Watch Our 2022 NAB Show Session: Virtual Production and Visual Effects on HBO Max’s “Our Flag Means Death”
Show creator David Jenkins pitched a workplace comedy about pirates to Taika Waititi and his old Flight of the Conchords and What We Do In The Shadows collaborator Rhys Darby, but with one huge difference. They didn’t need to go to sea to make it.
Jenkins didn’t mean shooting in tanks like they did for the film Master and Commander (for that film they also bought a three-masted frigate to shoot at sea, even rounding Cape Horn). Jenkins was talking about employing an LED volume where the majority of the action could take place.
He shared his thought process with Jack Giroux at Slash Film. “You’re like, ‘Oh, they’re on water the whole time. Oh. How are we going to shoot this?’ We came up with a poor man’s version of The Mandalorian, where we had this giant LED screen around the ship and they just went with it.”
READ MORE: Our Flag Means Death Creator David Jenkins On The Freedom Of Not Doing Research (Slash Film)
This poor man’s version was actually based on a massive 30-foot by 160-foot LED wall designed to surround the practical pirate ship built on set.
Now streaming its first season on HBO Max, Our Flag Means Death features Waititi and Darby as two very different types of pirate, but both grounded in history, as Polygon’s Tasha Robinson explains: “The show’s silly confrontations, outsized characters, and weird story developments are all drawn from real history. Stede Bonnet, the ‘Gentleman Pirate,’ played by Darby was an actual 18th-century plantation owner who abandoned his wife and children, bought a ship, declared himself its captain in spite of his lack of nautical experience.
“He did in fact wind up partnering with Blackbeard — played by Waititi, in a troubled relationship seemingly designed to fuel plot twists.”
READ MORE: Taika Waititi warns that his pirate show Our Flag Means Death might turn viewers into pirates (Polygon)
The two stars were keen to play the parts and perhaps even realize a new dawn for pirate-based comedy (there had never been a really good one because of the troubles of shooting at sea). Carly Lane at Collider thought that the show hit the right tone, “Our Flag Means Death tackles a blend of fictional characters positioned opposite of actual historic figures, and the results are the equivalent of a comedic treasure chest overflowing with one-liner gems and some surprisingly tender moments between its leads to boot.”
READ MORE: ‘Our Flag Means Death’ Review: A Raucously Funny, Surprisingly Moving Maiden Voyage Collider)
The secret of its success is quickly revealed to be the chemistry between the two leads, Darby and Waititi. “…but where the series actually offers one of its biggest surprises is by shifting the relationship between them to something that isn’t antagonistic but looks a whole lot more like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Robinson, in her review, agrees that this is where the magic is, “…in particular, Darby and Waititi’s performances just keep getting better and more nuanced as the show unfolds. Once the show moves into deeper waters both men put so much charm and nuance into these characters that the series would be worth watching just to see them interact.”
Mashable’s Belen Edwards thought that the show would work even without the historical association, “Overall, Our Flag Means Death reimagines elements of the pirate genre to create a gem of a comedy series. It manages to be equal parts swashbuckling adventure, sitcom, and character study. Whether you’re a pirate expert or you’ve never heard of Blackbeard in your life, you won’t regret setting sail with Captain Stede Bonnet and his crew.”
READ MORE: ‘Our Flag Means Death’ review: Taika Waititi’s pirate comedy is a swashbuckling success (Mashable)
Jenkins, the show’s creator, and star Waititi had admitted that the pirate theme wasn’t one that they had the biggest confidence in, but they hoped the lure of the historical connection would chime with the audience.
Jenkins told Cheryl Eddy at Gizmodo how he thought that Stede’s story would be relatable, “Hearing about this guy and reading about him and seeing that, you know, he left his family, then he met Blackbeard, they hit it off, and we don’t know any of the details in between. So filling those blanks in, and having a very human story, and then being able to do it with the pirate genre, that was like, ‘Oh, this would be cool.’
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“In designing the show, I was conscious [of the fact that it’s] a hard genre to do anything to. It’s a very stubborn genre because it’s been done so well and so often.”
But ultimately the pull of the show is maybe something to do with a freedom that we all treasure, as Jenkins explained to Mashable, “It’s a crime spree,” says Jenkins. “I think that’s what’s interesting about it to me. There’s a Bonnie and Clyde quality to this life, where they just decided to live really hard and die quickly. And wow, what a choice to make.”
Once the virtual production aspect of the show had been decided on, the production team next had to determine how to create a kind-of period comedy that delivered the realism of being on the open sea. But the sea is vast, and figuring out what would be most believable became a big challenge.
It fell to Sam Nicholson and his visual effects team at Stargate Studios to capture ultra-high-resolution imagery of actual ocean footage with the intention of stitching together multiple plates, then displaying the imagery on the LED wall.
As Nicholson told NAB Amplify, “We tend to take impossible tasks and make them possible. How to shoot stable 48K 360-degree plates from a boat off Puerto Rico is complex problem solving to the extreme.”
In the beginning, Nicholson’s team shot HDR plates with a 360-degree, eight camera rig comprised of Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pros at 45-degree increments. Continuing the shoot in Puerto Rico, Nicholson refined the process with a 270-degree capture, multi-camera array, which provided better control and even higher resolution.
The Stargate team synchronized five Blackmagic Design URSA Mini 12K cameras for a total horizontal resolution of 60K. Recording directly to multiple SanDisk 4TB SSDs on board the 12K cameras, the team shot Blackmagic RAW, which allowed real-time playback in DaVinci Resolve Studio at multiple resolutions.
In preparation, the Stargate team processed the footage, stitching each camera together in DaVinci Resolve Studio, then created a live feed from multiple Resolves through the Blackmagic Design ATEM Constellation 8K switcher. The final color timed composite was then fed into Epic’s Unreal 4 game engine for camera tracking and off-axis distribution to the 20K LED wall.
Nicholson knew he had a successful effect from the LED volume when the HBO executives came for a visit. “They came to the ship set to check-up on the progress. When we hit playback and they started feeling seasick, I knew we had done our job correctly.”