On Set: Sci-Fi flyby


Talk to just about any network television producer, and you'll find that one thing there can never be enough of when creating a show is money. Cash flow determines the show's flow. On-camera talent, off-camera talent, fancy sets, special effects--even what's in the caterer's tent--is all dependent on a program's budget.

Traditional sitcoms and standard dramas are generally pretty easy on a network's wallet--limited sets, little special effects, and low overheads result in bloated salaries for actors (hence Charlie Sheen's rumored $1 million paycheck for each episode of Two and a Half Men). Jerry and Elaine never traveled by spaceship around Manhattan--in fact, the number of sets where the majority of Seinfeld took place can easily be counted on two hands.

The science fiction genre, in contrast, is an entirely different beast. Sci-fi is designed to immerse viewers in its worlds, and fans examine its shows under a microscope. Large casts, multiple locations, special effects, believable costumes, and alien makeup add up quickly, automatically putting the necks of sci-fi shows that much closer to the axe when it's time to tweak a programming schedule.

The Sci-Fi Channel, a subsidiary of NBC Universal, is (as its name indicates) dedicated to the geeky genre. As such, the network must find ways around high price tags associated with space travel, alien planets and their inhabitants, and dazzling special effects.

The Sci Fi Channel has done just that--delivering quality shows without cutting corners. The cable channel invited along for its first-ever digital online press tour, which included on-set visits of two of its biggest hits (Battlestar Galactica, Stargate: Atlantis), one of its shows returning for a second season (Eureka), and a brand-new show that has yet to air (Flash Gordon).

All four shows are filmed on location in or around Vancouver, Canada. The city has become a hotbed of television and movie production in North America because of experienced crews, cheaper overheads, and proximity to Hollywood, making the area the third-largest film and television production city in North America behind Los Angeles and New York.

In the following pages, you'll find a recap of each set visited, complete with a behind-the-scenes photo gallery of the set. Fans should also check out the question-and-answer sessions with cast and crew of each show, including Battlestar's Grace Park, Aaron Douglas, and Jamie Bamber, Stargate Atlantis' David Hewlett and Rachel Luttrell, Eureka's Colin Ferguson, Joe Morton, and Salli Richardson, and Flash Gordon's Eric Johnson and Gina Holden. Each video, in the embedded movie player at the top right of the page, runs approximately 50 minutes and gives great insight into the cast's thoughts on each show (warning: there are spoilers for those who aren't up to date, particularly in the Battlestar Galactica session).

Houses that are smarter than most people. A small town with a big secret. Exploding toilets. It's all in Eureka.

The Sci Fi Channel tour officially began in the garage of Henry Deacon, Eureka's resident mechanic and literally explosive engineer. The show is currently filming its second season--episode 11 in the sophomore season, to be exact, after a successful first season as a Sci Fi Channel original series.

Eureka tells the tale of a town with big secrets. The seemingly small town in the Pacific Northwest has all the trademarks of a hillbilly hideout--a small sheriff's office, general store, and a "How do you do?" attitude. However, the city is the project of the US government and populated by the best and brightest; the average IQ of its citizens would rival the average scores of pro bowlers.

Eureka was unique among the shows on the tour in that it was the only program still high off the fact that it had been renewed after its first run. When asked what the most exciting thing about coming back for a second season, Colin Ferguson, the actor who plays the lead role of Sheriff Jack Carter on the program, deadpanned, "That we are coming back for a second season."

The staff, crew, and audience will also have another reason to be excited. As a reward for a job well done, the second season's budget allowed for the building of a massive set for Global Dynamics, the secret organization watching over the brainiacs. The new massive set is quite impressive. Rather than the flimsy wooden backdrops of most shows, the new multistory GD set actually feels like a real building, with various rooms, offices, and corridors, allowing for tracking shots from anywhere within the facility. Most sets end after about 10 feet of walking; the Global Dynamics set is large enough to get lost in.

Still, the show must live by the mantra that all shows must follow: Do it, but do it as cheaply as you can.

After looking around Joe's Garage, the deputy's office (where a toilet was set to explode later that day), and the cafe, the tour moved on to one of the show's most popular sets. Neil Grayston, who plays the egghead Fargo, showed off SARAH (Self Actuated Residential Automated Habitat), a smart house featuring all kinds of neat tricks and effects. Doors close automatically, sinks pop out of walls, and fireplaces light up automatically in the house. These tricks are all human-powered, of course, and require teamwork to make them believable.

"On a feature film, we'd have two months to prepare," Tim Storvick, Eureka's special effects coordinator, told "But in episodic television, it's 'bam, bam, bam.' And if we automated it all, the cost would be geometric."

The result is Storvich and his crew racing from station to station listening for audio cues for timing each effect. They push, pull, and yank various objects, and if all goes well, it's a wrap. However, as Grayston recalls of an early episode designed to show off all the house's gadgets, things can go wrong when he forgets a line. The result is an exhausted, sweaty, and irritated effects crew and one red-faced actor who just wants to crawl under a rock.

Even with the occasional mishap, the crew of Eureka seems incredibly tight. The "bourgeois" actors, with their make-up and costumes, get along just fine with the "blue-collar" crew. For example, occasionally Ferguson will improv a line and ask a boom guy if it works in the scene, and when it doesn't, the boom man lets him know and the line is cut. There is no classism on the set, just people doing their jobs and having a great time doing it.

"There's going to be [some sort of electronic pulse] that blows up in the cafe later on today," said Storvich with a smile. "Tables, trash, and actors are going to go flying across the room."

Just another day in Eureka.

Once a spin-off of a spin-off, Stargate Atlantis is now top dog of all the Stargate properties.

Sci-fi television shows are a hotbed of spin-offs, and one of the strongest spin-offs still going today is Stargate Atlantis. The show splintered from Stargate SG-1, which packed up its gear for good with a series finale earlier this year. Atlantis, which debuted in 2004, is continuing on even though its source material is done. Its set, called the Bridge Studio, served as the second stop of the tour.

The centerpiece of the lot is the main room with the large Stargate (pictured, left) and various controlling stations, and was the envy of other shows before Eureka's new Global Dynamics set. (Atlantis cast members joked about adding another floor to the set to regain their spot atop the heap.)

But aside from that impressive location, much of the rest of the show is filmed within a menagerie of sets spread across a giant lot. Most sets serve double- or triple-duty (and sometimes even more), with interchangeable parts offering new looks. Many of the outdoor village scenes are actually filmed indoors, with lights and dimmers serving as the control for the heavens.

Although the village sets looked pretty unchangeable, Brigitte Prochask, the publicist for the show, assured everyone that they were in fact very malleable. Staircases that rose some 20-feet into the air and seemed chiseled out of rock could easily be turned and repositioned, buildings could be moved across the street to create an entirely new look--all it takes is some heavy lifting.

Intgerior shots are done much the same. Science fiction interiors have long relied on stale, industrial looks, and this is not just for aesthetics. Walls can fit together like Lego pieces, allowing long corridors and rooms to be built within hours. Anyone who has ever used a level editor in a video game will get the idea--it's almost like copying-and-pasting in real life.

Stargate: Atlantis is also fond of recycling. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that parts of the Atlantis were actually leftover from the set of the movie Blade Trinity. What's more, now with SG-1 out of the picture, their resources can now be used in Atlantis.

However, it was when both were filming that Sci-Fi got the most bang for its buck. Two shows that share resources means production costs go way down, explained Prochask, and that puts a smile on executives' faces. Suits will take two shows for the price of one-and-a-half any day.

Battlestar Galactica is the network's biggest hit, and unsurprisingly had one of the most awe-inspiring sets.

Time for the main course. The final set shown off on day one was the cable channel's mega-hit Battlestar Galactica. Called "the best show on television" by various critics, the re-imagining of the campy 1970s show is proof that quality science-fiction does not require fancy makeup, outrageous special effects, or other budget-fattening moves.

The show still follows the struggle of mankind to survive attack after attack of the robotic Cylons, but with producer Ronald D. Moore at the helm, nothing is predictable. Cylons now have the ability to mimic humans, a decision that increases tension onboard the Battlestar Galactica (and simultaneously cuts down the makeup and special effects budget). "Hooray!" says the man signing the checkbook.

A handful of episodes into the fourth and final episode, the Battlestar set was easily the busiest of all the locations visited. Crew were omnipresent, buzzing around from set to set in order to meet deadlines. A typical work week on a Sci-Fi Channel show begins at dawn and ends in the evenings. Working six or seven days a week puts the shooting schedule at one episode every week. Depending on the number of location shots (off-set scenes, think the outdoor bits that take place on Caprica), that number can fluctuate in either direction.

The crew was busiest around a brand new set being constructed specifically for the next episode. The set was in its early stages, with the wooden framework being laid down first, to be followed by piping and painting. The friendly tour guide wouldn't reveal what the purpose of the new set was, and only an unattended blueprint and a storyboard sketch gave any clue as to its purpose. However, you'll have to wait until season four airs...there won't be any spoilers here.

The tour also went through a brand new set that was decked out with crimson pillows and curtains, asian rugs, and decade-old cookware. The room gave off a vibe of a mid-ship opium den, contemporary with us yet dated within Battlestar's lore. Once again, there was no talk about how the set fits in with the show, with the only clue being that it is part of the Battlestar Galactica.

One thing Battlestar does exceptionally well is deliver the feeling that everything takes place on cramped ship. Quarters are tight on camera because they are actually tight in real life. The crew's bunks were situated in a room that seemed like it belonged on a submarine--anyone with a decent wingspan could touch opposing walls. In order to get the camera in for shots, each of the four walls can easily be removed.

The drama started off as a three-hour miniseries, with its fate as a television show undecided. To keep costs down, sets were flipped for multiple uses. In fact, one room served up to eight different purposes, including the enlisted head, pilot's ready room, and infirmary. Now, the same room still serves multiple purposes, just not as many.

The one room where it appears that all fears of expense were thrown out the window was the bridge. Stepping into the set would have given any die-hard Battlestar fan heart palpitations. Unlike other sets seen throughout the day, the bridge looked exactly like it does on television--the only thing missing was Edward James Olmos.

Unlike the boring blips of other computer screens on other sets, the dozens of displays on Battlestar's bridge were full of action and mesmerizing little details. Intercom phones were weighty and bulky, radar screens were active (no Cylons detected), and war strategy maps were marked with Odama's notations (and the occasional rap lyric, likely posted by a bored crew member).

"The stuff we did [here on Battlestar Galactica] costs about the same as sets on a feature film," said production designer Richard Hudolin, who, when not guided members of the press around the sets, is in charge of building them. "The difference is we get to use these for 22 episodes and not just two hours [of footage]." While cost is definitely hanging over the head of the show, it isn't priority number one. "We do what we gotta do." The crew budgets accordingly and looks long-term, rather than just at the present.

The hangar is another set that plays tricks on the eyes. What seems like a massive bay capable of easily holding a squadron of Mark II Vipers is actually slightly larger than a full-sized basketball court. Shot at the right angle, however, and the imagination fills in the rows and rows of ships the Chief needs to fix off screen.

The centerpieces of the hangar were clearly the Vipers, and the set currently had a pair of Mark IIs (one pristine, one just out of a dogfight) and a Mark VII, all life-sized and highly detailed. Tucked in the corner was a Raptor scoutship, the agile vehicle used by Boomer and company to explore planets or survey space. Again, the ship was meticulously detailed, and quite a sight up close. Judging by the models, it was clear that the budgeting strategy clearly was relaxed for the ships, which looked flight capable.

An appropriate wardrobe is essential for any good sci-fi show, and much of the Sci-Fi Channel's resourcefulness was on display with the clothes from Battlestar. With the ability to travel anywhere, sci-fi shows demand that their costume designers be jack-of-all-trades. Battlestar calls for various degrees of military-issued uniforms, civilian clothes, and of course, the elegant evening dresses of Number Six, played by Tricia Helfer.

At least two of each costume are made to ensure safety should one meet an unpredictable coffee stain or other disaster. And just because some clothes look contemporary, it doesn't mean that costume designers need to stop by Rodeo Drive to pick up Number Six's latest gown. Instead, thrift stores were raided, and a handful of jackets were torn apart and reassembled for a smart, yet sexy, courtroom dress for Helfer.

Budget always has to be watched, but in Battlestar's case, the team knows exactly where the dough should go.

The newest show on the tour, Flash Gordon, is filmed about 45 minutes away from Downtown Vancouver.

Revisiting an old property worked for Battlestar Galactica, and Sci-Fi hopes the same rings true for one of its new members of the family.

Flash Gordon, based on the comic book character of the same name, will make its debut later this year on the Sci-Fi Channel. The show will combine action, adventure, and comedy, and star Smallville's Eric Johnson as the titular hero who battles Ming (John Ralston), the ruler of the planet Mongo. Also included in the cast are Gina Holden as Dale Arden, Jody Racicot as Dr. Hans Zarkov, and Karen Cliché as Baylin.

As the new kid on the block, Flash has a new set about an hour south of Vancouver. The studio is actually a retired indoor horse-riding range, and looks like a gigantic barn. What once were stables for horses are now pens for set materials, sunlight shines through small holes in the roof, and birds sometimes even take residence in the rafters. It's almost a little television studio on the prairie.

When asked about the rural location for the show's set, executive producer Tom Rowe told that the town of Langley was perfect for the show.

"Langley has the outdoor vibe of the planet Mongo," Rowe said. "We had a limited timeframe [to find a set], and [the riding range] fit the bill."

Flash Gordon is fairly heavy on the outdoor scenes, with slightly more than half of its scenes shot on location. Because of this, the indoor set is spacious and there's plenty of room to add sets further down the line. The dozen or so standing sets are highly stylized though, with elements of classic art deco tweaked slightly for a look that appears futuristic; "retro-futuristic" as Johnson calls it.

The show's costume designer, Heidi Samuda, took the limited budget allowed for wardrobes and used them to her advantage. "Financial limitations have allowed us to tap into out creativity and resourcefulness," she said. In addition to scouring thrift shops and importing fabric from all over, Samuda found ingredients from the grocery store--one headdress includes lacquered giant Chinese mushrooms.

Flash Gordon is a freshman show, and must prove itself before expanding its budget. Rowe is focusing on the show's strengths, which he believes is in the writing and character relationships.

"Obviously we have to be clever about stuff when we do each episode," Rowe told "So in every episode we try and find a few things we can do really well. Thankfully, we have great writers and the show is built on the relationships [between the characters], and not so much Star Wars technology. We find our moments and we spend accordingly."

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