The title of HBO Max’s half-hour action comedy “Our Flag Means Death” hints at a universally recognized truth: Pirates are scary. They to see frightening. Their ships, whether decked out in black sails or outfitted with barnacle-encrusted zombies, are designed to instill fear and dread. But the protagonist of “Our Flag Means Death”, wealthy landowner Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), could barely manage in a Jane Austen salon before deciding that her midlife crisis would involve decorating a privateer and taking to the high seas. That gives the show an interesting challenge. How do you create both the giant pirate ships and the lairs of iniquity that so delighted Stede, without leaving the period of it all – your spars, your ropes and your mizzenmasts, and your candelabras bolted to the walls every five feet – distracting the audience from performers doing comedy? How do you make sure Stede looks just enough like a pirate while still looking like the sad, kind, slightly ridiculous fop that he is?
Production designer Ra Vincent spoke to IndieWire about building Stede’s ship, The Revenge, as a streamlined, staged ship. Instead of using lots of detail in set design and set dressing to create an image that looked so much like real viewers they were sucked into historical fiction, Vincent’s task was to create something that had l looks just real enough, but remove all superfluous details. The Revenge convincingly evokes the setting of the series but also makes it a bit cartoonish and, above all, harmless. When you get on board, the Revenge doesn’t look formidable. It doesn’t look like Stede and his crew could cause much trouble for anyone but themselves.
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“We [took] the department to San Diego to see the ‘Master and Commander’ ship,” Vincent said of his preparation for the set construction. “What does a film set look like when it’s on a boat, and you know, how do you scale things up? How? ‘Or’ What [do we] install a camera or film in the bowels of a ship? Vincent took lessons in the logistics of the trip, but left largely knowing how do not to make his game felt. Peter Weir’s film constantly emphasizes the details of the setting as a means of creating a feeling of immersion in the maritime epic. The deck of this ship, The Surprise, is surrounded by sails and netting and almost looks like a trellis, a wooden spar still penetrating the frame, and it’s hard not to let all the thing make a spectacular facelift. The Surprise feels incredibly tangible, sometimes frighteningly fragile, and so the adventures of its captain and crew carry real weight.
Aaron Epstein/HBO Max
But that kind of immersion is exactly what “Our Flag Means Death” doesn’t want us to worry about even a bit. Vincent learned the ins and outs of a Spanish galleon, he said, then, “[We had to forget] what the Spanish Galleon really worked and looked like, because we were really looking for more of a theatrical backdrop for these comedic performances. And indeed, The Revenge’s deck is wide open, with very little to distract attention from the cast’s faces as they grapple with the comedic challenges of a flag-sowing competition or of a crew-wide emotional recording. It’s a pirate ship, simplified.
Vincent had the help of a specialist sailor from Hawaii, Courtney Anderson, whose team helped create just enough ropes and working sails to evoke the sense of a working vessel. But if Stede’s crew doesn’t seem to be doing anything useful, it’s because they aren’t. Most strings aren’t really connected to anything. Nothing about The Revenge works, and by not quite concealing that fact, Vincent’s ensemble manages to visually convey something important about Stede: he doesn’t quite work like a pirate either.
Just because The Revenge feels lighthearted doesn’t mean Vincent didn’t create a sense of immersion for the cast and crew. The Revenge deck was a massive project that took up one of the biggest stages at Warner Brothers, so the camera could move freely from section to section. It also featured a massive LED screen capable of projecting 2D and two-and-a-half-dimensional images, which allowed the show to use virtual backdrops in place of more traditional green screens.
Aaron Epstein/HBO Max
Rather than leaving it up to post-production to figure out how to match the lighting and go over things they’re not sure what to do with, we had everything in advance so the actors knew they were: they stood beside an island or in the middle of the ocean, or [that there was] a British Navy warship next to them. And also the crew knew what they were looking at,” Vincent said.
The regions below decks were also built in such a way that they could be quite interconnected and were where Vincent was able to play with both the harshness of pirate life at sea and the extreme ostentation of Bonnet’s own cabin. . and extreme about Bonnet’s officers’ quarters, which you’ll never find on a real Spanish galleon,” Vincent said. Stede’s quarters match him in every way: the colors are a softer but complementary reflection of the lush fabrics he chooses to wear, the level of detail in the woodwork is almost a perfect mirror to the ruffles of his shirts and the slight curl of her hair.
Aaron Epstein/HBO Max
Holding back elsewhere in detail and dressing, Bonnet quarters look hopelessly too much compared to the rest of the show’s world, and Vincent said the design really sets the tone for everyone. The Revenge is built to be Bonnet both outside and inside. Above the bridges, it is very disappointing and a bit scattered; below deck, full of impractical notions (like hundreds of books) that will never weather a storm.
But Vincent also said there are pieces of this level of ostentation lurking everywhere else, from Spanish Jackie’s (Leslie Jones) Blackbeard bar (Taika Waititi) boat. “Whenever Stede wanted [arrive somewhere], dressed in gorgeous, colorful robes, there would be little hints that actually, you know, he’s not totally foreign,” Vincent said. “[We were] constantly on the lookout for small, subtle high notes in the scenography and decoration of the set. Stede Bonnet may be the worst pirate of all time, but he still fits into the pirate world of “Our Flag Means Death” – and this might just be his only victory.
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