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February 24, 2016

Yo Ho, Whoa!

Visual effects fuel the storms for Starz's pirate drama.

Libby Slate
  • Courtesy Starz
  • Courtesy Starz
  • Erik Henry

    Todd Williamson

For Erik Henry, producer and senior visual-effects supervisor of the Starz pirate saga Black Sails, a valid passport is as essential to his work as the latest VFX software.

Consider this: while working on the season-three finale, he was away from his L.A.-area home almost an entire month, visiting Montreal and Stockholm for a week each and spending two weeks at the series' filming location in Cape Town, South Africa, which doubles for the show's 1700s Nassau setting. Work on season four is now under way, which means a return to Cape Town for another month.

"We have vendors in Montreal and Stockholm we've been working with all season long," explains Henry, who won an Emmy in 2014 for outstanding visual effects in a supporting role for the show and was nominated again last year; he also won an Emmy for his effects work on the HBO miniseries John Adams.

"Whenever I'm in Cape Town, I take creative meetings with the directors and producers," he explains "We go over strategies for shooting the VFX. Planning is key to our success, and you can't have too much."

Canadian studio Hybride was brought in to re-create Caribbean landscapes in areas where the company couldn't shoot, and to double — via motion-capture — almost 150 types of movements by extras, including rowing boats and rapidly disembarking, and firing and reloading muskets. Swedish company ILP worked on ships, sails and water; Digital Domain in Los Angeles shares those duties.

"The realistic movement of the sails is better now than I’ve ever seen," Henry says. "Sails are so difficult — if they move at the wrong speed, it looks funny. There has to be realism in the white caps, too."

One nifty trick: "Sometimes we say we're going to move the sun a little bit, to light the sails in a way that makes them look better."

Henry works with about a dozen VFX vendors, linking files through cineSync software to review work together in real time. "With all that technology, there's something to be said for human interaction," he says.

Season three had the biggest effects yet, with creator-showrunners Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine pulling out all the stops. A massive storm in the second episode was filmed for days in broad daylight — on dry land.

Thanks to VFX, special effects and a deck tilted at a forty-degree angle, audiences saw forceful winds lash at the ship under darkened skies, waves crash, masts split and some men drop into the sea while others remain trapped in a water-filled cabin.

"We couldn't have done it without the help of special-effects supervisor Paul Stephenson," Henry says.

Other effects this season include green-screen work with the prosthetic leg of John Silver (Luke Arnold) and creating realistic pirate hangings.

"The storm sequence was my biggest challenge," Henry says. "I'm so happy with it."


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