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And the Academy goes to ...

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May 10, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Rick Heinrichs’ first job more than 30 years ago was serving up food at Mister Up’s Restaurant in Middlebury.

On May 25, Heinrichs — now an Academy Award winning production designer — will help serve up the latest installment of the wildly popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” film series on which he worked in such exotic locales as the Bahamas.

Heinrichs, a former Shoreham resident, was in Middlebury late last week to give some cinema-related pointers to dozens of aspiring actors and film production students at the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center’s Addison Repertory Theater (A.R.T.).

During a far-ranging presentation that included projection images of the soon-to-be-released “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” Heinrichs recounted the challenges of creating the sets and props that breathe life into today’s multi-million-dollar blockbusters.

“The idea of creating these different worlds in film and giving the audience an immersion in a new environment is great,” Heinrichs said.

He has drawn inspiration from many of the places he’s lived, including Vermont.

His grandfather, Waldo Heinrichs Sr., taught a course called “History of Western Civilization” for many years at Middlebury College. His mother’s folks (Wesley and Ginger Larrabee) have been farmers in Shoreham. Heinrichs’ parents built a home in Shoreham in 1972. While they have since retired to western Massachusetts, Heinrichs occasionally feels the tug back to Addison County where he still has family and friends — among them, A.R.T. Director Steve Small.

“Whenever I’m in town, Steve tries to get me in here, and it’s a fun thing to do,” said Heinrichs, who currently lives in Los Angeles.

Heinrichs was a teenager when he knew he wanted to work in the film industry, but he was particularly drawn to animation. He developed that interest first as a fine arts program undergraduate at Boston University, then at the California Institute of the Arts.

He got his foot into the door of the film industry while working at Disney Studios, where he would meet some of the current marquee names — including director Tim Burton, with whom he has collaborated on several projects. It’s a partnership that would pay big dividends for Heinrichs, who in 2000 achieved the pinnacle in his craft — an Academy Award, for production design in Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow.” He’s received Oscar nominations for two other films since then — “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” and just last year for “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”

As a production designer, Heinrichs’ job is to create all the environments in a live-action film. He and a team of artists, drafters, computer experts and set builders design “the look” of the movie.

“You’re collaborating with the director and presenting the concepts of what the world of the movie looks like,” Heinrichs explained to the A.R.T. students. “It’s a back and forth process.”

He helped create the hazy, macabre aura that permeated “Sleepy Hollow,” as well as the dark, urban landscape of “Batman Returns.” The rubber duck in Heinrich’s bathroom served as the model for the boat used by the Penguin in the Batman film, which starred Michael Keaton in the lead role.

Most recently, he’s been instrumental in creating the swashbuckling backdrops to the second and third chapters of the “Pirates” movie trilogy. Heinrichs made sure the high-seas tales had an authentic 18th-century feel, from costuming to the multi-million-dollar ship reproductions (the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman) that are at the center of the action.

He spent a total of three years working on the two Pirates movies, beginning the project in June of 2004.

The second chapter of the trilogy was shown at movie theaters last spring, and ended with one of the main characters — Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) seemingly being devoured by the “Kraken,” a mythical monster that had been summoned by villain Davey Jones.

Heinrichs told students that the third chapter, titled “At World’s End,” picks up the story in 18th century Singapore, where a new pirate character, played by actor Chow Yun-Fat, is brought into the fold.

After rescuing Sparrow from the Kraken, the main characters — Elizabeth (Kiera Knightly), Will (Orlando Bloom), Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Depp — participate in a “pirates last stand” against Davey Jones, the East India Trading Company and other forces seeking to wipe pirates off the face of the earth.

“The third movie does have a different look — intentionally so,” said Heinrichs. “There are actually more mental landscapes, if you will. We discover, of course, that Jack’s not dead … But he is in a very weird place. We explore what’s going on in Jack’s mind, in a very humorous way. We are in purgatory and we are in very bizarre, graphic landscapes. It has a more graphic look to it, which I associate with Asian art and architecture.”

It was up to Heinrichs and his creative team to devise those landscapes, which included primitive huts on stilts, a raging battle between two ships at the center of an ocean whirlpool, and a ship graveyard.

“(Pirates Director) Gore (Verbiniski) wanted a trailer park for retired pirates,” he said of the ship graveyard.

One of his many challenges was imagining the look of 18th-century Singapore. He noted that there are few drawings or depictions of how that city — now a modern marvel — looked more than 200 years ago.

“We conceived of this so-called half-water-based, half-land-based set — and it’s all one set, built on a stage at Universal (Studios),” Heinrichs said, as he showed overhead photos of the set drawings and models. While much of the movie was shot in the open air and on the high seas, indoor sets, Heinrichs noted, gave Verbiniski the ability to control lighting and other important variables.

One of those indoor sets was a primitive bathhouse, Heinrichs said, as a photo of a dank, mushroom-infested room featuring a communal bath popped onto the screen.

“It was originally conceived as kind of a refined place, but (the director) went the other way,” Heinrichs said with a chuckle.

The “Pirates” experience forced Heinrichs to become very familiar with nautical terminology and boatbuilding.

“Not only had I not done European ships, I had never done (Asian) junks before,” Heinrichs said. “It was such fun; they were such cool ships.”

Cool ships rendered even cooler with some special design flourishes that Heinrichs and his team were able to design — particularly to the rear of each ship. Elaborate carvings of maidens, as well as glaring human and inhuman faces, lend a sense of classic ferocity to the tricked-out vessels.

While he wasn’t always on the set, Heinrichs often got a first-hand glimpse of the movie’s stars and the action. He called his experiences on the Pirates shoot in the Caribbean some of the best in his career.

“I think it’s going to be pretty good,” Heinrichs said of the movie.

Of course, he won’t know until the film hits the theaters. Heinrichs hasn’t yet seen a final cut.

“You might get a sense that (the movie) is not working out, but the truth of the matter is, you can’t tell how it will all come together.”

He recalled working on the visual effects of the film “Beetle Juice,” and seeing an early cut of the movie and “being crushed and depressed” by what he saw. But when he saw the final cut in the theater, he thought, “this is great,” because it had been reformed and worked better.

“You just can’t let yourself get too worried about what the final product is,” Heinrichs said.

He left the local theater/film students with the following career advice:

“I would just recommend that people figure out what ‘rings their chimes,’ and pursue that, and watch what opens up,” Heinrichs said. “It may take you in unexpected directions. You almost always end up taking a leap one way or another, and figuring it out from there.”

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