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Set Visit: Syfy's 'Sanctuary'
We were in Vancouver and heard Amanda Tapping and company discuss Season Two of Sanctuary
The headline of this story is obviously a bit of a misnomer.
Syfy's "Sanctuary," which returns for its second season on Friday (Oct. 9), defines "set" more loosely than most shows. "Sanctuary" travelled the world and journeyed through time in its first season, going from the deepest ocean depths to the Himalayas to Baton Rouge to Victorian England.
Most of that journey, though, was done in front of gigantic green screens on a mammoth stage in Vancouver, with most of the heavy lifting coming courtesy of Lee Wilson and his team at Anthem Visual Effects. The effects artists created locations, whole environments, props and characters, making "Sanctuary" a trailblazer in its field, but also making it difficult to drop by the lower levels of the Sanctuary itself, checking in on the mermaids and growling beasts. Most of that is on computers somewhere and most of it is a work-in-progress, since "Sanctuary" has completed a season of principal photography.
So on Tuesday (Oct. 6), a group of online journalists visited the set of "Sanctuary," but there wasn't much to see, a couple building exteriors shoved to a corner, a single trampoline-shaped green screen and acres of empty space. Some sets are fully immersive experiences -- the "Chuck" Buy More, the Dollhouse, the Destiny from "Stargate Universe" -- but with "Sanctuary," we had to use our imagination, adding extra appreciation for the work of the FX team and Wilson.
"Without him, we would have a much smaller looking show," says series creator Damian Kindler.
"And it would be a lot greener," cracks series director and executive producer Martin Wood.
In lieu of an actual set to take reporters around, the "Sanctuary" stars -- Amanda Tapping, Robin Dunne, Christopher Heyerdahl and Ryan Robbins -- and the creative team sat and chatted with the assembled reporters about the upcoming second season and what's in store for the intrepid Abnormal hunters.
[More after the break... Including some spoilers]
One big question, which I raised, was whether the technology led to any limitations in the first season that were surmounted with the experience of that original run of episodes (which followed a series of webisodes).
"I think this season we're just more confident with it," Tapping says. "We're more comfortable with the camera. We were the first television series in the world to use Red One consistently and once we figured out the pipeline, and there were a few glitches and there's no technical support up here for it -- our DP was online blogging with other people about it as we were shooting -- but we figured it out rather quickly and we figured out the post-pipeline in the first season. So this second season just felt like there was more confidence with what we were doing. I think we all understood the camera and the technology a lot better."
Adds Kindler, "The technology doesn't really limit us. It's actually time and money and sleep, which all were at various times in short supply. But the technology can do whatever you want it to do. You just have to show up and meet it at the same level. With Anthem and the Red camera and the crew that we have, it's limitless and that's what we adore about working on this show. There's just a bottomless well of things you can do."
At times in the early episodes of the first season, there was a real sense that the actors were sometimes struggling with finding their eyelines and navigating the not-quite-there terrain, but the enhanced comfort level as the season progressed was also noticeable.
"Once you get over chromicly green headache -- which is a real thing, you step onto this set and the floor is green and the walls are green and it's brightly lit -- it becomes very intimate in a lot of ways," Tapping says. "You literally can't chew the scenery. It becomes almost minimalistic theater. It becomes very simple. It becomes about your fellow actor and the words and the context, so in some ways it's very simple. Once you get past the idea of 'Oh my God, there's nothing here,' then it just becomes about the scenes and it becomes quite liberating as an actor."
Without giving anything away, the first season of "Sanctuary" ended with a doozy of a cliffhanger, with the Sanctuary employees and the reconstituted The Five struggling to prevent The Cabal from unleashing a toxin that would set off a war between Abnormals and Humans.
So where do we start Season Two?
"The idea was to definitely wrap up the amazing corner we painted ourselves into at the end of of Season One... That was business order No. 1," explains Kindler. "Beyond that, the mission was to deepen things and to really let the show find itself. I think one of the traps that some TV shows find themselves in is that they create a big bad guy or an organization that can breed more bad guys and they keep going back to 'Oh now, we're back to the bad guy factory. There's a new version. Oh my God.' We wanted to say we'd done the Cabal in Season One. We wrapped it up in the beginning of Season Two. And we really did want to leave it more or less done with as we got into the meat of Season Two. And we did, because you just can't go back to that well."
Tapping notes, "Season One was a perfect Season One. It laid out the concept of the show, the characters, the setting, the creatures, the mythology. It laid it out beautifully. Season Two, now we get to really play in this amazing playground that we've set up."
One of the goals this season will be to expand the "Sanctuary" world by taking viewers to international Sanctuaries in London, Tokyo and Mumbai. In an odd twist for a show with this kind of peculiar production process, four members of the "Sanctuary" team -- Kindler, Wood, Tapping and an unidentified person -- actually travelled to Japan and shot for two days.
Tapping cracks, "But then you watch the show and you say, 'This is a green screen show, why did you go over to Tokyo to shoot it?'"
The answer: "Sanctuary" was premiering in Japan and the team went abroad for promotion and decided to work in a sliver of production in the hyper-real streets of Tokyo.
With new environments come a number of new characters.
The most central of the fresh faces will be Agam Darshi as Kate Freelander, of whom Tapping says, "She is this con artist, rough-around-the-edges, swindler, grifter. She knows enough about the Abnormal Network, knows enough about the Cabal, knows enough about the Sanctuary just to be dangerous."
Also new is Robert Lawrenson as Declan, the head of the London Sanctuary, plus an enhanced profile for Jonathan Young's wisecracking, vampiric Nikola Tesla, a fan favorite.
"I think the wonderful thing about Season Two is that we got to really deepen the relationships between characters themselves," Kindler promises. "So when you bring back Tesla, he's as witty and acerbic and sarcastic as ever, but there are actual poignant moments between him and Druitt, between him and Magnus which I think are appropriate and that the audience should be expecting and wanting, that 'Don't just give us the same shtick of Tesla being cheeky.' We're going to try to do that across the board this year. I think some shows are bit afraid to wear their heart on their sleeve and I think we're proud of the fact that 'Sanctuary' does. We have some very very human, very very heart-felt moments this season. We're just not afraid to show our characters as vulnerable and needing to connect with each other... after a big monster fight or all sorts of running and jumping."
Mark Stern, head of Syfy original programming and co-head of Universal Cable Prods, agrees that "Sanctuary" has found new room to expand its tonal limits in Season Two.
"There's a really dark episode that really pushes the envelop, that's post-apocalyptic and takes these characters to places that they've not been," he says. "There's a completely fun, outrageous, comic book-esque episode that is really out there and just borderline broad comedy, but you're in Season Two and you know what the show is, so you have permission to take it to this place."
Also different for Season Two? Tapping, who stars as Dr. Helen Magnus and serves as a very hands-on executive producer, will also go behind the camera for an episode.
"I had directed an episode of 'Stargate' way back, so I really wanted to do it again," Tapping says. "I love the whole visual concept. So I wanted to do it and then when it came close to time for me to do it, I turned to Martin and Damian, it was episode seven of our season this year, and I said, 'I... I... I can't do it. Magnus is so intense this year. I'm producing. I have a child. I can't direct.' And they said, 'You have to do it.' And I'm so glad I did. For me, as an actor and a director -- and I had to direct myself -- it's all about prep. It's all about my shotlist, knowing exactly how I wanted the show to look. I had practically edited it in my head before I shot it, so I knew exactly what I wanted and what I didn't need to shoot and how much coverage I needed and didn't need. With this particular episode, it's a beautiful sort of bottle show, Alan McCulloch wrote it. It's a whodunnit. It's a lot about Will trying to figure out, Magnus is accused of murder and she slowly goes insane, so for me as an actor, because I was acting and producing, I was slowly going insane, so no acting was required, so it was actually a perfect episode for me to direct."
And how did she do?
"It felt very, very natural," says Dunne, who plays Magnus' protege Will. "I had an absolutely blast. I'm just totally intimidated now."
Everybody is quick to credit Tapping with bringing her episode in on-time and under budget.
Adds Kindler, "It really pissed me off, because she really knocked it out of the park and I'm like, 'But you're not available to direct anymore.' You would only do one and thank you for that.'"
What else can we tell you about Season Two? Well, Wilson and Anthem have been entrusted with creating more CG characters.
Wood admits, "This year, what we decided to do is we know what we can do with the backgrounds, we know what we can do with the world, let's experiment with some 3-D characters. Now that was a mistake."
He's kidding, but it's obvious that the ambitious advancement is also making the arduous post-production process take even longer, even if Wilson is jumping at every challenge.
Oh and for the Season Two finale? Let me just whet your appetite with two words: Bollywood dancing.
With all of that to look forward to, Season Two of "Sanctuary" premieres on Friday, Oct. 9 with a two-hour episode from 9 to 11.