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

Toronto Diary Day Twenty Six, that’s a wrap baby!

09.19.16
by Ty Franck

So here we are at wrap. Episode 13 is in the can. All that’s left is another five months of post production. So let’s talk about that.

Today, Naren Shankar and I spent most of our day over with the Visual Effects folks doing approvals on the episode one and two effects. Episode two is especially effects heavy, with a lot of complex choreography in the story telling. Even at this late stage, we’re still tweaking the exact staging. Keeping in mind, of course, that altering these mostly rendered effects comes with a hefty price tag. So sometimes you have to let the less egregious things go.

Naren is also spending a ton of time in editing. We have all the footage from 13 episodes. We even have cuts in one form or another of the first 12, with the last one due in a week or so. But going from a rough editorial assembly cut to a director’s first cut to the producer’s first cut to a studio notes cut to a network notes cut to a final producer’s cut to a broadcast locked cut is a long and winding road. Naren, along with a small army of editors, will guide the show along that road.

We’re also doing our first sound spotting sessions, where the sound design team begins crafting the sound of the show and recording the additional dialog or looped dialog we’ll be putting in. On our show, nearly every scene with people in helmets means a loop session to rerecord all the dialog.

And now that we have soft locks on most of the episodes, our music composer Clinton Shorter can start working on his score for the season.

And finally, we’re spending some time talking about where all this goes in season three, so fingers crossed for that. Hope you all had fun going on this trip with us.

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Toronto Diary Day Twenty-Five

09.14.16
by Daniel Abraham

Last night, we went to dinner with Amy, our production coordinator.  It was one of the weirdest dinners I’ve ever been to, mostly because of the venue.  O Noir is a restaurant where the servers are all blind and the meal is served in absolute pitch darkness. In addition to ordering the listed items from the menu, there was the option of saying “surprise me” and getting dishes that weren’t listed, and that you’d just have to figure out what they were as you went. Which I did.

If the idea was to sharpen my sense of taste and smell by denying us sight, it didn’t particularly work. The thing I came away with was the realization that it was probably the first meal I’ve had in months where I never once checked the time. Amy, our production coordinator, said she was surprised to find the darkness very relaxing. Naren says back when he was on CSI, they did an episode about someone being murdered in a place like this. So yeah, as adventures go, pretty fun.

One of the things we talked about over the meal was how little people know about the office.  Like, for example, we have an office. The Expanse includes a huge crew of people on the soundstages.  Lighting, wardrobe, props, makeup, construction, special effects, visual effects, and on and on.  We have dedicated art and editorial departments. We have a transportation department that gets everyone to and from location.

We also have accountants and coordinators.  The people who work with the critical business side of getting everyone paid, keeping the lights on, arranging travel and supplies, and dealing with human resources issues.  All of the things that any small business would have to do, we have to do too.  And these are the folks who do it.

And there are other facets of the office peculiar to our work.  We have a script coordinator, for instance, whose job it is to track every change in every script, make sure updated pages get to everyone who needs them every time dialog or stage directions get tweaked, and maintain both an up-to-date place for all the most recent versions *and* a complete record of all the previous versions.  With thirteen episodes, we have literally hundreds (quite possibly thousands) of pages of changes over course of the season. Without a good script coordinator — pardon the language here folks — we’d be fucked.

Amy, the production coordinator, handles — among other things — the travel.  When Ty and I had our flight cancelled out from under us the day before we came out, Amy was the one who scrambled to get us a new booking.  And when Ty got pulled aside by immigration, Amy was also the one calling the Canadian government with the rules and statutes in hand, ready to raise hell if we got turned away for want of a (it turns out unnecessary) work permit.

One of the things Naren always says about television is that for a show to succeed, a thousand things have to go write. For one to fail, three things have to go wrong. That goes back to the office too.

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Toronto Diary Day Twenty Four

09.13.16
by Ty Franck

So I want to talk about props today, and I wanted to share a picture, and then when it came time to take it, I found I had conflicts.

So, short story long…

Turns out it’s hard to make a TV show where nearly everything that appears on screen has to be built from scratch. I mean, think about that. For most TV shows, the props department buys almost everything they need, and builds very little. You make a modern day family drama, you can buy all the furniture and clothes and cars and bicycles and TV remotes and toothbrushes right off a shelf somewhere.

Making a Science Fiction show set a couple hundred years in the future, and suddenly even a thing that cuts hair gets a lengthy discussion and a custom build. What DO hair cutting thingies look like in three hundred years? Or, more properly, what can we get away with saying a hair cutting thingy looks like in three hundred years? Or a toothbrush? Or a shower head?

These are not trivial problems in the world of our show, and that’s where Jim Murray and his amazing prop department come in. They buy, modify, or make from scratch nearly everything you see on screen that an actor carries around. They’ve made tools, grooming appliances, hand terminals for three different factions, a few nuclear bombs, and a virtual trunkload of firearms.

This topic is one my mind, because for an important scene we shot today, we had a character drop a weapon off a ten foot platform. It then came up, “we should probably not drop that, that’s a 4000 dollar prop.” You read that right. 4000 bucks for a gun that doesn’t even shoot. How is that possible?! I could by ten REAL guns for that much money.

Well, I’ll tell you how it’s possible. This gun is a thing that has never existed before. It is an entirely original creation, custom designed and then cut from actual metal. It’s a freaking work of art and absolutely one of a kind. So, yeah, maybe don’t toss it off the balcony just yet. For that, we had a custom copy of the gun made out of hard rubber. Looks almost exactly the same on film, doesn’t cost four grand to break it.

So the props department are kind of like wizards. We make shit up, they cast some dark sorcery and make it real.

But that brings me to my quandary. See, the props department needed to make a purple heart for a Martian Marine. And they created a beautiful medal, including the cameo of the founder of the Martian Republic on its face. And, because they are extremely awesome, they used my profile for that cameo.

And then, after we used it in the show, they gave it to me. And I mean, this thing is beautiful. I will treasure it as a prop forever.

But when I went to take a picture of it and post it, I got this weird feeling. My uncle served in Korea, and was severely wounded at the battle of the Chosun Reservoir, where a lot of US military folks died or were wounded. He came home 90% disabled, and with a purple heart on his uniform. That’s not something I take lightly.

So even though I love this prop, and will treasure it always, I just can’t take a picture of it and post if to the internet like a gag. Not sure if everyone will understand, but it’s just a thing I’m feeling right now.

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Toronto Diary Day Twenty-three

09.12.16
by Daniel Abraham

It’s been a little rowdy, folks, so I feel I owe y’all something a little more substantive than pictures, however amusing they may be.

Yesterday was the wrap party.  That doesn’t mean we’re actually wrapped.  The tradition is to put the party on the last weekend of the shoot rather than waiting for the whole thing to really be well and truly over so that as the actors finish their last scenes of the season, they can head off to their next gigs or their families or a little well-earned vacation.  And with our cast especially, there are a lot of places to which we’re scattering — the UK, New Zealand, New York, Los Angeles. This was the last moment when we were all — cast and crew — together as a family. We had this year’s party at a gallery space with food and drink and a running slide show from the year’s work.  We watched a blooper reel and a fun iPhone-shot music video by Joel the Assistant Director and scenes from the first episodes of season two.  We had speeches from the show runners and the president of Alcon’s television division.

And we shut the joint down.  At 2am, the turned the lights on and told us we had to go home. At that point, all the main cast was still there. That may not sound like a big deal, but it kind of is.

It is not uncommon, at the end of a shoot, for people to be kind of ready to take a break from each other. That isn’t true with The Expanse this year. Over the last couple years working together, things have become if anything more comfortable.

We had some guests who came as friends of the show too, including Ted Chiang who’s in town for the Toronto International Film Festival and the premiere of Arrival.

After that, we went to the Director of Photography’s condo for a smaller after-party, and I crawled home about 4am.

Today was the Canadian Film Centre fund raising barbecue — Bob Munroe, our head of VFX is on the board — and the world premiere of The Promise directed by Terry George (of Hotel Rwanda fame) and featuring our very own Shohreh Agdashloo.

So that was the last weekend.  We began this in April. We end on Wednesday.

Which isn’t true either.  We finish shooting the raw footage which goes to the editors and directors, the studio and the network, which we fit together with VFX and sound and music and color correction.  If the writing room is step one, this is the end of step two.  Step three — the last one before it comes to y’all — is already underway, but can now take the focus of our time and effort.

And the conversations about how to promote the show is starting to gear up too, at least for those of us who now have a few spare cycles that the shoot isn’t taking up.  NYCC is going to be a thing for us.  Ty and I will be there, and there will be an Expanse panel, though the details of that are still getting worked out.  Our friends at Syfy have had a crew on set interviewing the cast and preparing to roll out their own promotions.  There are conversations going on about some other ways in which The Expanse may well be expanding even more in the next few months.  And I’ll put the details about that out here as I can.  Short form: we’re going to want y’all’s help singing this from the mountaintops when season two drops, and there are going to be some surprising and wonderful voices in the chorus with you.

In the meantime, we’re working through the final galley proofs of Babylon’s Ashes (actually really-and-for-true coming out December 6th) and a couple other James SA Corey related prose things, planning out book 7…

…and Season Three.

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Toronto Diary Day Twenty-Two ish

09.11.16
by Ty Franck

So there was no blog post yesterday because yesterday was the wrap party and people got up to some shenanigans.

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Toronto Diary Day Twenty One

09.09.16
by Daniel Abraham

It’s not Amos’s fault he’s the biggest and the strongest. He doesn’t even exercise.

It's not Amos's fault he's the biggest and the strongest.  He doesn't even exercise.

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Toronto Diary Day Twenty

09.09.16
by Ty Franck

Two heads are better than one.

So today James S.A. Corey needed to do two things. He needed to be on set with the production as we shot some very complex scenes for the last episode of season 2. He also needed to spend the day with our marketing people doing EPK, which means Electronic Press Kit.

James is a clever fellow, and he achieved this by sending one half of himself to set, and the other to the EPK world. So, I spent my day on set with the director, and Daniel spent his day being interviewed and fawned over.

I feel like I got the better end of this deal.

But, there is some nifty stuff the marketing people put together to tell you about the show, and Daniel will feature heavily in that. Also, there is a really cool final episode of season 2, and some of that cool stuff is because of me. So I guess we both did our bit for the show.

We’ve talked a lot about the technical stuff on the show, let’s talk about the camera side a bit.

So you watch a movie or TV show and they credit a director, and then they also credit a Director of Photography. What’s the difference?

The simple version is this: the director picks the shots, the director of photography makes them happen. And it’s of course not as simple as that in practice. The director also works closely with the actors and writers, and is responsible for seeing that the story in the script winds up on screen. But the director of photography is the painter in light.

The DP is the boss of both the lighting department and the camera crews. They light the sets. They pick the camera equipment. They work with the camera operators to deliver the shots that the director is asking for. And they’re the quality assurance piece of the puzzle. The DP watches every shot to make sure it’s well lit, it’s in focus, there isn’t a shadow from the boom mic or a bad piece of set or a grip’s foot in the frame.

I often sit in the DP’s tent, watching the same monitors he watches, and I’m continually astonished at the details he picks up that I totally miss. He’s watching two monitors at the same time, on the radio with two camera operators and two focus pullers, and also talking to the Gaffer (lead lighting electrician) who’s standing next to him. It’s like watching a great symphony conductor work.

Our director of photography is a guy named Jeremy Benning, and he is a superstar. He’s been the look of the show since the first day of the first season, and he’s a huge part of the reason the show is so beautiful to look at. We were lucky to get him.

In other news, our show runner Naren Shankar is promising to give us some still images to start sharing on the blog. So keep an eye out for some cool new stuff to show up here over the next week or so.

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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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