“Our Flag Means Death” making of: LED water caused real seasickness

VFX supervisor David Van Dyke and cinematographers Mike Berlucci and Cynthia Pusheck explain how a mix of LED volume and green screens helped them achieve the show’s visual ambitions.

The team that made “Our Flag Means Death” was in a situation similar to that of its protagonist, Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby). At the start of the HBO Max series, Caribbean planter Stede has a midlife crisis and pours his money into a ship called The Revenge, which is quite sleek (and complete with a bookcase begging to be trashed by a tropical storm) , but it is by no means a match for the large ships of the line in the British Navy. Likewise, the workplace comedy and slow-burn romance Stede is at the center of an incredibly ambitious setting, the ocean, which he needs to operate without necessarily having the money to build an actual seagoing vessel of “Master And Commander” style. IndieWire spoke to visual effects supervisor David Van Dyke and cinematographers Mike Berlucci and Cynthia Pusheck about how they were able to blend technologies and techniques to release The Revenge at sea.

Van Dyke said a hybrid approach was much more appealing than building a ship against a blue screen, which would have made every shot on deck in The Revenge a visual effects shot. “When we got into this, at first there was a lot of talk about it being more of a ‘Mandalorian’ level,” he said, referring to the series. “Star Wars” which popularized the method of shooting against a huge, wrap-around wall of LED panels instead of the chroma key displays that make all the behind-the-scenes superhero extras look a little goofy. These panels, adjusted in real time by computer engines, allow for more dynamic lighting choices, as LED lights have greater versatility in the qualities they can reflect on an actor’s face or on the elements of the scene. practical decor. The camera is also freer to move within these volumes – the cinematic term for a space where motion capture or composition takes place – since the environment rendered by the computers can be adjusted in real time, followed by the point of view exact as the camera takes. .

“Due to the nature of our shoots, it put us in a position where we didn’t need to have the bells and whistles necessary to make ‘The Mandalorian’ work,” Van Dkye said. “We had an engine-based LED. I would say technically it wrapped about half the ship in a giant [J-shape]. And it was followed and [we used the engine] to keep the horizon line.

And not all shows need to have, or can afford, “Mandalorian” sized volume. Van Dyke pointed out that “Our Flag Means Death” generally doesn’t try to navigate extremely complex CG environments. “We’re talking about a lot of sky and a lot of ocean,” Van Dyke said of the majority of the show’s environments. “If you do that in the LED and especially if it’s tracked, it works really really well because you don’t have to be like pixel perfect. For example, if we’re going through the Grand Canyon, you don’t have need to see things like rocks and things that move in perspective and work perfectly in camera.

“Our flag means death”

Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

According to Van Dyke, what the series needed was dynamic, moving photography that can be placed behind the main set, what he called a “dynamic translation”. “We have an ocean in motion, and if we need to put anything else in the sky, we can. We can put our ships in there. And then what he would do is either give us an entire shot on camera or give us 80% of the shot. So instead of doing an all blue screen situation where we’re doing CG water, every shot, and suddenly you have 300, 400 CG shots that are literally just people talking on the deck of a ship we have this dynamic translation, so everything is working fine and in perspective with the camera and that gets us there.

From the point of view of the show’s cinematographers, Mike Berlucci and Cynthia Pusheck, this freedom was hugely important to achieving the tone of the show, itself a hybrid – in this case, an irreverent, slightly theatrical comedy mixed to a more dramatic rendition of the pain and longing that drives its characters out to sea. “It’s not just a comedy, it’s a romance,” Pusheck said. “And so, he slipped into a much more visual realm.”

Berlucci said he and Pusheck had a lot of ideas for how the show should look, “Then when you get to it in the daytime and you start to see [the actors] play the scenes and it completely transforms him. It sparks small ideas during the day. I remember the times when we completely changed [the backgrounds on the LED wall]. We basically had a library of background plates, different skies and different waters and you would sit there and watch the rehearsal and then you would be like, wait, no, this should actually be something different. Let’s soften the sky and don’t make the big hard sun on it.

Our Flag Means Death Finale Taika Waititi Rhys Darby

Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby in “Our Flag Means Death”

Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

The ability to adjust the feel of the environment based on the emotion of the scene made the show feel even more theatrical when it needed to and also more emotional when it needed to, even bordering on melodrama in some of its great bloody sunsets. “Our Flag Means Death” required both enough realism to be believed and enough artifice to be funny, and the ability to adjust the environment allowed Berlucci and Pusheck to achieve both at once. But the freedom of the LED wall required careful planning and preparation.

“When you work with volume, you need lead time because you have time to create your assets, review them, adjust them, change them and sometimes you see it the night before or in the morning,” Pusheck said. . “As for me, I went into a whole sequence where we had to have a creek and we had a plate and it was a bit lit up front and it wasn’t great, but that was the only one we planes and it had to, story-wise, track. So the flip side, where if maybe it had been a blue screen, [we would have] probably had more choices or could have evolved it. There are pros and cons, you know, but overall, for the whole season, it was a huge plus.

“It was very immersive,” Berlucci said of the LED wall. “It was high. I know there have been a few people who got sick from it. Seasick.” The 30-foot-tall LED wall could wrap around a significant portion of the ship, with the rest covered in green screens and, according to Pusheck, “the long stretch of the J [shape] gave us lots of shooting options because we knew with a comedy we would have two and sometimes three cameras [going]. If we only had a flat wall that needed to move, you could still have had an angle, but trying to really find a way to film this show that gave us more options, the J worked. You could go wide [shots]you could make two or three cameras and stick on your wall.

Rhys Darby Our flag means death

Filming The Revenge on “Our Flag Means Death”

Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

For Van Dyke, the process of creating plaques for the LED wall taught him and his team that they could create even more varied and bespoke environments for the show, or any other workplace comedy. which takes place in the age of sailing. Van Dyke was able to find ways to put plates together and buckle the ocean so that “Our Flag Means Death” could have bodies of water for as long as they needed – no one really watches the show and doesn’t follow which current or white cap is which – but in a potential second season, he would give Heaven the same treatment.

“What I would do for Season 2 is basically take a lot of patches from the sky and I would create dot sky moments – it’s just clouds in the sky that have to be at dusk. It must be the afternoon. It has to be a clear sky, it has to be dawn, it has to be stormy, the sky has to be night – all those pieces, right? And then you take that, you build those points, and then we take our CG water and turn on our CG water based on the plates,” Van Dyke said. “And then all of a sudden, what I’d like to have is this nice library of 30 to 40 backgrounds that we can say, ‘Hey, Mike Berlucci, there you go. Which one would you like? Take your pick , go bananas. ‘Hey, LED team? Just press play.

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