Are you familair with the classic children’s tale The Little Engine That Could? It’s about this little engine that, despite being decidedly smaller in size than its counterparts, succeeds in pulling a long train over a high mountain, all the time repeating the motto, “I-think-I-can.” Our little hero’s efforts are not unlike those that are applied to many real-world challenges, including making a TV show. When the hit Sci Fi Channel series Sanctuary made the leap from the Internet to the small screen, some people wondered if it would be able to hold its own against slicker, bigger-budgeted programs. Although he experienced all the usual jitters that come with launching a freshman TV series, executive producer/director Martin Wood had every confidence in the final product.
“Right from the start I thought, ‘The world is not ready for this. People are going to be surprised,’” recalls Wood. “Reporters called us after watching the season one opener and I was like, ‘Man, you have no idea what’s coming up.’ I spoke to the head of Sci Fi Productions at the Stargate Atlantis wrap party last year and he said, ‘I had an idea about what it [Sanctuary] would be like, but I had no idea it would be this good.’ I haven’t heard a bad word about the series since we first began making it. Again, I think it really surprised people. It’s one thing to have them react to the season opener, but we sold the show on the Internet pilot, and from there we sort of said to each other, ‘OK, we’re taking the bit between our teeth and running with it.’
“For me, a big part of doing this was being able to show people that we could do this without a huge studio. The three of us – Damian Kindler [series creator/executive producer], Amanda Tapping [series lead/executive producer] and I – picked it up, collected Sam Egan [executive producer] along with our producer, George Horie, and just ran with it. We all embraced Sanctuary in the same way and together decided that we were going to make the series look better than anything we’d ever done before, and it does. And it all has to do with the fact that everyone here is working hard, really hard. I mean, I’ve spent 12 years watching Amanda Tapping go through an awful lot of permutations of Sam Carter [from Stargate SG-1] and even different characters, but I’ve never seen her do what she did this past year. It was exceptional.”
In Sanctuary, Tapping plays Dr. Helen Magnus, a 157-year-old scientist in charge of a global network of top-secret facilities called Sanctuaries. Together with her daughter Ashley (Emilie Ullerup), forensic psychiatrist Dr. Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne),technical troubleshooter Henry Foss (Ryan Robbins) and the legendary Bigfoot (Christopher Heyerdahl), she tracks down, studies and protects the strange and sometimes dangerous creatures (or abnormals) that live amongst us. Despite his years of experience as a director and later a producer as well on SG-1 and Atlantis, doing both jobs simultaneously on Sanctuary look a bit of getting used to for Wood.
“There were plenty of times during Stargate where I didn’t have to deal with anything outside of directing,” he notes. “I may have been producing it [the show], too, but there were always people above me who made sort of the tougher decisions and dealt with the bigger issues. On Sanctuary, however, if a situation comes up that you don’t have time to handle, there’s no one to hand it off to. So, Damian, Amanda and I will look at each other and go, ‘Oh, right, that’s me. I’ll deal with that.’ And I might then, for instance, have to leave the set to speak with someone from the network or deal with something else that’s unfolding behind-the-scenes. So when I’m trying to answer a question regarding a production issue, it’s all intertwined and part of the big picture. I can’t separate having to make the series as a director and also having to make it as a producer. It’s all one in the same, and every day you’re dealing with something unique.
“When I was doing SG-1 and Atlantis I would do back-to-back episodes, when you prep one, shoot it, and then prep the next one and shoot it. That’s more or less how it worked all the time. In this case, though, I never let anything go. You’re continually working on a story, and it’s a challenge because you wind up getting into situations where, as a producer, you’re not able to stop being part of a single episode. So when you’re watching the VFX [visual effects] being finished for episodes one and two, you’re also dealing with music and reviewing the VFX for episodes three, four and five. You can’t concentrate on one thing, you know? That took a little bit of getting used to for all of us, but it was a matter of moving forward and getting on with it. So each of us had to work at maximum efficiency and maximum capability, and I think it shows on the screen.”
Helen Magnus and her team may be based in one locale, but several of their missions during the first season of Sanctuary took them around the world. While some TV shows might be financially restricted to using their studio backlot to re-create, say, the Scottish Highlands or ancient catacombs beneath Rome, Sanctuary relies heavily on green screen to conjure up whatever exotic location a script might call for.
“With virtually every show we had in season one it was a matter of ‘Can we pull this off,’” says Wood. “When you’re talking about stuff that doesn’t exist, it’s not a question of can we build it in time, but rather is there going to be time for the virtual artists to create a computer program that will make this place look believable. Luckily, we have Anthem Visual Effects, which is headed up by Lee Wilson and his wife Lisa [Sepp-Wilson]. who, together with Sebastien Bergeron [digital effects supervisor] have not slept since we started this show. It’s like having a construction company waiting in the wings ready to build things, and then you say, ‘OK, here are the materials to do your job, and can you finish this by next week because we have something else to build the following week. Oh, by the way, this is the most complicated thing you’ve ever done, and there’s a time limit involved.’ And their response is, ‘Sure.’ I’m very happy to report that we haven’t ‘killed’ them yet,” jokes the producer/director.
“Besides our virtual sets, we’ve done practical ones as well,” continues Wood. “When we finished shooting [season one's] Kush, which had the plane crash in the Himalayans, Damian and I looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, that looked cool.’ The crew, however, did not enjoy working in the set we had. It was a practical one because I didn’t want to lock us into a whole bunch of VFX when something could very easily be practical. Not only that, but I had to give the VFX gang a break because they had just finished Folding Man and had Nubbins coming up, both of which were huge creature shows. With Kush we had some big matte painting and things of that nature, but for the most part the entire episode was done practically. Well, the crew was used to working in giant stages, and all of a sudden we were in an airplane.
“We subsequently took that set and turned it into a submarine set for the next episode we filmed, Requiem. We then took Robin and Amanda into that set for the entire story. There’s a brief glimpse of Henry at the beginning, but for the most part it’s just the two of them simply acting, and it’s the best acting I’ve ever seen Amanda do. For me, Requiem was the hardest bit of directing I’ve done. It sounds so weird to say that because it’s two actors in a submarine. Damian Kindler wrote this incredible script and it was all about the acting, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done because I could not let a second go by where I was not on the ball. I had to figure out how far I could push the actors. The things we were asking them to do were incredibly challenging and you’re standing there saying, ‘I need you to do it again.’ Meanwhile, the actors are asking you, ‘Why do we have to do it again?’ but, ultimately, their efforts showed on the screen. Amanda had to go to a very strange place [with her performance] and Damian had to go there as well in order to write the script. So it was a really tough episode for all of us, but it ended up being an extremely rewarding one, too.”
This chat with Wood took place prior to the start of filming on season two of Sanctuary back in February. At that time, the producer/director chuckled when asked what his hopes were for the show’s second year. “Season one was a year of scrambling, and I’m looking forward to not scrambling as much in the second season,” he says. “We have a groove that we’ve fallen into where we understand better how this show is supposed to work. We were all neophytes last year, so we’re hoping that the newness will have worn off and we can settle into what we really want to do, which is make the best show possible.”
I had the privilege of spending a day on the Sanctuary set last week and all is definitely going well with the filming of season two. Amanda Tapping was directing that day, and she, Martin Wood, Damian Kindler and the rest of the Sanctuary cast and crew have plenty of twists and turns in store for fans with these new 13 episodes. You can look forward to seeing much more Sanctuary coverage on my blog closer to the premiere of season two – Steve Eramo
As noted above, all photos by Jeff Weddell and copyright of the Sci Fi Channel, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!