VFX: Starz's 'Black Sails'
Issue: August 1, 2015

VFX: Starz's 'Black Sails'

Starz’s hit series Black Sails premiered in early 2014 and recently completed airing its second season. Set in the 1700s, during the golden age of piracy, the show fictionalizes real-life pirates, including Anne Bonny, Jack Rackham and Charles Vane.  While the show’s setting is New Providence Island in the Bahamas, it’s actually shot in Cape Town, South Africa. At press time, Season 3 was in post production and the team was planning to begin shooting Season 4 in November.

Here, the show’s senior visual effects supervisor, Erik Henry, details the challenges of recreating the time period, its ships and dramatic battles, and how they’ve been able to achieve some of the highest-end effects on television — visuals that last season garnered the show an Emmy win in the “Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role” category.

Where are you at in terms of production and post at this point?

“Believe it or not, I am posting Season 3 right now. And we’ll be doing that until the early part of November. Season 1 is the season we won the Emmy. We were in post on Season 2 when we won that Emmy. The way it works is, we get the scripts around October or November, and then we are shooting in late November. We shoot right up to the Christmas hiatus and then shoot from the second week of January, basically until the middle of May.”

What is the episode count?

“Season 1 was eight episodes. Season 2 has completely aired all 10 of its episodes. It started January, around the 24th or 25th, and 10 weeks later it is done. Season 3, we finished the shoot in May. I am deep into post and will be in post right through to December. The day I complete it I will be flying off to Cape Town for the shoot.”

That’s for Season 4? Will it be 10 episodes too?

“Season 4 [will have] 10 episodes. I don’t think we will go above 10 episodes. When you look at the time spent on each episode, it is a magic number, because you have to start the next season. If you had 12 episodes, I don’t know how you’d continue into the next season without having a different team, basically.”

What is required for Black Sails’ VFX?

“It has to be something that the audience is looking at it and is not realizing there are visual effects. The way we do that is, we have built full-scale ships. They don’t sit in the water, they sit on a cement platform. I am responsible for putting the water around them and showing them at sea.

“The greatest compliment is that people look at the show and say, ‘I didn’t realize you guys have visual effects?’ Yeah, they see big sets and assume maybe there are extensions, but they look at the ships and say, ‘They look real?’ Well that’s because a large part of it is real. Those ships are full scale. And we make use of them all the time. When you step back 50 to 100 yards and see the ship in the water, most of the time that’s a CG ship, just because the way a ship moves up and down, and swells on the ocean, is something a ship on a cement platform can’t do. When you are on the deck of the ship, we are using that ship all the time — the real ship.”

What are the specific challenges?

“The challenge is to make it look real — [when] it’s ships in the water. We built down in South Africa on the backlot outside of Cape Town. There are probably 15 buildings and 30 huts and lean-tos that pour out of that, and that’s the basis of the main street in Nassau. Then it’s up to visual effects to fill out and add buildings around that. It’s basically a set extension. Nassau had a fort — we didn’t build the fort at Cape Town, so anytime you drop back far enough to see the fort on the hill, then that is something that has been either matte painted or a 3D model.”
It sounds like the VFX really help establish the setting?

“That is what I’d say is the bread & butter work that we do. We are doing it all the time and are getting better and better as the seasons have gone on.”

Do you see the VFX needs changing as each season rolls out?

“Yes, the needs have changed. For instance, in Season 2, we got a little bit more ambitious, and said we are going to go to a different location. We are going to go to Charleston, SC, circa 1705, and it looks a lot different today, so we had to create that again on our backlot. We built a main square and then I filled that out with the help of a number of companies. Crazy Horse [Effects] certainly took the lead. And then we had a big battle where we bombarded the town, with the help of Digital Domain, and Hybrid in Montreal, and Shade [VFX] in Santa Monica. We were able to use those companies to create a realistic bombardment of that period city.”

That's Season 2 you're referring to?

“That came about in the season finale of Season 2. Then in Season 3, we are taking it up another notch. Each season, [we’re] investing more time and money, which is a great vote of confidence from Starz.”

How hard is it to achieve the level of quality you are aiming for based on deadlines and budgets?

“The quality of the effects work — obviously we won an Emmy. The mandate was always to give film-quality effects. That’s my background. When they brought me on they said, ‘Tell us what it would take to give the kind of quality you see on Game of Thrones, that HBO seems to do all the time? That’s what we are after. We are not after cutting corners. We are after giving you enough time and giving you enough money to bring a product that is film quality.’ It wasn’t that surprising to see that it won. We spent a lot of time and money on it.

“I know shows that are near and dear to my heart that don’t spend as much time. They are cranking out more episodes. I know they don’t have as much time as we do… We were given a great challenge but they also gave us enough time to complete the challenge.”

How did you get involved in Black Sails?

“I am an independent freelance supervisor that Starz contracted for the show. It was created by Starz, so the producers in Cape Town are all working for Starz.”

How are the VFX broken up amongst the different contributors?

“I would say that Crazy Horse is considered an equal third. They always took on a large portion of the work. Digital Domain has now become such a key contributor. I can’t say that Crazy Horse has more work than they do. In Season 3, Digital Domain has more work. The other third is a company out of Sweden called Important Looking Pirates. They had done, oddly enough, a show called Crossbones. We had seen some of their work and thought it looked really good. Crossbones closed their doors after one season. They are in Stockholm.”

You are posting Season 3 now?

“We have such an ambitious Season 3 that we employed companies in Ireland, England, and as I said, Sweden. We’ve added another company out of Montreal, in addition to Hybrid, and some smaller [studios] too. Of course, Crazy Horse, and a number of smaller houses here in town. There’s Digiscope and Revolt. The list sort of grows, and you say, ‘There are 14 companies on this show?’”

Tell us about your role as VFX supervisor?

“As senior supervisor, it is my responsibility to design the effects work. I work with Jon Steinberg, the show runner, and we come up with, ‘Here’s what I think the script is saying?’ And John says, ‘Yes, that’s what it is saying.’ Many times it’s: ‘What if we do this?’ Also, I’m one of the producers on the show. As a producer, I am creatively getting the most out of the sets.”

What kind of solutions have you come up with?

“There was a scene written for the Season 2 finale — the bombardment of Charleston. The script didn’t call for any scene to take place in town itself. The views we were given from the script were from the Spanish Man O’ War that the pirates commandeered. And it was from a POV platform that the bombardment was seen. I said, ‘We can’t destroy the town for real with practical effects, but if the practical effects were willing to help me out with a few mortars and dust hits, I think it was important to go into the town and see it falling apart at the hands of the Man O’ War.
“I worked with the show runner and the director on that episode. The art department said, ‘The sets are not meant to be blown apart!’ I said, ‘I’ll put in buildings and we’ll do a big wrap-around shot, and have the bad guy Governor sit there and see his town fall down around him.’ There was an iconic tower. I said, ‘You guys don’t have to do anything. I’ll build the tower in CG and destroy it. We’ll bring it down with simulations and this will help sell and reinforce the fact that the Governor watched his town collapse and burn.’ 

“They agreed to it and that is wonderful to have the freedom to do, rather than just be a technician, walking through a script. I come up with ideas and they expect that.”

Are multiple episodes undergoing post production simultaneously?

“Crazy Horse is working on the first four episodes of Season 3. Digital Domain is working on a couple of them. ILP, I think, has three.”

How much time is allotted to post, and how many VFX might an episode contain?

“Each episode, we have 12 weeks. We’ll turn things over early and use 16 weeks to do a particularly-difficult sequence. I don’t think it’s very different than other television that is out there. Not every episode is going to have 150 to 200 shots. I will say in Season 3, we have more big episodes than smaller. By and large, I’d say 150 is the bigger episode. And the smaller can be 50.”

How do you review material?

“I rely heavily on Skype for vocal conferencing. And at the same time, almost exclusively with Skype, I am using CineSync. I do it on a 30-inch monitor connected to my laptop.”

Without spoiling it, what can we look forward to in Season 3?

“In Season 3, we have a sequence where the weather pattern on the high seas is dangerous for ships, and that sequence alone has 92 [shots], I think?”

For the ocean shots, are you using CG water or plates?

“We use a combination, which I think is the best way to make the audience think it must all be real. We used real Bahamas plates that we shot before Season 1 aired. We went to the Bahamas and shot for a week — plates of the harbors and out to sea — to get the look of that type of water. Sixty percent of the time, we are using real water. We are compositing with it, so it’s still a visual effect. It helps because when we do need to use computer-generated water — first of all, it’s at such a high level that you couldn’t tell the difference — but when you mix it into a sequence where some of it is real and some of it is CG, it’s impossible to point out. That nut has been cracked. It’s that good.”