'Pirates' finds treasures in SoCal

Shipwreck at Santa Maria beach, whirlpool at Palmdale airport

It turns out that the "world's end" in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" is in Southern California.

While the majority of the first two films in the Walt Disney Co.'s billion-dollar franchise were shot in the Caribbean locales of the Bahamas and Dominica, a good chunk of "At World's End" was shot closer to home, not only on studio stages but also in areas just outside Los Angeles — with a quick jaunt to Utah thrown in for good measure.

"The things that we could shoot here, we absolutely brought back to Los Angeles," said Eric McLeod, who executive produced both "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and "At World's End."

Shipping the Black Pearl last year via the Panama Canal, the production moored the ship in 70 feet- 80 feet of water off the coast of Palos Verdes and Redondo Beach, shooting nonaction scenes and exciting the paparazzi that gathered onshore. The filmmakers also shot on the beaches near Santa Maria, north of Santa Barbara, for a shipwreck scene.

The key reason for the move was a 40-minute climactic sequence involving two ships battling in the maelstrom of a violent whirlpool.

"I was planning that sequence before I started shooting 'Pirates 2,' " director Gore Verbinski said. "Doing storyboards, previsualization, cutting it to music. When you break something like that down, it becomes a shot-specific conversation."

It was a sequence that involved full-size replicas of the movies' Black Pearl and Flying Dutchman, not to mention greenscreens, rain machines and wind fans.

"This was something we couldn't do in the Bahamas or (off the coast of) Los Angeles because it's quite the storm," McLeod said. "We needed size. We explored stages at Disney and Universal and Sony — and nothing. These ships are about 130 feet long and, with the gimbal and the mast, they are sitting almost 60 feet tall, plus you need lighting and the rain system sitting above all that."

The production found the required space in two huge hangars at the Palmdale Regional Airport. Referred to as Site 9, the facility is owned by the City of Los Angeles World Airports. The hangars had been sitting empty as the city looked for an aeronautical tenant until a location manager had a brainstorm that they could be used for filming. The hangars, measuring 332,000 and 202,000 square feet, respectively, had been used once before: Steven Spielberg built an airport in them for "The Terminal."

For several months last year, the facility became home to a 225-by-225-square-foot greenscreen, four full ships on gimbals that rocked side to side and a huge sprinkler and filtration system that pumped massive amounts of water and then collected it back up again.

The production fully engaged three local hotels and used several more for overflow, generating more than $1 million in hotel revenue, local officials said.

In the end, however, shooting close to home was about more than just economics.

"Between 'Pirates 2' and 'Pirates 3,' our shooting schedule went on for almost two years," McLeod said. "To know who your kids are and to stay married, you need to, you want to, stay as close to home as possible."