Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Report from the Set: 'Supernatural' season nine...

A staple of set visits is literally wandering around the soundstages and looking at the iconic standing sets of characters' homes or offices, but from the start, way back in the pilot nine years ago, Supernatural was always a "road show," taking the characters from place to place and city to city each week. Occasionally there would be standing sets that lasted for more than one episode-- Harvelle's, Bobby's house, even Rufus' cabin, to name a few. But they were never permanent or carried through all of the seasons. The one thing that was that sort of "home base" was the Impala. So for the last few trips up to the Supernatural set in Vancouver, we'd see whatever sets they were using for that particular episode (and last year it happened to be a giant green screen room), and the Impala. But this time around, there was the Men of Letters bunker, and it was hard to say if it was the bloggers who were more excited to experience it or the Supernatural crew to share it.

Not all of the Men of Letters bunker was currently up when I visited the set. The two major rooms: the library and the "war room," so to speak are pretty imposing and therefore permanent, so they were, but the smaller rooms, like Dean's, which we've seen before, or some new ones coming this season, were dismantled to make way on the soundstage for other sets called for by this particular episode (including yet another motel room). But the attention to detail in the rooms that were standing were amazing. From sigils painted on and carved into the doorways, archways, and thresholds, to the fact that the shelves were completely filled with real, old books (and weapons), to the old-timey paraphernalia (oh the glorious weapons!) left around from the last time the bunker was in operation, to the names of key crew members snuck into signage around the set, it was clear just how much care was taken here. It wasn't just an expansive-- or expensive-- set built, it was one that we would see every nook and cranny of as episodes continued to use it and directors continued to take new angles and stage the actors in different corners. Nothing was left for later, and I literally could have spent hours exploring. But as it turned out, we only had a few minutes.

About five minutes into actually sitting down with Jerry Wanek around the "war table" in the Men of Letters bunker, the intrepid Tara Larsen burst into the room with a "We have to go now!" The boys (i.e. Jared and Jensen) finally had a short break from filming and were waiting for us in the conference room. We tore out of the Men of Letters bunker and ran upstairs to greet them, only to find Jensen poised over someone's computer like we had caught him in the middle of freezing the screen on a Busty Asian Beauties virus. The guys were clearly in a great mood, despite the long night they had had before and long (and probably emotional) day ahead of them, and they sat down together to do the interview.

This many years into the show and their friendship, they know each other so well at times they were literally finishing each other's sentences, and they easily reached for laughs. Example A aka Outtake #1:

But it wasn't just them: mid-way through the interview uber producer Jim Michaels spied from the glass pane of the door, effectively video-bombing and breaking concentration. We only had a few minutes with the guys before they had to get back to work (and they were our only formal interview of the visit as Misha Collins was not in town), so the rest of our visit rounded out with chats with Michaels, Kevin Parks, and Russ Hamilton, as well as with a trip to the visual effects department to check out a DVD featurette worthy package of some of Supernatural's best (and most recent-- spoilers for season nine included) composite shots with a tutorial on the "how'd they do that" of it all.  

Talking to these key behind-the-scenes players gave new (and candid!) insight into how a show in its ninth season runs like a machine and yet still manages to be new and exciting from week to week-- not just in the storytelling and for the audience but for those people who have worked on the same show since the beginning. Television is very much a business, but it's very much a creative endeavor, too, and many might get bored after spending one place in too long. For someone like Parks what makes it interesting is getting the chance to grow with the show (he is directing another episode this season, for example), while for someone like Hamilton, it's about the challenge of finding new locations this late in the game or convincing a location he's had his eye on for awhile to finally let the show shoot there (the latter of which finally happened with one key place we'll see soon). Hamilton doesn't like to be told "no," and he admitted that a lot of work often goes into literally going door-to-door in a neighbor and telling people what they'll be filming, where, and for how long in order to ease the residents' minds about the intrusion. But it is that work that he finds most rewarding because he can walk away from it knowing he, along with the rest of the show, gave these people a good filming experience, often cleaning up some of the negative thoughts or memories other productions may have recently left.

Honestly, the visual effects experience was personally the most interesting to me, though, simply because it is something so unique and rare to sit in on. It's often easy to look at a show like Supernatural and assume you know which shots have VFX-- and we did see many of those, from the "how'd they do that" of Gordon's beheading, to Abaddon's hand crawling to her, to Dick Roman's face healing as he walked toward the boys/camera-- but what this team proved was that they're doing a ton of work you wouldn't even realize they are a part of-- things as seemingly simple as putting tattoos or ligature marks on a character at times. Supernatural is a show with two leads who are in a union with strict rules about turnarounds and hours worked in a day, and sometimes the show makes the judgement call that what seems like a relatively cost effective and easy practical effect would just take too much time on the production day, so it ends up being something added in post later. It really is no wonder the VFX team keeps getting expanded, but it is a wonder they're not winning awards. Seeing what I did, including a shot filmed in a location with basically a forest of trees where a clear sky was called for, requiring literally days of rotoscoping (removing) the elements from the piece, they may just be the hardest working ones of all!


For the formal interviews and show scoop from these set visits, please visit my LA Examiner page.


lipglosskaz said...

This was an excellent read..thank so much!

Lisa Macklem said...

Great write up! It's lovely to read something this well written and insightful. Thanks for sharing your experience.