From zombies to mermaids, the new film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides has it all. Directed by Rob Marshall and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the fourth installment in the franchise sees Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) forced aboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge—a ship helmed by the pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane)—by the beautiful Angelica (Penélope Cruz) to find the Fountain of Youth.
To create some of the film’s distinctive visual elements, the production enlisted some of Hollywood’s top concept artists, notably Miles Teves, who has also done work for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Watchmen and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Teves recently agreed to speak about and share some of his work for the film, including several exclusive images.
“I originally got a call from the production designer, who said I came recommended for doing character work, and they had mermaids to design and zombies and Blackbeard and voodoo dolls, that kind of stuff. When they found out I could draw props as well, I ended up designing some props. After I was finished, Rob Marshall asked me to come back and draw versions of actors in their costumes, because it would help him visualize the characters.”
“With the zombies I designed for the film, they just wanted some interesting characters. I really wasn’t given any guidelines; they said, ‘Just brainstorm and draw us a bunch of zombies!’ So I thought, ‘OK, what about an albino zombie? What about an African one?’ I think it was mentioned that they would be made up of all ethnicities, so I took a crack at all of the ethnicities I could think of.”
“The production didn’t want these zombies to be rotting. And they didn’t want any of them to resemble the zombies we saw in the first film, which weren’t technically zombies even though most people would say they were the living dead. So I thought, ‘Why don’t we hearken back to some of the really old-style zombies where they had some authenticity to them based on voodoo?’ That’s what led the design.”
“I started looking through pictures of Cuba and what people do with themselves down there, so there was some scarification and some tattoos, so I incorporated those elements into my designs. I also thought about an old episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker; there was a zombie episode, where the idea was they would put salt in their mouths and stitch their mouths closed, so that started the theme of having stitching on their faces, the corners of their mouths and eyes.” “You can’t have more fun than being told, ‘Draw a bunch of zombies for us; the sky is the limit!’ but they did tell me to keep in mind that they were going to be make-ups. They didn’t want to do the CG route, so I drew them with make-ups in mind. Joel Harlow came through our department at one point and said, ‘I like your stuff and I’m going to try to be as faithful to it as possible!’ but I have no idea how many of those characters ended up in the film.”“There was one character called Black Caesar who was a real character out of history. He was an African guy who was Blackbeard’s sidekick who he [Blackbeard] dubbed Black Caesar, so I created that character, but I don’t think he made it in. Nobody urged me to do research or to be authentic about anything; I just tried to bring some authenticity to it—as authentic as you can be with zombies!”
“One day they came in and said, ‘Blackbeard is going to be Ian McShane; we’re talking to him right now!’ and I was as excited as hell, because I’m a big Deadwood fan. Is there anybody who plays a better villain than Ian McShane? Penny Rose, the costume designer, said, ‘If Jack Sparrow is rock and roll, Blackbeard is going to be biker chic,’ so I thought, black leather, chains, studs and all black. I also gave him a bandolier full of pistols, but that eventually got tossed out.
“The mermaids were a really confusing process. The production designer let me take a stab at them for a few days and I would occasionally go back to the mermaids, but at that point they were getting input from a lot of different artists. They were supposed to be one thing when they were underwater and another thing out of water, and they wanted them to be wild, extreme-looking creatures that were kind of frightening, but I think they ultimately reined them in.
“With Astrid’s character, she was supposed to become less fishlike and more human as she emerged from the water, but there was a question of just how much fish skin was going to be seen on her, so I came up with lots of different patterns.
“There was some concern that she might look like she was wearing some kind of high-fashion dress where they do that kind of patterning with the skin showing through. So they wanted me to come up with different variations to try and make it look almost like a camouflage pattern, like an amphibian might have.
“I would say I’m probably happiest with the character drawings I did for Ian McShane as Blackbeard and Penélope Cruz as Angelica. I also did a couple of drawings for the actor who played the priest. They were originally going for a young French actor, but they chose a British actor in the end. So it was the character drawings—and the zombie drawings, of course—which were a lot of fun to do.
“The thing I’ll say about Jerry Bruckheimer is that he really understands the value of concept art. He gives the artists a lot of free rein to come up with ideas because he knows these summer films are very visually driven and that you can get good ideas out of concept artists and illustrators like me if they let us run wild. On this film, there was an extraordinary amount of hand drawing done, which is rare these days.”