Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Toronto Diary Day Nineteen

09.08.16
by Daniel Abraham

Well that was a very long day indeed.  Started on one stage, then moved to a different one over lunch, which always causes a certain amount of disorganization and flutter which falls — as everything seems to — on the shoulders of out assistant directors. One of the interesting things I’ve discovered this year is how much the cast and crew become the institutional memory of a show. The directors are critical for putting the episodes together and managing the creative vision of the show, but the assistant directors, the director of photography, the folks in construction and wardrobe and makeup and sound — and the actors above all — carry a weight of habit and understanding that I have to believe leaves directors in weird position of being both the boss and the new kind on the block.

Watching our first AD herd all us kittens and deliver the support and organization that the director needs to function is kind of amazing.  Today alone, we moved through two sets, wire/teeter/crane work for three people and one large prop, maybe half a dozen scripted scenes (which means something like thirty setups), rehearsal for a sequence we’re filming later, five or six promotional videos and mini-interviews, and lunch.  And dinner.  Keeping something this huge and this fast on track happens because the assistant directors are ruthless, supportive, professional, and deeply educated about what the show is and what needs to happen to keep the process rolling. Everything from safety to time management to continuity rests to one degree or another on their shoulders.  What they remind me of most from my ancient days working in community theater in high school is the stage manager. I can’t imagine what we’d do without them.

That’s not true.  I can.  But I was born with an unhealthy fondness for travesty.

Tomorrow morning, we’re headed in for another round, and it promises to be just as rowdy as today, with a couple extra things on the side that will pull one or both of us away for a few hours. It should be amazing.

Also and unrelated, I heard a bunch of amazingly juicy gossip about another production that I would be sued into oblivion if I shared.  So that was fun.

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Toronto Diary Day Eighteen

09.07.16
by Ty Franck

Wow, lots to talk about today.

So, first day of shooting after the long weekend, and we didn’t give ourselves an easy schedule for the day. Our episode 13 director had to deal with a ton of action, squibs, blood packs, stunt work, and furniture tossing today. And, because Daniel and I wrote the episode, all of it was peppered with dialog and back and forths between the characters.

We did not create an easy day for either the director or the actors.

But everyone came through, shiny and chrome. Lots of amazing work with Frankie Adams, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Nick Tarabay today. We also had some great guest star work, and some stellar dodging and exploding done by our crack stunt team. I feel like I can safely say the final episode of season 2 of The Expanse will thoroughly wreck everyone’s shit, and leave you panting for season 3.

Sadly, this is one of those situations where going into the details of what we worked on would be spoilers. But I will talk about the three kinds of bullet hits we do. That’s fun, right?

First, we have squibs. This is the old standard. A small explosive charge placed on a wall or actor that blows up when a radio signal hits it, and is generally used to simulate a bullet strike. On an actor, the squib is often placed behind a blood pack, so that when it goes off you get that icky red spray. On a wall, it will blow a hole and throw debris. Plus side, a squib is a little explosion, so it creates a very realistic impact site. Minus side, it’s a little explosion and is kind of dangerous. So we don’t place squibs where they might throw debris at an actor’s face.

Next, we have what the special effects people call Zirc rounds. These are paintball sized plastic balls filled with zirconium, that explode with a bright flash of sparks when they’re fired into a solid surface. They’re generally fired from a modified paintball gun. These are useful when you need to show bullet impacts, but don’t want to blow holes in your set. They look cool, make a nice flash of light, and they make a nifty bang. Downside is that they are a hard plastic paintball filled with sparky stuff, so you don’t want them fired toward human eyeballs or squishy bits.

Lastly, we have the much maligned visual effect hit. This is where the VFX department creates a CGI ‘squib’ and the accompanying blood spatter or debris. Used in moderation, in situations where the actor would be endangered by practical squibs, these work fine. Typically, you dress in the wound or wall damage practically, then the VFX department ‘paints over’ this damage until the shot happens, then they reveal it. So the visual effect only hides actual practical damage for a moment. It cuts down on CGI, and the impact sites look very realistic because they actually ARE real. VFX can also add in a squib like flash of light and puff of smoke. CGI isn’t always the best choice, but when you’re working in proximity to actors, it’s often the safest one.

So that’s squibs.

Anyway, after the long shooting day, Daniel and I went out to dinner with a few Expanse people, and generally cool guy and friend of the show Adam Savage. I got to ask Adam my number one Mythbusters question, to which he gave a lengthy and fascinating answer. We also talked about the travails of making a long running TV show, and what the coolest robots are.

I’ve had a few chances to chat with Adam in the past, mostly at comic cons. But this was my first chance to just chill with him over and meal and chat. He’s a genuinely nice guy with a lot of great stories. It’s incredibly flattering that he’s such a fan of the show. Makes me feel like we’re doing something right.

I finished off the evening by drinking wine with Naren Shankar and plotting the third season of the show, and laying out the pilot he wants to collaborate with us on.

And then it was now, and I don’t know what happens next.

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Toronto Diary Day Seventeen

09.05.16
by Daniel Abraham

Labor day.  A day of rest and contemplation of the fruits that the labor movement has brought to our lands: 5 day weeks, 8 hour workdays, child labor laws, health and safety standards. Speaking as a member of the WGA and a card-carrying union man, I stand with labor today as every day.  Only today, not at the office.

Because I’m in my hotel room, reviewing copy edits.  Because they’re due tomorrow.

I did take a couple hours off to go upstairs and meet with the director and some of the actors who are filming tomorrow so we could do a little rehearsal and be ready to hit the ground — which is to say the set — running in the morning.  I understand that not every show has a cast that chooses to meet on the weekends and prep for the show, but all the rehearsals I’ve attended have been civilized, interesting conversations.  Often with wine or coffee, and always with brilliant company.

The week coming up?  It will be awesome.  And it will kick my ass.

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Toronto Diary Day Sixteen

09.05.16
by Ty Franck

There is literally nothing to post about today, since it was a Sunday on a long holiday weekend. Daniel worked on some copy edits. I played board games with some friends. That’s pretty much it.

But I’m curious how many people are reading these things. So let’s do a contest. Tweet “Script me baby” @jamessacorey on twitter and be entered into a drawing to get a signed copy of the scrip to episode 13 of this season. It’s an episode Daniel and I wrote. I’ll see how many cast I can get to sign it too.

Won’t be able to send it until after the episode actually airs, but I promise I’ll hang onto it until then and you’ll definitely get it.

So, let’s see who enters to win it.

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Toronto Diary Day Fifteen

09.04.16
by Daniel Abraham

Technically, today began with finishing up the shoot and limping home shortly after midnight, but judging by the common idiom of sleep cycles, we haven’t been into the office today. We did have a quite lovely dinner with Frankie Adams and her gentleman, though.

Fan Expo Canada is going on walking distance from my hotel room right now.  I walked by folks in the clothing of my people — cosplayers, congoers, and folks with geeky t-shirts — on my way to the grocery store earlier on.  There’s going to be an Expanse panel there, if it wasn’t already done today. A bunch of the actors are going (or have gone).  But me? Locked in the tower with copy edits.  If I can get through another 50 pages before bed, I’m going to reward myself with a walk to a bookstore tomorrow.  If I don’t…

It’s a little weird being both an on-set supervising producer for a television show and a science fiction novelist. It’s even weirder being about half of both, with Ty carrying the slack when I falter.  All in all, I’d say he and I both have about a job and a half worth of work right now.  Given that the show runner appears to have about three jobs worth, I feel like we’re doing pretty well. But the part where we sit on laurels and avoid effort hasn’t kicked in yet.

So without much news to add since yesterday, I’ll make do with:

— I heard something unconfirmed and unofficial about the streaming deal on the show which makes me hopeful.
The Verge thinks we’re quite bingeable.
— I’ve seen cover art for Book 7, and it’s great
— A good copy editor is worth their weight in gold
— Naps are good (but you probably already knew that).

 

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Toronto Diary Day Fourteen

09.03.16
by Ty Franck

An on set day.

Spent the day on one set, watching basically one scene over and over again. This is the secret about making a TV show that most people don’t know. Most days? It’s boring as shit.

First, shoot the master. This is the big wide shot that gives the geography of the scene. All the characters in one shot, all the movement, all in one shot.

Then we start shooting the two shots. These are the camera angles with two of the characters in them at the same time. Then we turn the cameras around, and shoot everything from the other side. Then we shoot coverage, which is each character in close up.

And in every single version of this, it’s the exact same location, and the characters are speaking the exact same lines.

I did this for twelve hours today, on a single set, with a single scene.

Plus side: The scene had Bobbie and Avasarala.

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Toronto Diary Day Thirteen

09.02.16
by Daniel Abraham

Left the hotel at 9 am.

(The hotel is really quite lovely. Near a park. Decent restaurants nearby. Very civilized.)

Stopped by set.

(Today was a double-up day when we had two different episodes shooting concurrently on different sets, so that while the last few scenes of episode 12 are being filmed in one place, the first few of 13 are underway elsewhere. This isa little tricky for the crew who have to make sure all the equipment and personnel get where they need to be. But it makes handing complex scenes that span the two episodes comparatively easy.)

In editing, worked on cuts of episodes 11 and 9.

(Editing, of all the stages in this very complex process has become my One True Love. This step literally took hours, and it made me want to be a film editor in my next incarnation. The process is *very* reminiscent of writing a novel, from the attention to very fine points — word choice and paragraphing &c. in the one case, picking exactly the right frame of performance and the perfect moment to cut &c. in the other. There was one scene in particular where by extending it for a few seconds and adjusting the temped in music, the scene’s function in the story shifted 180 degrees.  It was awesome. At this point, I’m considering popping for the editing software, watching a bunch of tutorials to figure out how to use it, and seeing if I can’t actually start making things. I am deeply, deeply grateful to the editors who let me sit in on their sessions with the show runner.)

Wrote ADR for an earlier episode

(I also like writing ADR, which turns out to be useful because not everyone does.  These are the lines that aren’t in the script or weren’t filmed on the day that we decide we need to clarify or bridge moments in the final product. But it’s also background chatter — newscasts, control room banter, hospital announcements. All the things that are there as texture but not to be listened to.  Of course, they all need to be scripted and performed, just like anything.  That was maybe two hours start to finish.)

Wrote an additional scene for an earlier episode

(One of the things that keeps coming up is the idea of a show like this — or a film — being written three times: once by the writers, once by the director, and once by the editor. As we see the cuts coming together, things that seemed clear and obvious on the page sometimes develop holes where we can see there’s a critical moment or conversation that’s missing. And if we see that early enough, we can add them in. In this case, there was something cool we set up and then jumped over, but we aren’t so far along that we can’t slide it in and fit all the story moments we wanted. It is a little stressful as a writer, and I appreciate the actors and directors and all the crew who rise to the occasion for these. It’s going to make the episode that much better.)

Had drinks with the director, the show runner, and Ty.

(And the director’s wife, who seems like a lovely person and makes me wish I could have brought my family along too. They had martinis. I had green tea. This isn’t technically part of work, but it also sort of is.  There are a lot of conversations about the project that don’t happen in the office or on the set, and the chance to talk through not just the logic and needs of this particular episode, but the show as a whole, the genre, and the philosophy of the medium actually translates pretty directly into how we can approach specific, concrete issues moving forward. It’s why we’ve spent so much time in the writers’ room and on set through this process — Ty more than me, but as much as I could manage too.)

Got back to the room at 1 am.

(16 hour workday.  Getting picked up at 10 am for the next round.)

Wrote a blog post.

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Toronto Diary Day Twelve

09.01.16
by Ty Franck

So, this will be sort of a short one.

Today we did a VFX spotting session, where we went through an episode scene by scene and discussed the specific Visual Effects in those scenes. Our even block VFX supervisor, Bret Culp, sat with us and took notes and asked questions and helped dial it in. It’s astonishing how much work goes into planning and then executing the VFX for this show.

We also did a VFX meeting to discuss motion capture (our first time on the show) and the VFX team led that conversation. It’s a complicated project bring mocap from a dude in a funny dotted suit, all the way to a fully animated thing that’s photorealistic for the show. But they really seem to know how to make it happen.

Huge bravo to that team. They really elevate the entire process.

Oh, and it occurs to me we haven’t discussed blocks. So, we block shoot our episodes, which means we shoot two episodes at a time, with one director working on both. So, odd blocks are eps 1 and 2, even block is ep 3 and 4, and so on. Bret is the even block VFX supervisor, and Bob Munroe is odd block. We also have two assistant director groups, one for even block and one for odd block. It means at any given time, two episodes are in prep, two episodes are shooting, and two episodes are in post.

I also managed to make it down to the set and watch a few scenes from episode 12 being shot. Our block 6 director (block six is episodes 11 and 12) is Rob Leiberman. You may remember his name from episodes 5 and 6 last year. So wanted to spend a little time with Rob and catch up and see some of his scenes even though I’m not officially producing his episodes (we’re producing episodes 2 and 13 this year, since we wrote them).

That doesn’t mean it was all just fun and games. There’s a complicated handoff from episode 12 to episode 13 and I tagged along while the two directors figured out the blocking. I was there to answer questions about the story so that whatever solution they came up with kept all the story elements intact across both episodes. They came to an agreement quickly, and I think this potentially tricky transition will be pretty smooth.

As a fun side tidbit, while I was hanging out with Rob I got to watch Frankie Adams, in her Bobbie Draper awesomeness, intimidate and then beat the crap out of someone. So that was the highlight of my day.

Tomorrow is our episode 13 first shooting day! Wish us luck.

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Toronto Diary Day Eleven

08.31.16
by Daniel Abraham

The rewrites have slowed to a trickle… but they never entirely stop.  New sets of notes come in from the network or from the actors or the development company or we generate them ourselves as we talk through the scenes.  We’re well past the point of making structural changes to the script — no new characters or sets (or props or costumes) — but the dialog gets progressively closer and closer to what it should be.

This morning, I began by watching the director’s cuts of two episodes with the director and the editors.  It’s fascinating to see how much the initial cut of the show shifts and changes. The rewriting — at least in the sense of telling the story — doesn’t even change when the film’s all shot.  The cuts I saw today were lovely, but they’re also the start point of draft after draft after draft in this medium.  Music and color correction and sound and VFX will all still be layered in before it airs, and what I saw today will only have been the bones of it.

I also got to see some of the editorial adjustments on some of the earlier episodes in response to meetings earlier in the week.  I am smitten with film editing. It think the transformations of story that go on in the editing rooms are hands-down the most interesting things I’ve seen in this whole process.  In my next life, I would like to be a film editor.

After that was the tone meeting for the season finale, which involved going through the whole script scene-by-scene with the director and talking through not only what’s on the page, but what’s underneath it all — what the characters are feeling, how the scenes grow from (and set up) the story before and after, specific concerns about how a particular scene could be misinterpreted if all you have to do on is what’s on the page.

Which is to say, it’s exactly what you never get when you’re writing prose: the chance to say “Here’s my work, and here’s how you’re supposed to read and understand it.”  I enjoyed the hell out of it.

We’re rapidly running out of prep time.  The days of actually sitting on the set, watching what we imagined being acted out will start very soon.  If we’ve done a good job up to now, it’ll be smooth, quick, effective, and easy.  If we’ve overlooked something, we’ll be there to address the bumps.  If we screwed up, all our flaws will come to light.  So that’ll be interesting too.

I was trying to describe the office to my Darling Wife, and the best I could come up with is that I feel like I’m dancing on a landslide.  I’m being as graceful and precise as I can while this whole massive thing is moving with a momentum of its own, and there’s no stopping it.

The conversation about how to promote the show is also going on, which is a whole different process with a different cast of characters. About that, there’s not much I’m permitted to say yet.  But if it goes well, I hope we can bring the show onto the radar of a whole bunch of people who may have missed it the first time out.

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Toronto Diary Day Ten

08.30.16
by Ty Franck

Let’s talk tech scouts.

So, the tech scout is fascinating the first time you do one, and mind numbing every subsequent time. Here’s what happens:

For this particular scout, the 1st AD (they come up a lot on here, don’t they?) takes the director, the production designer, the construction coordinator, the VFX supervisor, the Special Effects key, the Best Boy Grip, the Gaffer, the Stunt Coordinator, and the episode producers (us!) along on a tour of the sets. This is NOT like the set tour we took last week. This is not a chance for the director to see sets for the first time. This is the director’s opportunity to explain to the crew what shots they want in each set, so the crew can discuss the technical requirement necessary to deliver those shots.

Let’s take each department one at a time here:

The production designer and construction coordinator are there to talk to the director about what physical set changes might be needed to accomplish the shots. Do we need to wild a wall (a wild wall is one that can come out or go back in to let cameras shoot through it)? Do we need to cut holes in things to let cameras or stunt rigging through? Does one angle need a shoot off (a short run of wall to make it appear the set continues even when it doesn’t)?

The VFX supervisor is there to talk about shots that include a blue screen, or a wire removal (for stunts) or a motion capture element. Sometimes they need to create bullet hits, or damage to the ship. Sometimes they need to HIDE damage until the proper time in a scene. Lots of bullet holes in walls are already there, and just digitally painted over until the gunshot goes off. Stuff like that.

The Special Effects department is there for anything that’s a practical effect. A squib (tiny explosive) in the wall to show bullet impacts. Or a wire to float something. Or a part of the set that really crumples or breaks or explodes. Or smoke or steam coming out of a pipe. Anything that isn’t a CGI effect is handled by those guys.

The Best Boy Grip is on hand to talk about the equipment necessary for the camera crew. Will this need a dolly, or a steadicam, or a crane? This is important because the production rents equipment on a need basis, so getting the right equipment on set on the right day is vital. If you needed a crane and don’t have a crane, everything shuts down.

The gaffer is the head electrician. His job is to make sure the sets have the correct lighting equipment in place and ready to go for the shooting days. He works closely with the director of photography to make sure each scene is lit according to the DPs overall look for the show. Rigging the lights on a set takes time, so getting the plan established early keeps the production on schedule. Nothing drives a director crazier than a crew waiting for a light to be put in.

If stunts will be needed, the stunt coordinator is there to discuss how to give the director the stunt action their shots will need, and to coordinate with both VFX and Special Effects to create them. Will we need wires? Can the VFX department easily paint those wires out? Is there a better placement for them? If stunts are firing guns, can special effects do the squibs to show bullet impacts, or will safety concerns mean they have to be digital?

And us, the writers. We’re there to answer any questions about the story elements. How does this shot convey the necessary information for the overall story? Each director concentrates on their episode, so it’s up to the producers (specifically the show runner, and sometimes the episode writers) to track the story elements through the entire season. A director might want to drop a scene or a shot, not realizing that scene gives information vital to something three episodes later.

Mostly, though, the process is a huge team effort. The director tells the crew what they want, the rest of the team works with them to figure out the best way to deliver it. And more than any other business I’ve worked in, everyone is a self starter. They volunteer suggestions, try to find creative solutions, and work together to make the best thing possible in each shot. It’s kind of amazing to behold.

At least the first time. After that, it’s several hours of walking sets and discussing camera angles at length. Yawn.

In other news, Daniel and Naren Shankar (showrunner) and I did a quick polish pass on episode 13 to include some good notes the cast gave us after their rehearsal. In a series, the actors really do start to take ownership of their characters, and develop a real sense of what in a scene feels right and what doesn’t. They aren’t always right, because sometimes you’re playing a long game they don’t see yet. But you ignore their feedback at your peril. Sometimes they have an insight into the character you missed.

We also did a production meeting with all the department heads, approved some VFX, approved some props, and visited the editing booth. Daniel has developed a real fascination for the editing process, so he goes into the booth with the editors every chance he gets. I find editing incomprehensible. It’s like art. I know what I like, and I know what I don’t like, and I have no idea how you make either of them.

In more exciting news, we get to see the first cut of episode 109 tomorrow. Won’t be able to report back on that except for generalities, but it’s kind of amazing to watch that first cut of a show, and see all that endless work turned into 42 minutes of something you can actually watch.

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