Alumni Crew on Cinematic High Seas

Cinema Studio Art
December 21, 2016

Coincidence, fate or what we sometimes call Random Denisonia — those moments you learn your colleague went to Denison, too. Or your physician. Or the interesting person sitting next to you on a transatlantic flight.

In many cases, those connections can be easily explained: the result of one Denisonian giving another the chance for an internship or a heads-up on a job opening. Sometimes it's complimentary talents coming together from different directions on a big project. Our network of alumni covers the globe, including the cinematic high seas.

The television series Black Sails is a great example. The Starz program will soon say goodbye after four seasons. But this swashbuckling prequel to Treasure Island certainly has made its mark, including on an unexpected trio of Denison alumni.

Cinema major Robert Levine '00 is just one Big Red graduate who worked on the show, becoming a series co-creator for the first time. “My collaborator (Jonathan Steinberg) had been thinking about pirates and to show what it was actually like to be a pirate, why it happened historically and the day-to-day experience of it…” he says.

“I really thought about a Treasure Island component—Captain Flint is already dead in that book, it’s his treasure they’re looking for and it seemed there was a great story to be told by going back. You could watch the series and then pick up Treasure Island and the story could now seem different to you.”

The show, which counts Michael Bay as a producer and has won three Emmys, had help in going full throttle by adding another Denison graduate. Levine said the team realized in mid-run that they needed assistance in crafting ship sequences and, with Master and Commander among the most well known films of the last 20 years when it came to utilizing ships from centuries ago, they contacted its sailmaster to be a part of the show.

“Just a terrific experience,” says Andrew Reay-Ellers '83, who majored in studio art at Denison, and has actually captained approximately 20 ships in his career. “They had ideas for having more complex sea battles, putting ships in all sorts of situations—I was even able to go travel to South Africa to help them multiple times and they were open to my suggestions. They didn’t take all of them—since I might send 20 pages of notes from the script they sent my way!”

Chelsey Warner '11 also bolstered the team, eventually rising to post production supervisor. “Robert Levine had taken time to talk to me before I graduated from Denison [with Cinema and English Writing majors] and then, after working in casting for Survivor and The Amazing Race, among other things, he called me to see if I would want to work for the show,” she says. “I couldn’t wait! I started out as a writer PA (production assistant) then went to post production and later became post production supervisor.”

“Many things come with the job,” adds Warner, “one is tracking all of the shots in an episode and making sure shots are up to date.”

Levine, who also had written for Jericho and Human Target, says it’s not so easy to move on from Black Sails but believes it’s an apt time for the show to come into port. “We felt like we were able to end it on our terms—we said to Starz that we felt we would reach about the best end of the story after four seasons…” he says. “It’s great when you can have a feeling that you tried to give the audience a full experience.”

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