“THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT”
(WARNING – SPOILERS ARE PRESENT – IF YOU ARE ALLERGIC TO SPOILERS TAKE PROPER PRECAUTIONS TO PROTECT YOURSELF)
Wow. Two episodes on one night means I gotta write two blogs on one night… Ouch!
Tonight’s episode was written by Tim Kring and was directed by me. It’s interesting for the viewer because NBC has designed it on premiere night so that the two episodes run back-to-back with just a brief fade to black and fade up – when the episode re-runs, or on next year’s DVD, we will have to add a “previously on” and add more credits in the first act…
When I first got the script, and began contemplating directing it, I was struck by two things – first that it was cram-packed with story and that all the characters really developed quickly. Also, by our standards – it had a simplicity and lean-ness about it. In fact, in the end it was produced in just a bit more than 10 days – which, for us, is pretty short – we frequently go 11-13 days in production.
I think this is because Tim writes in a very concise way – and designs many of his scenes on the page to be delivered in a way that is straightforward but still impactful. A good example of this is the scene where Claire talks to the camera about “is she still human?” and then steps in front of the train. The design at the script level was for this to all be done in one shot – a camera’s point of view. It was meant to be reminiscent of the pilot, but now Claire is alone without a friend – so she has to set it up on a tripod. From a dramatic standpoint Claire has been told by Sylar that she is “different… special.” What this means exactly will unfold as the season progresses. We also set up, in the first scene, that she can no longer feel pain. Claire is distressed – does this lack of ability to feel physical pain reflect a coming lack of ability to feel emotional pain? If so will she still be human?
The day we shot this was, literally, Hayden Panettiere's first day back on set. Whenever we can, we producer’s try to accommodate the actor’s desires to do other projects – and we’d allowed Hayden to do a movie in Vancouver - I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER directed by Chris Columbus and starring Samm Levine and Alan Ruck. So, we had waited a month to get her back, and had had to delay the shooting of all of her scenes in episode 1. Ironically, she came back and filmed this scene for episode 2 before all the action scenes of Sylar chasing her around the house in episode 1.
Because the Bennet's were re-set from Texas to California in Season 2 – it’s always been important to me to try to find really California locations for them whenever we can. The script only indicated that she was at “a train track” – but I had the idea to create a train track adjacent to a beachy setting – I set as a goal for the location managers to find a hill that overlooked the ocean with a community of houses in the distance – where we could believe there was a train track.
Of course no location like this really exists – but they found the hill, exactly as I had imagined it. The train and the train tracks are all added digitally. For the main shot, we brought Hayden out to location, but put her in front of a green screen. She acted out her dialogue to camera then turned to an imaginary train and then jumped up and back into a stunt pad that had been laid out below frame for her. Luckily for us, Hayden is remarkably adept at understanding how all of this will look and how to work within this highly imaginary scenario. Maybe it’s because she’s been acting in front of a camera since she was, like, three – maybe it’s just because she’s smart. After Hayden was done we removed the green screen and filmed the backplate – in this case the hillside and ocean view.
Later Eric Grenaudier and Mark Spatny, our lead visual effects supervisor and visual effects producer from STARGATE went to a train yard and shot film of a train rushing by. This was all put together as a digital split, with the train yard integrated into the ocean background and the green screen of Hayden. Then, as Hayden jumped into the air – she is replaced by a digital animated version of Claire and a completely digital Peter flys into frame and grabs her. Milo Ventimiglia had, previously, been digitally scanned for this sequence so that we could create a digital version of him. After all that was put together we added the kind of icons you see in the eyepiece of a camera and horizontal scan lines. The scan lines annoyed Eric Grenaudier and he argued against them because he feels modern cameras are better than that. But, to me they clarify the story to the audience and they make the scene more reminiscent of what was done on the pilot. I don’t know what you thought of this scene, but for me we got way more than I was expecting… I had expected the digi-Peter to just be a blur, but even though it’s quick there is a real level of detail as he flies in and grabs her – and the integration of the train is excellent.
And, getting back to my original point, even though there is a technical complexity to the way we post-produced this scene – it is really very simple… all just one shot that we completed in less than an hour of production time. And of course all of this was storyboarded.
HAYDEN ON GREEN SCREEN
COSTA VERDE BACKPLATE
DIGI PETER PETRELLI
THE FINAL COMPOSITE SHOT
THE FINAL SHOT WITH CAMERA ICONS
Of course, as I always say, the cool visual affects and stunts and cool shots we do must be the salt on the HEROES meal, not the main course. Hayden’s heartfelt performance is the key to why it all really works.
Now while we waited a few weeks for Hayden – we had to wait a few months for Kristen Bell. At the end of season 2, when it became clear to Tim and the writers that a writer’s strike was imminent and that episode 11 would be our last one of the season – he was able to come up with a way to re-write episode 11 to wrap up the main stories… But, this was not the case with the storylines for Elle, Bob and HRG – they had all been left hanging. Now, unlike Hayden Panettiere, we did not have Kristen Bell under contract. She was off doing a Movie in Rome called WHEN IN ROME, and wouldn’t be available for four months – until we were in the middle of episode seven. Now we love having Kristen on the show – and I think she loves being here… So we made a deal to have her do a number of episodes for a block of time in August and September and we put the scenes in episode 2 on hold until she came back into town.
For me this meant that I had to plan out storyboard and budget every scene with Elle in May but not shoot them until August. In fact, by the time I got Kristen, she had already completed two later episodes of our show. It was frustrating for Tim and for NBC, because we never had a finished version of the episode to look at. With all of those scenes missing we could never watch the show as a continuity or even know if it’s timing would be too long or too short.
However, even though it took me months to get to it, the scene where Elle comes into HRG’s cell, followed by the sequence where HRG shoots Sylar, where Sylar returns to life, etc. etc. and the follow-up scene where Elle half-comes-to and the prisoners escape “Level 5” is one the favorite ones I’ve done. Maybe it’s because I had so long to think about it – maybe it’s because, for me, it was a high-pressure scene, a scene I knew had to be great. It was a very designed scene where I had to move from shot to shot quickly, and in a highly organized way. The shots are all very graphic and interesting and every shot tells a specific part of the story in a specific way. I, personally, love shooting in level five. The stark blockiness of the cells and corridor make the space very graphic and comic-booky. Anyway – I’m happy with that sequence – I hope you like it too.
One fortunate thing happened by shooting so late, though. By the time we’d gotten to this scene we had already shot through episode 8 and had cast through episode 10… This gave us a chance to bring in all the actors for the escape scene that we normally wouldn’t have had cast yet.
In fact this resulted in me taking one of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken… As we were shooting the scene where Elle had shorted out the power and all the villains were escaping - a random moment occurred where all the actors were strolling back to their marks for “take two.” As always, I had my blog camera on me, and I saw an opportunity… I shouted “stop” and I quickly posed the guys. The A.D. and crew would get annoyed if I took too long so I just started shouting, “You, move there – and you, move there… All right, all of you look tough… YOU’RE BADASSES!” They all gave me their toughest looks and SNAP I took the picture – it took about 15 seconds to get. Yay!
The other scene worth talking about is when Suresh displays his new "bug-like" powers to Dania. As a director, there are some sets on our show that get challenging to shoot over and over again. (Both incarnations of the Bennet house and the halls of Primatech are like this for me.) But I never get tired of Isaac's loft. It is loaded with interesting angles and places to stage.
But the new twist for this ep. was that Suresh was to bug-crawl up the wall to the level of the ceiling. This (combined with some info the writers gave us about where this bug power was going) made it clear that we had to add a ceiling to the set.
Up to now we've never had a ceiling on the set, even with all the low angles we shoot. The ceilings we very high - about 20 feet - so we never shot off them. This helped the director's of photography because they were able to light from above. Most sets on most normal shows don't have ceilings at all - because if you're shooting mostly at eye level you never see the ceilings. If you ever do see ceilings, on most shows, the grips drop a piece of stretched musilin (like canvas or cloth). Lighting from above the set is the norm.
But on HEROES we see ceilings all the time, and it makes lighting the sets challenging. Luckily our brilliant Emmy-nominated production designer, Ruth Ammon, really knows how to build lighting into her sets. Anyway, all that is just a long digression to say that, as of this episode, we added ceilings and had to change our lighting plan.
Anyway, early on there's a shot where Maya enters the loft - the camera is low and very wide and we push in past a foreground table from a wide shot of Maya coming down the stairs and into a low angle shot across her where we see Suresh at rest up in the girders of the ceiling. There's a couple of close ups and then Suresh drops down from the ceiling into a medium shot with a big smile on his face.
Now, we wanted this scene to be sexy - and sexy means shirts off - which means that there was no place to hide a traditional harness under Suresh's shirt. Sendhil had just a waist harness. He was hoisted up in the air and had to hang upside-down. Now, from what I've heard from the various actors I've hung upside down - hanging upside down hurts. Apparently the blood goes to your head and you get all goofy to the point of passing out, and every joint and muscle in your body hurts.
For the part where Sursh drops down - we had originally planned for a stunt man to do this bit. But Sendhil came to me and pleaded that he could and wanted to do it himself. Now - philosophically it's always better to have an actor do their own stunt - but if they do you should have (whatever it is) end in a big close up - so you know it's them.
Hanging upside-down was one problem, but this gag was much more complicated. Sendhil got hoisted by a winch to the ceiling where he then had to spin around in the original upside-down position and the riggers had to adjust the slack on the line so it was just right. As I say this, itself, hurt. Then we rolled and slated. Then Sendhil had to push off, do a flip in the air - which, on the harness is a much more unnatural action then flipping, say, off a diving board. Since he couldn't see the ground coming, Sendhil had to work off a count in his head as to when he touched down on the ground. The line was adjusted so he wouldn't break his legs - but what happened on the first 5 or 6 takes was that he under or overestimated the landing and ended up either bouncing back up, or hanging splayed out in mid-air three feet off the floor. After ten takes Sendhil finally hit one and stepped forward and said his line, but he and the camera (which was pushing in) weren't in harmony and he
stepped out of frame. Three more failures occurred after that - and now I was starting to worry that Sendhil was too tired and beat up to ever get it. He was pouring sweat and was obviously exhausted. He was also getting angry and frustrated with himself.
Then, on take fourteen - he nailed it. The flip and landing were so perfect and, I think because he was so tired, his brain went into autopilot and he smiled and said "hello" like he was too-cool-for-school and that this was no big deal.
I yelled cut and, the part that may be a DVD extra someday, was Sendhil throwing his hands into the air and yelling "YEEEEAHHHHHHH!!!!!!". It's awesome when something like that works out.
OK that's enough for now. More next week.....onto the pictures!
Also – after the show tonight - check out NBC.com where I do commentary on this episode with James Kyson Lee and Brea Grant – as always we had a lot of fun.
SENDHIL (YES HE REALLY DID THAT STUNT HIMSELF) ON SET
SENDHIL EXAMINES THE TASTY MORSELS THAT HAVE SPRUNG UP ON HIS BACK
ALWAYS LOOKING OUT FOR THE FANS - I APPLY A LIGHT GLAZE OF OIL TO SENDHIL'S BODY
JACK, ASHLEY AND JESSALYN GILSIG
JUST ANOTHER DAY ON SET
MASI AND THE NEW GIRL BREA GRANT WITH A FRENCH VERSION OF "9TH WONDERS"
ADRIAN AND MALCOLM PLAY A GAME OF CHESS WHILE THE CREW WORKS
ALI LARTER AS TRACY (YEP, NIKI'S REALLY DEAD) AND GOVERNOR BRUCE BOXLEITNER
ALI STUDIES HER LINES (GLAMEROUSLY)
BREA GRANT DEMONSTRATES THE ART OF KNIFE WEILDING
BREA GRANT PRACTICES WITH ZACH THE ART OF HEAD CUTTING
FUTURE PETER TAKES SOME PHOTOS TO SHOW HIS PALS WHEN HE GETS BACK (TO THE FUTURE)
GREG GRUNBERG AND THE "BODY POD"
ME (I LOOKED SO DAMN COOL IN THIS SHOT I JUST HAD TO INCLUDE IT)
MILO AND HAYDEN ON SET (BOTH ON THEIR FIRST DAY BACK ON THE SHOW) IN THE IMAGINARY TOWN OF COSTA VERDE
PROPER TURTLE PLACEMENT IS ALL IMPORTANT
THOSE WACKY PETRELLI BOYS
TIM KRING, GREG GRUNBERG AND I IN AFRICA
MALCOLM MCDOWELL AND I SHARE A PROFESSIONAL MOMENT