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Sailing the LED Stage Seas of ‘Our Flag Means Death’

For Production VFX Supervisor David Van Dyke, Season 2 of Taika Waititi’s hit Max series saw fewer visual effects shots but more efficient virtual production that included use of a library of panoramic background location and sky shots as well as a re-configured LED Volume, known as the ‘J.’ 

The Max Original comedy, Our Flag Means Death, is very loosely based on the true adventures of 18th-century would-be pirate Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), who traded in his seemingly charmed life of a wealthy gentleman for one of swashbuckling buccaneering on the high seas. Created by David Jenkins, who also showruns, and executive produced by Taika Waititi (who stars as the pirate Blackbeard) and Garrett Basch, the show, which just finished its second season run on Max, tells the story of Bonnet, how he became captain of the pirate ship Revenge, and how while struggling to earn the respect of his potentially mutinous crew, his fortunes changed after a fateful run-in with the infamous Captain Blackbeard. To their surprise, the wildly different captains found more than friendship on the high seas… they found – and had to survive – love.

Captaining the series’ visual effects production was Production VFX Supervisor David Van Dyke. And while Season 2 has two fewer episodes compared to Season 1, the sophomore outing saw half the number of VFX shots.  Which meant production took advantage of lessons learned, and processes streamlined, compared to the previous year. According to Van Dyke, “On the visual effects that we did this year, as opposed to Season 1, our process has been more refined, though it's the same approach and concept for the most part. We literally, almost exactly, had half the number of VFX shots we had in Season 1. There are also 8 episodes versus 10 episodes, but Season 1 had over 1,800 shots, and this season had a little over 900 shots. Now, I would say that in Season 1, a large fraction of those 1,800 were just kind of... how do I say this… I don't want to say sloppy, but just not quite having all the knowledge we had that we gained in the first season. So, on Season 2, there are still CG ships, and we are still using a virtual set. But a lot of that is to build efficiencies for a show that is essentially The Office on a Pirate ship, which is a very simplistic way of thinking of it, but if you think about it, it's a workplace comedy.”

“And at the same time, it's not set in the office of a business park, if you know what I mean?” he continues. “So how do you build scope and bring reality to that? It's a combination of physical locations and virtual production on an LED Volume stage, which is something we did in Season 1 but did a lot better in Season 2. And then, obviously, full CG shots or large CG shots to add scope, either building out on a location that needs more scope or filling them in with open water or big battle scenes. Those types of things really add that additional layer to a show and put you into the world. It's those strategically placed darts for a show that has a decent visual effects budget, but it does not have the budget of a Game of Thrones.”

Though some of the shot decrease can be attributed to narrative choices and fewer episodes, most come from better shot planning, including a much more efficient and knowledgeable use of the LED Volume stage, including a simple height extension.

“We refer to our LED Volume as the ‘J,’ because it's shaped like a giant J, and the ship fits into that pocket right there,” Van Dyke says. “So, you can get a 180-degree world in small areas on the ship. But it also gives you some length. It's not quite an aircraft carrier, but it has a little bit of those elements. It's not something that, ‘Hey, turn the ship around, and let's go eat lunch and shoot from the other side.’ It's not like that. We had the same number of LED panels in Season 1 as we did in Season 2. I think we actually maybe had 50 more in Season 2. But we used those panels in our configuration of the J in a more effective way. Last year, we thought that it was better to have more length. So, on the curve, it was the same size. But then, we thought it would be better to have a longer, straightaway.”

But that ended up not being the best idea. In this case, taller was better than longer. “It was better to have a shorter straightaway and harvest those panels from the shorter straightaway and build out a taller curve,” Van Dyke reveals. “Because on Season 1, I can't tell you how many times - and this is nobody's fault… these are the things that you learn when you start shooting and you get your camera angles, and all the planning you do, it's all great - but as we all know, once you get into photography, things change, you have to audible, you have to improvise, you have to do all these things to kind of get through your day. And a lot of times, we would have most of our shot covered by the J with a backdrop, but maybe that 15% of the top of the frame, you could see the greenscreen backdrop, which we use to help build out and extend our skies if we needed them. Last year, we had a lot of that. You could argue there were probably 400 shots like that. And then this year we had much, much less.”

While it still happened, Van Dyke notes, it happened far less frequently, which meant they didn’t have to devote critical budget into fixing production shortcomings. “And when I say production shortcomings, I don't mean anybody screwed up,” he says. “I mean that, just simply, we could have built it differently. Everything we did in Season 1, we did it correctly. We made the right decisions for the most part. We just took those correct decisions from the first season and improved them.”

Season 2 also brought large-scale use of ocean backgrounds on the J. Season 1 relied on stitching physical plates together, the best option at the time based on budget and schedule. But as Van Dyke notes, “It was very restrictive, and it's also very difficult to do. We simply didn't have the money to pull in a big-time vendor to come in and just start making all sorts of backgrounds for us.”

He also shares that they had to use practical ocean shots over and over, piecing in clouds or backdrops in post. “It’s doable, but it's more work, it's more time, and it's more resources spent on things that are not things like large, beautiful CG ship shots.”

“In Season 2, we really changed our methodology, which is something we learned at the end of Season 1,” Van Dyke explains. “We knew about it, but we just couldn't build it quickly enough. In Season 2, we had a head start, and we got some really fantastic water from one of our vendors. So, when I was out in New Zealand prior to the beginning of photography, I just started shooting as many sky plates as possible. And when I say sky plates, I mean going out with my digital SLR and shooting massive panoramics. I'm talking like 20,000, 30,000 pixel-wide panos, that had suns and different clouds, and I would do that whenever I'd see an interesting cloud. What does interesting mean? Nobody knows what interesting means, but you go out there and you find something that... ‘this could be used as...’ David Jenkins may want a wispy cloud system or kind of a Columbia Pictures fluffy cloud look, or maybe a sepia-tone warm golden sky. So, looking for those different color palettes and different cloud systems. Sometimes, it was overcast skies because maybe what you needed was a very overcast location shot. So, we needed moments where we were going to pair that with pieces on the J that needed to have that overcast tone. I had this massive library, I think, of something like 250 different panoramics.”

This all meant that the DPs and directors could more easily pair those panoramic shots with the tone of the scene, for example, something that’s beautiful and happy for a tender moment between two characters. If they wanted warm golden sepia tones, Van Dyke could tell them, “Here, I got 35 of them, which one would you like?” Then, he’d take his generic water, the still panoramics, and light them in Nuke. “Imagine like 16,000 pixel-wide CG water... massive CG water that has that generic ocean look that is constantly looping onto itself,” he describes. “It's 360 frames, so it loops forever. So, if you're shooting, you're just shooting, and you're not worried about when the water is starting, not worried about water continuity. You just shoot. And then you comp them, take the values of the photography, and print them into the CG water. It really allowed us to broaden the scope of the show. And if you think about it, you're on the same location, which is the deck of the ship, but you're in totally different times of day with different cloud systems. Even though it's all happening on a stage, you have a myriad of new environments to work with. And then, the added bonus of virtual production, as we all know, is that you are in complete control of your lighting. So, you need a sunny day? Normally, you have a five-hour window. Well, I got good news: you can now have a 10-hour window, and you're not worried about when people take lunch or how long they take to eat. So really, there are a lot of advantages to doing virtual production.”

Episode 3 sees Blackbeard in a half-dead limbo state, perched on top of a cliff. “You can't really put Taika Waititi on the top of a thousand-foot cliff,” Van Dyke laughs. “It's pretty dangerous, and he'd be a fool to want to do that. So how do we do that? We used Mercer Cliffs, this beautiful, majestic New Zealand cliffside. We found a ledge where we wanted Taika and Captain Hornigold to stand. We had a great drone team to shoot photogrammetry of the cliff edge that we wanted. We got all those pieces, handed it over to Ra and Adam, and they built essentially a physically accurate ledge where we could have them standing that is unique to the Mercer Cliff. Then they got a drone to shoot 360 panoramics, so we had the skies, HDRI, plus we shot some wide production plates, downward shots into the ocean - because the following shot is the Merman sequence with Stede and Taika - all pieces that we could put into our J. We had full control over what should be a really dangerous shot.”


He continues, “In the 1980s, they would've probably shot that on a cliff. So, we build a CG set of the cliffs; they're standing on the cliffs; we shoot all that; we piece it all in on the J. The skies and all those pieces are photographically accurate because they were technically all shot on the same day. And all we're doing on the J is replicating what happened on the day of that drone shooting. You take that, it works on-set and in-camera, and then you pair that in your cut with wide shots. You have these beautiful wide production plates with our heroes at the top of this horrifyingly steep and tall cliff, and then you match that with the tighter shots on the stage.”

Prep for the show, according to Van Dyke, was handled very much like any other type of show. Season 2 saw even better collaboration and communication between department heads, little conversations as people headed to catering, talking in hallways or on the drives to locations scouts, sparking ideas for designs. “So, when we looked at the scripts, we’d talk about, ‘What does Ned Lowe's ship look like?’ Or, ‘What does the ghost ship look like? Who are these guys?’”

Some hero ships were built completely from scratch. Sometimes they were able to repurpose certain CG elements. ‘When Stede goes to the cursed Spanish galleon, we made it bespoke to that episode,” Van Dyke says. “And what Ra [Vincent] and Adam [Wheatley] did was essentially build out the dance floor, where everybody's having their performance, and piece that in. Then you place all those elements onto and kind of tailor the bones of your Spanish galleon into whatever you need it to be so that it feels different. Galleons are galleons, right? How do you make it specific to this episode? So, the structure's there; maybe you give it a different paint job and add different kinds of ornate elements that are unique to that ship.”

“For the Revenge, we already had that ship,” he continues. “But it goes through a storm, so you have to take those pieces from the production that got beat up in the storm and apply them to your CG Revenge, and change it however you need to change it. Remember, one of the things about the writers’ strike that people don't quite get is once they write the script, it's not done before everybody starts shooting. There are constant, constant rewrites happening all the time. Maybe a scene doesn't really quite work when they write it, or they do a read-through and have to adjust it. So, it's not like, ‘Hey, we're going to start shooting in four months. Dave, here's your list of 17 ships you need to build.’ I wish that was the case, but we don't really know that.”

“With the virtual production in CG, you're really able to plot out how you'd like to make this whole thing look,” he adds. “So, it gives you an idea. And when you're shooting, if we were all out there on a boat, it would be a nightmare. You wouldn't be able to have any control over the sky. You'd just be struggling with all that all the time. So, there are a lot of advantages to virtual production. It just needs to be used in the right way.

Van Dyke goes on to note that there’s a misconception that LED Volumes are some type of magic bullet, and that they allow you to do anything on a production. “If you use them correctly, it's not the end-all-be all answer, but it is the one element that can really make something great, especially for a show like ours,” he shares. “I always kind of refer to LED Volumes as a dynamic, moving backdrop; if you really think about it, that is the best light in the world. And it really is a tool the way a greenscreen or a bluescreen are used. It's really just another tool to add flexibility and production advantages.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.