in place to get Jack beautifully framed in the middle with his sail under the other boats’ hulls, the stacked boats of similar size gives a much better sense of the vastness of this ocean space than if the space had been empty. What’s even more interesting though, is that the background boats are all in relatively sharp focus. There is of course some blur to differentiate foreground from non-foreground, but I can still make the checkers in the wood paneling of the boat in on the far left. This is the key to the visuals of this film:
Deep space. Deep Focus.
The biggest thing this choice does for me is it allows me to SEE in a way a lot of films don’t. Looking at Jack coming in, I can choose to look at the space instead of him–it isn’t so blurry I don’t get anything out of it. Pirates also has a lot of these wider shots that encourage looking at the beautiful locations, which encourages me to transport myself to elsewhere, to disappear into fantasy.
But more than that, it encourages looking outward–toward the horizon, toward the sea, pushing past what’s in front of you. Hey wait, that’s pirates, isn’t it? Adventure. Exploration. Pushing the boundaries, always asking for more. What beloved character in this film doesn’t do those things?
In any of the location establishing shots, there’s a buzz of activity with incredible detail in the foreground, but you never lose that much in the background. In the screenshot above, the rowboat to the left isn’t that much blurrier than the one to the center left, and I can see individual branches and such in the tress in the background. Pirates also constantly uses deep space–having activity going on in various planes reaching into the background–in its wider exterior shots. And it’s gorgeous. It makes me feel like I’m there. Like I’m looking around. Like I’m with the characters. Which makes it so much easier to slip into this adventure and so much more painful THAT I CAN NEVER BE A PIRATE.
This technique lives in the medium shots, too–
Besides having a badass lady-pirate with so much swag even Jack might have to make a run for his money, this shot has a clear focal point (Anna-Maria) while not really losing any detail in the other objects or people. The guy in the way back (about center frame) is still mostly in focus. Even Jack, who dirties the frame in this case, isn’t that blurred: I can still see his eyelashes and the folds in his hat. While this slight blurring makes it easier to read the image, it also allows your eye to look around more naturally. Obviously this shot is composed (and beautifully so) but it gives the illusion of something you could actually see with your eyes instead of with a lens. And that’s the majority of the movie–that’s where that seductive magic comes from. THAT’S WHY I WANT TO GO THERE SO BADLY.
And even the moments where Pirates breaks from it’s horizon-seeking deep space adventure shots, there’s a sense of openness.
Even though I’m clearly meant to focus on the hat, I can still see the items in the background clearly, compared to a lot of present day shallow depth of field where the background goes nearly entirely abstract. I’m still curious what’s out of the frame, and I still have that push to SEE everything, to keep eating it up, to keep moving. To be a pirate. The same happens with close-ups.
The gun in the foreground is as blurry as it gets in this movie. And it’s pretty blurry. But I also get the shoulder, face, and hair all in the same plane of focus. I get to SEE what I’m looking at. But I still get to see the space. There’s that beautiful light filtering in from the back, and those locks on the post to the right. My imagination is still seizing the opportunity to explore, to run off and have an adventure. And the cinematography lets me do that.
This is certainly one of my favorite films of all time, and there’s something satisfying about being able to articulate why it was and continues to be so good at enchanting me and making me want to be a part of this story so badly that there’s actual longing pain inside of me. Beautiful images are one thing, and certainly something to be appreciated, but images that do something are another beast entirely. Form follows content. My favorite art adage But it’s true. And man did they knock it out of the park with this one.
Pirates of the Caribbean is a 2003 film directed by Gore Verbinski. The Director of Photography was Dariusz Wolski, who is also responsible for the rest of the Pirates franchise, Prometheus, The Rum Diaries, Eagle Eye, and Sweeney Todd. All images in this post are screencaps from the movie.