‘Our Flag Means Death’ Levels Up Season 2’s Pirate Life with Waterslides, Mermen, and VFX
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‘Our Flag Means Death’ Levels Up Season 2’s Pirate Life with Waterslides, Mermen, and VFX



‘Our Flag Means Death’ Levels Up Season 2’s Pirate Life with Waterslides, Mermen, and VFX

Here’s some pirate math: If a pirate workplace comedy has over 2,000 VFX shots in the first season and only about 1,000 VFX shots in Season 2, how has the scope grown? By being smarter about how it uses them.

“We had a better methodology in how we used our skies and our oceans,” “Our Flag Means Death” VFX supervisor David Van Dyke told IndieWire. “There were certain things that we did (in Season 1) that were a little self-imposed, and we had to kind of roll up our sleeves and grind our way out of mistakes. This season, we knew what to stay away from and we were able to use our pennies more effectively.”

That in turn allowed the Max series to tackle much more ambitious VFX challenges as the scope of the Pirate Republic widens to include the legendary Zheng Yi Sao (Ruibo Qian) and her pirate navy, seas that match the intensity of Blackbeard’s (Taika Waititi) heartbreak, and a strange netherworld in which gentleman pirate Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) is a merperson.

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Much of Season 1 was spent figuring out how to create the correct-looking ocean and sky plates for the show’s LED wall, suggesting just enough to signal “life at sea” without going either full “Mandalorian” or “Master and Commander.” The Max comedy finds it through a J-shaped partial LED wall showing just the right amount of horizon; for the show’s more atmospheric moments of Stede and Ed by moonlight or against the blood reds of sunset, the VFX team selects plates that work with cinematographer Mike Burlucci’s lighting to achieve the show’s signature “clinch” shots. 

Season 2 has a wider variety of existing plates and more awareness of how to light and integrate them with the show’s sets, so Van Dyke could turn his team’s attention to achieving more ambitious effects, like the roiling storm at sea for Episode 2, “Red Flags.” Van Dyke needed to solve the problem of how to mix in rain, large CG environments, and crashing waves with only so much coverage from the LED screen. Not all of the solutions were digital ones. 

“(The special effects team) basically put these big water slides together so that we could have these big crashing, practical waves hitting the bow of the ship. Then we’d have that plus CG and practical rain and then we’d build all of the other stuff out. So it was a much more unified team effort,” Van Dyke said of the sequence. 

That communication between departments helps streamline the work the VFX teams end up doing, sometimes in the form of blocking actors with more dynamic, moveable hairstyles out of big VFX moments or working with the costume department to make sure all the textures of Blackbeard’s bike-gang crew could read in a storm.

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Behind the scenes of “Our Flag Means Death“

The sequence is a massive undertaking for a half-hour comedy, but one that had an appreciative audience even while shooting. “(Jacinda Arden, the Prime Minister of New Zealand) was there and with her entourage. It was like if Obama came to set to see us all messed up, freezing, being blown about by fans,” David Jenkins, who directed the first two episodes of the season in addition to his showrunner duties, told IndieWire. “Then she hugged everybody. And she hugged (Vico Ortiz, who plays Jim) while they’re covered in fake blood and everything and Jacinda’s wearing a white jacket. She had like half of Vico’s makeup on her. It was so surreal.” 

For Van Dyke’s team, soaking the cast (and by extension the prime minister of New Zealand) was essential for creating VFX shots that read as believable — and the darkness of the storm played in the show’s favor. “We could cover (the water slides) in solids. You basically create a canopy over the slide. And so you never actually see the slide, you just see blackness,” Van Dyke said. “(But) the crashing wave interacting with the ship and then dousing Taika Waititi, that really, really sells it.”

But the storm isn’t the VFX sequence in Episode 2 that Van Dyke is proudest of. That honor belongs to a shot that goes by almost so quickly you miss it: the moment of Zheng Yi Sao’s all-female pirate crew hauling her ships overland through the jungle and into the Caribbean waters that European pirates have been preying on.  

OFMD VFX Breakdown

“We weren’t getting that ship in that jungle, I’ll tell you that,” Van Dyke said. So the VFX and production teams needed to collaborate to make a one-to-one model of the Red Flag’s bow that could be pulled like a sled through the New Zealand bush in order to create a necessary level of physical disturbance of the environment. Van Dyke’s team could then digitally recreate the rest of the ships around the real movement of plants and trees.

“(The sled) creates the physical element that’s true, scale-wise, photographically, and story-wise. It can actually disrupt and push through the foliage. It created a practical foundation for the whole thing,” Van Dyke said. “It really kind of pulls people into a practical space where they’re just thinking about, ‘Oh my God, these women are dragging ships through the jungle. This is crazy.” 

The production team built a bow sled and mounted it on a front-end loader, which pushed forward as the logs the team had cut rolled in front of the sled and actors pantomimed pulling at the ropes. It was a huge feat of coordination and planning and a winking little nod to another story crazy enough to put ships in jungles: Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo.” But the show doesn’t linger on the shot, and Van Dyke is really proud of that, too. 

“There are a lot of shows that I think have too many visual effects in them. And that’s coming from a visual effects guy. I think even when you’re on really big shows, your job is to help tell the story. It really shouldn’t be about making the shot about the effect,” Van Dyke said. “(This shot) is talking about a skull-crushing military genius outworking her opponent. So how do you make that feel dynamic? How does it fit in the story? How does it feel impressive but not feel effects-y? That’s what’s really important.” 

OFMD On Set Visual Effects Work

Van Dyke’s approach has empowered Jenkins and his writers and directors to push the bounds of what’s visually possible for “Our Flag Means Death” Season 2, but always keep us focused on the story of Stede and Ed. The ending of Episode 3 was another big cross-department effort that brought Blackbeard over the edge of a cliff and into the ocean where he meets salvation in the form of an aquatic Stede. But the VFXs aren’t necessarily where you’d think.

“Can we put Taika on a thousand-foot cliff? Absolutely not,” Van Dyke said. “So we did a whole drone shoot where we shot cliffs and we got the wides, but we also got a lot of photogrammetry and then sky environment photography. And the photogrammetry is what we use to build that cliff. We know how to use that for the LED wall. We used it for reverse plates where there was no wall and it was just green screen. We use the photogrammetry to literally replicate a set piece that replicated that exact piece of the cliff.”

Van Dyke took the same approach to the descent, creating a long angle of perspective of the whole cliff to give it scope, create some CG water, and dial in all the photography into one effect. Once underwater, the production team shot the sequence sideways in order to create a greater sense of depth, and the visual effects department needed to tweak the light, to tweak bubbles, so that Blackbeard appears to be sinking down a Y-axis instead of moving across an X-axis. 

As ever, it’s a blend of practical choices and VFX massaging that creates the full effect for “Our Flag Means Death.” But one key element of the sequence was almost wholly practical: Mermaid Stede’s fins. “There’s a whole Mer-Universe out there. There’s a whole community. And they make some very, very, very high-end mermaid tails,” Van Dyke said. “Imagine like synchronized swimming underwater, like a synchronized swimming cosplay kind of a world. Then with a little bit of (help) from hair and makeup, wardrobe, some help from visual effects, you can really get that to look nice.” 

The first three episodes of “Our Flag Means Death” Season 2 are streaming on Max. Two new episodes will be released weekly through the finale on October 26.

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