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Emmys 2016: How ‘Black Sails’ Battled an Epic Hurricane With Visual and Sound Effects

Emmy nominated for VFX and sound editing, Starz's swashbuckling pirate adventure raised the bar with an 18-minute storm sequence in Season 3.

Black Sails

Starz’s pirate drama “Black Sails” has already won the Emmy, in its first season, for supporting VFX. But the show outdid itself this season, creating a hurricane that took the effects to a new level of craftsmanship. “Black Sails,” the “Treasure Island” prequel created by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine (starring Toby Stephens as Captain Flint) featured a breathtaking 18-minute, 250-shot sequence that was also enhanced by the sound editing, which grabbed a nom as well.

CG water was the biggest challenge, creating liquid that was believable yet drove the animation of the ship as an integration of elements. The VFX was mostly done by Digital Domain with assistance from ILP (additional sails) and Crazy Horse Effects (matte painting).

“We looked at live-action footage of water in storms to study the multiple elements: the swells, the surface turbulence and white spray,” said production VFX supervisor Erik Henry. “Then you have the ship moving through it, which reveals other aspects.”

The water was Houdini-based with additional proprietary work from DD to be able to see through the surface of the water.

At the same time, the SFX department provided a full-scale ship that moves on a gimbal beside wind machines and rain machines. But when you pull away and look up into the rigging, that didn’t exist. The team mixed and matched practical and CG without viewers noticing any difference.

Sails were also difficult. “Sometimes if you have a lot of wind, there’s no ripple,” Henry said. “Other times you have high-frequency flapping on the edge of the sail. Real or not, many people want to see activity. DD the sail simulation, the animation for the breaking mast and the men who fall into the water. Multiple shots of people up in the rigging was done as live-action with green screen and the pouring rain.”

Henry said it’s the last 20% that dragged on because you need a little more wind-whipped atmosphere. “The rain was not reacting the way I like to see when it’s pounding down on a hard surface,” he said. “We even had tornadoes on the water [funnels] in the storm sequence. They’re very subtle but they are in the one of the last shots when you see Flint look off into the distance, realizing it’s going to get worse before it finishes.”

Black Sails

Black Sails

Meanwhile, the sound team created the storm with waves, the boat pitching and the screaming wind. “There was a lot of freedom because we weren’t constrained by music,” said Benjamin Cook, supervising sound editor.

The crew recorded a vast range of wave sounds from different locations along with big bow crashes from a library of sounds they’ve recorded and tweaked since Season 1.

“A rain wall hits the ship and a giant wave knocks the ship over,” said Cook. And at the end of the storm sequence, Flint’s been tied to the ship and he steers right into these big funnels, leading to interesting growls along with the other sounds.

“There’s a tense moment when one of the characters gets trapped beneath the cannon, so you’re trying to keep the storm alive and capture the emotion,” said Cook.

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