Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl shot by Dariusz Wolski, ASC

Ever since I first saw this film when it came out in 2003, it’s been one of my favorites. After revisiting it recently, I realized it’s not just a swashbuckling pirate adventure story, but quite humorous as well. Dariusz Wolski, ASC does an awesome job telling the story through the visuals. He is not afraid of overexposure or underexposure the blacks are inky and some of the highlights are completely blown out! He creates a moody look to tell a dramatic story. The film is full of calculated camera movement, chiefly, push ins (via Technocrane and dolly). There’s minimal handheld work– just during battle sequences. I noticed quite a few POV shots (or close to POV) that help the audience feel like they are experiencing the adventure along with the characters. The editing utilizes sounds to move from one shot or scene to the next. Last, but not least, the score is one of best soundtracks written for film. 

The look of the film comes from environments and period lighting. Aboard The Black Pearl, Captain Barbosa is amidst candle light and darkness.

Technical Data

Cinematographer – Dariusz Wolski, ASC

Camera & Lenses – Panavision cameras and Primos

Acquisition – 35mm Spherical: Eastman EXR 50D 5245, Kodak Vision 320T 5277

Aspect Ratio – 2.35:1


The color contrast of the fire look and moon look in the same shot.

This is the cyan look of water scenes

The color of the film comes from the lighting, which is stipulated by the setting of each scene. A lot of the film takes place at night and has a warm look with the fire, or cool look if it’s under moonlight. As a general rule, when we move through the story each scene is followed by the opposite look– cool, then warm, then cool again (it’s not a concrete pattern, but a generalization I noticed). This creates a color contrast so the viewer doesn’t get used to one color for the whole film. Wolski uses color contrast in shots as well having a firelight and moonlight look in the same shot (see above photo).

Here’s the general look as stipulated by their environment:

Sun – “natural” look; very neutral

Fire – yellow/orange; pushed warmer

Moon – blue / green; pushed cooler

Water – cyan (unless lit by the moon)

Warm yellow/orange look of fire: Here the scene is 'lit' by candle light. Take note of the waveform: everything is under 60IRE except the candle.

Cool blue/green look of moonlight: This is underwater, but the moonlight is more important than the water aspect, therefore the grade has the moonlight look. 



Candles are blown out, the blacks are inky and this shot has the firelight color scheme. Take note of the edgelight on Gibbs (left) and the silhouette on the right of Jack (right).

The overall lighting style of this film is backlighting with fill about 1 stop under. Almost every scene is backlit– whether day exterior, night exterior, or even the interiors. When characters are not backlit, Wolski separates them from the background through silhouette. This is done primarily in the night scenes. He lights the atmospheric fog and lets the character in front fall off to darkness. The more I study lighting, the more I see the importance of silhouette. Cinematography is not just lighting, but the absence of light.

Being a period piece, lighting is motivated from the sun, the moon, and firelight. Moonlight plays a key role in the story, so this has a special place in the color scheme and is carried throughout a majority of the film. Night exteriors tend to be backlit, but also have a night ambiance, which is about 3 stops under.

The moonlight ambiance in the last battle sequence is 3 stops under.

Dark scenes are typically under 50IRE; with a few highlights over that. Wolski really loves playing in the dark, which is probably why I love this film so much.

Skin tones are almost always exposed at 30IRE, but range from 20-40 IRE. The fill side tends to be 1 stop under the key side, but goes down to a 3 stop difference in some scenes, depending on the emotion of the scene.


The camera doesn't move...

Shot Breakdown

But Barbosa spins his head into a light. Awesome blocking! Simple, but effective.

As I scrubbed through Premiere while studying this film, I noticed a really dynamic shot. It’s very simple, but sometimes the simplest shots can convey tons of meaning.  * Spoiler Alert * When Barbosa is shot we go right to his face in a close up locked off. He’s side lit from the right with the moon look. He quickly turns to his head to face killer. He is perfectly lit very dramatically by a three-quarter backlight that becomes a sidelight. This is a big moment for him in the film, and I loved the simple lighting, and camera placement that was able to capture the emotion of the moment.