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

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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Toronto Diary Day Nine

08.29.16
by Daniel Abraham

Another relatively calm day, what with the weekend being the weekend and all.  Went to a Blue Jays game a short walk from the hotel along with a bunch of the other Expanse crew and cast and folk of all sort.  We rooted for the home team, and that went quite well.

Birds in space.

Birds in space.

Then rehearsal with the Roci crew at Steven Strait’s place. It’s fascinating to work through the fine points on a script with people who are as deeply focused on a character as you are, especially when you’re used to being the expert on the subject. This is one of the reasons it’s often a bad idea to have the writers of the original project be part of the writing team that adapts is — it would be really easy to get precious and start telling the actors who the characters are and how to play them. But the truth of the matter is that Steven’s Holden and Dominique’s Naomi and Cas’ Alex and Wes’ Amos — all the versions of the characters that all the cast have built up — are as real and important to them as anyone I’ve written is to me.

Canonicity is a weird idea and one that I’ve been uncomfortable with for a long time. This evening was one of the examples of why not hewing too close to one interpretation of a character of story can be glorious thing. It was a great conversation, it will make the script and the show deeper and better and more interesting…

…but it does mean we’ll be doing some rewrites tomorrow.

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Toronto Diary Day Eight

08.28.16
by Ty Franck

Not much to report. Slept in, then hung around the hotel. In the evening, went to watch a few episodes of The Expanse season 2 with some close friends. Everyone seemed to like it.

Binge

Click to embiggen

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Toronto Diary Day Seven

08.26.16
by Daniel Abraham

There is wisdom in the adage “measure twice, cut once.”

Producing television takes this and doubles down, then doubles down again, then goes a little farther with it, then rechecks its figures.  Not so much “measure twice” as “measure another couple times, check to see that the folks you’re talking to are using the same kind of ruler that.. wait, no this is metric and all the notes were in imperial. I don’t know. Does it make more sense to convert the measurements we already have, or should we remeasure everything so we’re all using the same ruler? Because if we use math, there’s the chance that we’ll get the conversion wrong and it just adds more noise into the system.  And I think they used a cloth tape in wardrobe, is that going to cause a problem if Tony’s using a metal tape on the sets, or are they close enough.  I mean if they’re both metric.”

Looks like we all got the "grey shirts" memo

Looks like we all got the “grey shirts” memo

Today we began with a VFX/SFX/Stunt meeting which meant going through every scene in the script, identifying what VFX (those are the wholly digital bits), what special effects (those are practical effects like squibs and sparks), and what exactly we would be asking of our stunt folks.

Then the very first music spotting session where we went through the first two episodes with Clinton Shorter who is back to score the second season, much to everybody’s delight, mine not the least.

While we’re doing all of this, filming is burning ahead on the sets. Rob Lieberman and the main cast are over on some of my favorite sets of the show getting us ready to begin the end.

I also got some laundry done last night. Turns out the washer and dryer in the residence hotel are small enough that the wardrobe I brought in my carry-on is three separate loads.  Other things I didn’t expect to learn while making tv shows.

Also, and unrelated, this:

GUEST POST: Losing Science in Drama (and Finding Drama in Science)

 

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Toronto Diary Day Six

08.26.16
by Ty Franck

The sixth day, which unlike the Biblical one, does not precede a day of rest.

But it did have an awesome VFX review. This means we spent an hour or so sitting with the VFX folks, led by our second year VFX supervisor Bob Munroe. This is the same Bob Munroe who made it look like Robert Redford was in the middle of the ocean in All is Lost when instead he was sitting on a few feet of prop sail boat in the middle of a middling sized swimming pool. So let me show you the magic of our VFX.

Click the following images to dramatically embiggen.

This, is the parking lot behind our studio:

Behold, the dirt parking lot!

Behold, the dirt parking lot!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We shot someone standing in that parking lot.  Bob’s department turned that shot into this:

That is Bobbie Drbobbieaper in her armor in the middle of a Martian valley.

Now, keep in mind, this is a raw image straight from the vendor. No color grading has been applied. This is the WORST that image will ever look, and I’m sorry, but even so that is Bobbie Draper standing on fucking MARS.

So, yeah, we also saw an epic space battle, possibly around someplace named after an Egyptian god that is possible of wisdom. Not going to show any shots of that. Sorry. Gonna have to tune in January to have your shit fully wrecked by that stuff.

Oh, yeah, and we made a few more tweaks to the last couple episodes of the season script wise, hung out on set for a minute with Steven Strait and Dominique Tipper and Wes Chatham and another dude we might not  be allowed to talk about but his character is named after one of Jupiter’s moons.

We also walked the wrecked corridors of Ganymede, peeked into a secret lab where all sorts of malfeasance was being perpetrated, and strode the creaky decks of the Crying Sleepwalker.

Back in the boring mundane world we did a few marketing and merchandising meetings, and talked about all the awesome things we will be doing and announcing at New York Comic Con so if you’re an east coaster, you’ll definitely want to make it out to that. Daniel and I will liberally hand out high fives.

Tomorrow, I’m going to try and get you guys a short interview with Bob Munroe to talk VFX and maybe a peek at his department. We’ll see what we can wrangle up.

But, seriously, Bobbie Draper on fucking Mars.

*Drops mic*

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Toronto Diary Day Five

08.25.16
by Daniel Abraham

Today: meetings with the props folks, and the people that design all the playbacks on the screens inside the show. A couple conversations about some marketing stuff that I don’t get to talk about, and the final polish on the last script of season two before it flies off to the network…

…and then dinner where among other things, we talked about the next rounds of tweaks on the script.

Me, Ty, Naren Shankar, Wes Chatham, and the remains of a very pleasant dinner.

Me, Ty, Naren Shankar, Wes Chatham, and the remains of a very pleasant dinner.

One of the things that’s been most interesting for me in this whole process — and there is a great deal of this that’s been fascinating — is coming to understand how much a script never stops being rewritten. Naren said that once the last script is off to the network, he feels like the real writing season is finally done, *and* there will be notes from the network that we’ll be working on soon, and changes that we make once the actors all see it and we start getting feedback from them, and then adjustments on the day of filming.  But then we’ll have all the footage shot… and it still won’t be over.

Lines will be lost in the editing room or added in ADR.  The editors will take all the work we’ve done and reform it into the best filmed version of it that we can make.  All of the “well it sounded good in my head” moments will get reconsidered, reworked, recut, and fit together.

And then the VFX and color correction will come in and it’ll be like we’re seeing it again fresh for the first time.  And then the sound mix will come through and things that I didn’t know weren’t already tight will tighten up.

But tonight, the heavy lifting of the writing season is over.

Soon, the work begins…

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Toronto Diary Day Four

08.24.16
by Ty Franck

And the answer to, “What the hell is a concept meeting?”

So, here we are on our fourth day in Toronto. After an exhausting night of sitting in Executive Producer Naren Shankar’s hotel room and rewriting scripts while drinking red wine, we began the next day at a very civilized 9am. It’s a big day. We finally met our episode 13 director, Thor Freudenthal. Now the real work began. Set tours and concept meetings and tone meetings and production meetings.

Set tours are pretty self explanatory. The art director, the production manager, the 1st AD, and our new director took a walk around the studio lot to look at all the sets we’d be using for this episode. As the episode writers, Daniel and I tagged along to answer story questions where applicable. This is more important than you think, because often this is the director’s first chance to begin imagining what shots he might use to capture the scenes. Everyone has seen drawings, but it’s not until you see the actual space that some of the best camera angles and shooting strategies come to mind.

Next up is the concept meeting. This is what a concept meeting looks like:

IMG_2083That gang of folks over there are some of the people whose job it is to take whatever crazy bullshit Daniel and I put into our script, and turn it into actual pictures. I say some, because apparently the shot we took cut off our amazing costume designers, and everyone’s favorite VFX coordinator, Cailin Munroe, is blocked by the dude next to her. The VFX supervisor, Bob Munroe, is also not visible here, but he’s no one’s favorite, so that’s ok. (Hi Bob!)

 

At this extremely long meeting, the 1st AD, Joel Hay, walks the entire group through the nearly fifty page script stopping at every beat to discuss the technical requirements. Script says, “In zero G, the wrench floats up from the floor.” Joel pauses and looks around the room. Jim in props says, “Is that any old wrench? Is it high tech? Does it need lights or gack?” (Gack is the generic term for extra stuff added to shit to make it look cooler.) Tim in Special Effects says, “Are we flying the wrench? Can I do a cable fly or will it need to rotate on it’s way up?” Bob in Visual Effects says, “We can do this. It’s a simple gag. As long as no one is touching the wrench or walking around it, we can just CGI that in pretty cheap if it needs to do more than just float up.”

And on and on and on. For every beat. On every page. And we discuss squibs and blood packs and costumes and sets and camera rigs and lighting and every damn thing the show needs to make a 42 minute movie. Told you. It’s a long meeting.

At several points, the director or the show runner ask us, the writers, questions about the intent of scenes or to clarify something that isn’t as precise as it needed to be. And you better come correct. This room is full of about 300 years of combined movie making experience. You start talking out your ass, you’re gonna get called on it. For newbie writers, it can get a little intimidating. Thankfully, now on our second season of this, Daniel and I acquit ourselves well.

Then, after the long ordeal of the set tour and then the even longer concept meeting, all we need to do is hang out in our office plowing through a final script polish with the show runner. Easy peasy.

The writer, hard at work

What it looks like when writers are hard at work.

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