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Working on “Our Flag Means Death,” a half-hour comedy now streaming on HBO Max, production designer Ra Vincent was excited for the challenge of crafting “a theatrical play … on the high sea.”

Concept art by Ra Vincent, reunited with collaborator Taika Waititi Ra Vincent

A fictionalized account of reallife 18th-century “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet (played by Rhys Darby) and his relationship with the infamous Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard (Taika Waititi), the series needed to use its sets in ways that typical movie and television productions do not.

“It’s less of a major motion picture and more of a theater sports performance,” Vincent explains.  At the outset, Vincent says the team decided, “Let’s build an environment where the cast can explore exactly who the character would be without the limitations of having a seriously preplanned set.” To fashion that kind of open space, the art department needed to make room for 100 crew members and their equipment, while also allowing for the actors and their needs in the moment. “That meant building 360-degree environments for them to work in, and then making them shootable,” Vincent says. “So we made these theatrical versions of stage backdrops for these characters to work in. They were really there to support the development of these characters.”

Production designer Ra Vincent conceived theatrical versions of stage backdrops for actors to work against. Ra Vincent

In 1717, Bonnet commissioned a Spanish galleon outfitted as a warship and christened the Revenge. Vincent describes his vision for the vessel: “Part of his flamboyance sort of rubbed off in the finishing of this ship. You can commission a warship easy enough, but then when it comes time to do your decorations and add your flair, that’s where we built a layer of Stede Bonnet over everything.”

Vincent went merrily over the top in designing the captain’s quarters: “We modeled his cabin loosely off your typical sailing vessels at the time, but given a little extra proportion we built into his cabin an amazing bathroom and walk-in wardrobes and a library with an open fire. It’s sort of a crazy notion: Who would have an open fire in the library on a wooden boat? Stede Bonnet would, just because it looks right.”

Completing the look of the captain’s quarters, set decorator Christopher Carlson added soft furnishings, fine linens and many of the sorts of details one might expect to see from a pirate who is actually an aristocrat.  When fully assembled, the Revenge is 180 feet long and fills a large soundstage at Warner Bros. “We did quite a lot of serious research and realized that it would be extravagantly difficult to build [an exact replica of a] sailing ship,” Vincent says. “We went about simplifying some things.”

For instance, the actual ship had a great deal of rope hanging from it for specific purposes. “But maybe we don’t quite need to make everything make sense,” says Vincent. “Sometimes a rope looks better at one end of the ship than it does at the end of the ship where it’s supposed to be. For the purposes of telling a really great story, you kind of want to coerce the audience into believing what they’re seeing is a version of reality.”

Similarly, the designers loosely interpreted other historical details. For a fictitious pirate town in the Caribbean, “we also used a massive LED backdrop, with a two-dimensional plate projected on it, of a few locations in Puerto Rico,” the designer says. “And you can kind of tell when you’re watching the series that it seems like you’re there but you’re not really there: Is this a play? Or are we at sea?”

Ultimately, Vincent sees his job as supporting both story and character. “The audience already bought the fact that we’re on a boat,” he says. “After that, you can allow yourself to leave the epic scenery alone and just enjoy watching people do amazing performances.”

Ra Vincent