When it comes to directing, Philip Spink likes to be hands-on. On this particular Tuesday in August (2008), he is on-location with the cast and crew of the Sci Fi Channel miniseries Knights of Bloodsteel. They are at a working quarry in Abbotsford, British Columbia, a small area of which has been transformed into a mining village thanks to several imaginative and talented individuals. This set is where some of the action sequences for the film are being shot, including an adrenaline-rushing sword-fight. At the moment, Spink is on-set discussing specifics of the fight with various actors and stunt people.
“With this scene I knew it needed some immediate jeopardy,” says the director, sitting back down behind the camera. “One of the bad guys breaches the wall and attacks our heroine, Perfidia [Natassia Malthe]. Meanwhile,Klegg [Ian A. Wallace] is trying to get away and all this other action is happening around them. I’ll work with the fight choreographer, who then works with the actors and the swordsman, and together we make it a good scene.
“So it’s very much a collaborative process. With some of the [action] stuff I’m really specific, and other times I’ll say, ‘Just go for it and let’s get some basic hacks and slashes.’ Fight swordsmanship is somewhat different from basic action like explosions or a car going over a hill because there are certain techniques using knives and swords that take years and years to learn. With this movie we’re fortunate to have Dan Rizzuto as our stunt coordinator because he’s extremely experienced at both – he’s a great fight/stunt coordinator. We also have Dave Barkes as special effects [SPFX] coordinator. He and Dan get along very well and together they give us what we need.”
Knights of Bloodsteel brings together a diverse foursome – vigilante John Serragoth (David James Elliott), con man Adric Thane (Christopher Jacot), the warrior elf Perfidia (Natassia Malthe) and a goblin, Ber-Lak (Dru Viergever). They accept a quest by the sorcerer elf Tesselink (Christopher Lloyd) to find the last of the bloodsteel, a magical ore that can save their mytical land of Mirabilis from being dominated by the evil Dragon Eye (Mark Gibbon). Also helping tell this tale is producer Pascal Verschooris. Having worked on other Sci-Fi and/or Fantasy projects such as Flash Gordon and Dead Like Me as well as HBO’s Masters of Horror, he knew what basic elements were needed to get Knights of Bloodsteel off the ground.
“The biggest challenge was creating a new world,” notes Verschooris, who is on-location today as well. “What is Mirabilis? What does it look like? What brings our heroes together and what is their quest? What does Dragon Eye look like? When you read the script, is he The Devil in a way that you’ve always imagined him to be, or do want to take a chance and take the character in another direction? Along with the evil, is there also a human aspect to him?
“Looking at all the Sci-Fi projects on TV, we wanted to make sure that if someone is flipping channels and they find Knights of Bloodsteel, that it’s obvious to them that they’re watching something really different. Every frame of this miniseries will remind you that you’re not exactly on Earth, but somewhere else. That’s been a tough hill to climb, but I think we’re doing quite well in creating this world. We’ve found some locations in Vancouver that haven’t been used before, or if they have, very rarely. We’ve also build some amazing sets from scratch, including a medieval town. So we’re using all our assets, resources and experience and I think this is turning out to be a neat project.”
Earlier today, director Spink shot a complex scene involving a number of VFX (visual effects) that will be added in during post-production. “It was a scene where the evil goblins unleash a flying machine that shoots missiles at our mining commune,” he explains. “So what we had to do is shoot all the background plates so that later on our VFX department can put in the flying machine, or what they’re calling the war machine. Because there is a little interaction between what people are seeing and the actual machine that is going to be added in, we had to make sure we filmed the sequences at the correct angles in the amount of time that we had. Luckily, we had a storyboard all laid out for this,” says Spink, pointing out a large board with various drawings on it, “so we pretty much knew what was going to happen in those scenes.
“Because we wanted to get an early start on the VFX, we did what is probably one of the more compelling and visually challenging sequences on our first day of filming, and that was a big dragon attack. It was kind of a scary thing to do right out of the gate, but it was a smart thing, too, because everyone was fresh and ready to work. It also alotted us extra time to plan out the scene, so in the long run I think we ended up with a better product.”
Adds Verschooris, “The cliffs where we shot that scene are on the same road leading to the 2010 Olympic site [Whistler], so we had to take that into consideration because the highway is being slowed down right now by all the big construction. Today, we’re in a quarry and surrounded by trucks doing work, so we’re trying to shoot in-between so we won’t have too much [dialogue] looping by the time we wrap. However, the end result is that we have this feature-film like place that we’re filming in.
“There was another part of our script that takes place in marshland, and for that we went to an area in Squamish. It’s somewhere that most people would probably avoid because you arrive in the morning and the tide is at 13 feet or so, which means you’re on the edge of the water. As you film, the tide goes low and you’re in the mud, which is where we wanted to be. You then have three hours to shoot before the tide comes back in and you’re forced to finish. You have to be very organized with your continuity because it’s something that you have to do over two or three days. As a result, though, when you watch the dailies you have this tall beautiful grass wafting in the breeze and colors that you don’t often see on the screen,” enthuses the producer.
Prosthetics/SPFX make-up artist guru Todd Masters and his company, MastersFX, were involved in sculpting the looks for some of Mirabilis’ more unusual creatures, and the miniseries’ Powers That Be have been suitably impressed by their efforts. “Working with Todd is very cool,” says Verschooris. “He’s extremely communicative and creative. We’ve had many meetings with Todd and he always brings all his experience with him. You’ll talk with him about how you see a character, Ber-Lak, for example, or another one of our goblins or elves, and he gets it really quickly. It’s one thing to create a prosthetic of a character, but it also then has to match the personality of the person playing the part. Thanks to Todd, it was actually quite easy to realize the characters that we wanted. We’re fortunate to have him on a project of this size.”
Listening to Verschooris and Spink, it is easy to understand why they are excited to be involved in bringing Knights of Bloodsteel to the small screen. “I was just saying recently that I’m not sure if I would know how to do a cop show because I’ve done so much Sci-Fi,” says Verschooris. “However, the more you do in this genre, the more risks you take because it has to be different from the last time. It’s hard to invent things nowadays because so much has been done, but I think we’ve done some things here that people might not have necessarily seen before on TV. So it should be fascinating for the eye.”
Adds Spink, “I was a commercial illustrator for 15 years before becoming a director, and I got into this industry doing storyboards. When I did TV commercials I was hired for the heavily art-directed ones. I have a very active imagination and with something like that you can do some major [creative] ‘damage,’ all in a good way, of course,” chuckles the director.
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