I guarantee you’ve never seen a pirate movie like Our Flag Means Death, and the special effects that go with it will totally fool your eyes. The creators of these special effects explained their process and technological marvels at this year’s National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show.
The NAB Show took place April 23–27 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. It brought together broadcasters from 155 countries to learn about the technology and training needed to stay on the cutting edge of digital-age video production.
Our Flag Means Death, a 10-episode comedy series on HBO Max, places an effete English gentleman in charge of a pirate ship. Played by comedian/actor Rhys Darby, he approaches his command like a modern-day human resources manager. The appeal of the show’s social-satire concept has attracted comedy standouts such as Fred Armisen (Portlandia) and Leslie Jones (Saturday Night Live) to come aboard.
During the NAB session Sam Nicholson, the Virtual Production Designer from Stargate Studios, and Visual Effects Supervisor David Van Dyke explained how they brought the pirate world to life and how creatives could use these new techniques to infuse their productions with realism.
Old Way vs New Way
The worlds of visual effects and live action production have traditionally lived in two different places on a project’s timeline. Actors often played their roles in front of “green screens,” blank backgrounds, with visuals filled in later. Now, however, technologies such as 12k cameras and massive LED screens can surround the actors in virtual worlds which can be recorded at the same time as the actors play their parts. The new techniques blend the worlds of live action and special effects as they have never been blended in the past.
Nicholson explained that this helps in two ways. The director and cinematographer can see exactly what the finished work will look like, instead of hoping it will work when the special effects are done later. For the actors it creates an inspirational environment. He recalled a production done years ago against a green screen in which the actors were all supposed to be shooting at a plane in the sky. It was so difficult to get them all aiming and looking in the same direction that the director gave up and cut the scene. That wouldn’t have been a problem in front of a modern LED background where they really could see the plane.
Making Our Flag
Nicolson, who has been working in special effects since Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, shared that HBO did not want to shoot on the water. Definitely a challenge for a series about pirates. The answer: virtual production.
Nicolson said, “With virtual production we have a new tool. How do we best use it? With every new tool people think it’s going to solve everything. We come in and look at a script and figure what to attempt and, more important, what not to attempt in virtual production.”
Van Dyke brought up the tight schedule. “We had only six weeks to prepare. Sam and his team went to Puerto Rico to shoot footage of the ocean. When you shoot water with multiple cameras it’s hard to stitch the separate videos into one. We had to get it together and it was a little tight.”
Nicolson agreed. He said, “There’s never enough time. In 40 years, I’ve never had enough time and money. The unique thing about the beautiful world of Our Flag Means Death is that we had full resolution across the entire wall. There is an edge, however, to the virtual universe. So, from where the LED screen ended, we surrounded the entire area with green screen in case they wanted a quick reversal.”
Van Dyke also recounted how one shot overlapped both the LED screen and the green screen. He got director Taika Waititi to place actor Kristian Nairn, who plays Wee John Feeney, where the screens met, hiding the seam. That made it easier to combine the two different special effects later.
New technologies bring benefits, but can also scare people. Nicolson said, “Every studio exec is terrified of technology that can shut down the shoot. In 14 weeks, we had zero downtime. I equate it to a stage performance because you have to practice like hell ahead of time.”
Van Dyke concurred: “You always need a Plan B or even a Plan C.”
The ship used for Our Flag Means Death also brought special effects into play. It broke into three parts so it could be reconfigured in different ways. The same ship appears on screen in its pirate, English, and French versions. Even shots of small boats, which the actors appear to be rowing, were shot in-studio with people pushing them on wheels. Nicolson recalled that the only challenge with that was actors disagreeing over the proper rowing technique.
Van Dyke recalled that the only time the cast had to deal with the real ocean was in an episode where the pirate ship has run aground. He said that they gave the actors something to push against on the beach so it would look like they were pushing the ship back into the water.
Nicolson concluded with some encouragement for new filmmakers. He said, “The tools are getting easier to use. So don’t be afraid if you don’t have a five-thousand-dollar camera with a five-thousand-dollar lens. If you can make it look good with your cell phone, that’s great.”