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Warning: This interview contains minor spoilers for the remainder of Outlander season 3.

What looks like an 18th-century wooden pirate ship is sitting in the middle of a parking lot in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s not just set dressing for hit show Outlander; it’s a “working ship,” which means it could actually sail on the water, for a stretch at least. I try spinning the wooden ship’s wheel on the deck, and it moves, but it wouldn’t actually help me steer. For that, you’d have to use a box down below, which would help you drive the ship like a car, because there are wheels attached to this baby. “It’s quite amusing,” actor Sam Heughan, who plays Outlander‘s Jamie Fraser, says during filming for season three. “These boats are so incredible, so realistic, it just transports you. As soon as you get on one, and the sails open, you feel like it has a life of its own.”

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This particular vessel, called the Artemis, is one of three ships we’ve seen this season on the show. The Artemis is the ship Jamie and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) take to the Caribbean to find their nephew Young Ian, who is now a prisoner on the pirate ship, the Bruja. But the rescue mission hits a snag when Claire is in turn shanghaied by British man-of-war, the HMS Porpoise. These sea voyages have been a big part of season three, which is based on book three of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Voyager—or, as Heughan says, “when the journey becomes more interesting than the destination.”

It’s not easy or cheap to realistically portray ocean voyages. The production’s first order of business was finding the right location. They considered the Caribbean itself and Hawaii, and studios with water tanks in Malta and Mexico. But they kept coming back to the idea of “stealing” the set from another Starz television show: Black Sails, which was equipped not only with the required water tanks, but also a recreated version of an 18th-century Caribbean town, and, most importantly, tall ships.

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“It would have taken us five years—five seasons—to build all of this,” says executive producer Matthew B. Roberts while standing on the deck of the Artemis, gesturing with a sweeping arm to include the Porpoise nearby, the sound stages, the tanks, a lagoon, and a dock. “We came in and redecorated, repurposed everything, because their Kingston and our Kingston are about 80 years apart. Just by coming to South Africa, and utilizing this facility, and this crew, we were able to do this.”

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) on the Porpoise

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The Artemis was custom-made for Outlander, but the two other ships, the Porpoise and the Bruja, were previously seen on Black Sails. Although the Porpoise is the bigger ship—about three times the size of the Artemis—it lacks an actual bow and stern when it sits on the lot. (Those are added digitally.) The Bruja appears to rest right next to the water tank. “We never actually filmed on the Bruja,” Roberts says, “but we used it as a model for the visual effects when Jamie and Claire witness Young Ian being taken off the coast by pirates.”

Because Cape Town is experiencing a severe drought, no water is wasted for tank use—every drop has been here for the past five years, and it keeps getting recycled via a collection and filtration system. “People would get sick if they drank this water,” Roberts says, as we stand next to the murky tank. “It’s no good for drinking.” It is good, however, for shooting underwater scenes, which the producers monitor from above. “We yell, and they hear us through a speaker underneath,” Roberts says. “Like, ‘That looks good, move to your right!’”

​Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan on the Outlander set

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan on set

STARZ

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What really sells the ships’ ocean journeys are blue-screen and green-screen visual effects, inserted later. The below-deck scenes of the Artemis are shot on a separate soundstage, where you can walk through the cabins and holds, or even sleep in the tour bus-like bunks. The windows look out to a “horizon,” which comes later. Shooting above deck, however, requires the cooperation of the weather. The ships can be moved around to get the best angle, so that, for example, the director of photography can shoot with the sun as a backlight. “We had to wait and wait and wait to get some cloudy skies for one scene,” Roberts says. “It was too clear…. And then we had one great stormy day, and I was lucky enough to have three cameras up, and we had four or five actual lightning strikes.”

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If you’ve been impressed with the actors’ ability to make it look like they’re staggering about on a wave-borne vessel, there’s actually a secret to that. Both the below-deck and above-deck spaces on the Artemis are mounted on a gimbal with hydraulics underneath, giving the rolling impression of being at sea. “It’s hard to fake that,” Roberts says, as we try to steady our sea legs, the floor moving beneath us. Surface water and crashing waves are simulated, but the water rushing on to the deck is all real, lashed about by a combination of wind and rain machines. “What I enjoyed most was that we’d rehearse it when the actors are dry, and then they have to get wet,” Roberts says. “So my favorite part of the day was when I could just completely soak them. I know they secretly loved it.”

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The waves might be fake, but Heughan learned that they can feel pretty real. To pull off one stunt where a wave was supposed to hit him and toss him to the other side of the boat, he tried to fall on soft bags, “only to discover that they weren’t soft at all!” the actor laughs. “But I’ve had a lot of fun on the boats, especially with the rigging, climbing to the top.”

Doing all the season’s sailing on this parking lot sea saved Outlander “vast amounts of money,” Roberts says. Had the production remained in Scotland, they could have only spent about half of one episode at sea, versus the several episodes we actually saw in the end. “All of the other episodes would suffer,” Roberts says. “We wouldn’t have been able to tell the story.”



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