Friday, June 15, 2012

'Falling Skies' Season Two set visit, inside info

Despite an ice sculpture, Falling Skies
Season Two sounds hot.

Even though the skies were falling, things were looking up for a group of journalists last January when we visited the set of TNT's post-apocalyptic, alien-invasion series, Falling Skies, which will debut its second season on June 17, 9 p.m.

Executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, the 10-episode first season was one of the biggest cable series of 2011. The show premiered to 5.9 million viewers and enjoyed 5.6 million for its season finale. In addition to being a hit with fans, critics have also largely responded to the show for raising the bar for summer season TV. With respectable visual effects and solid action set pieces, Falling Skies is fun for pitting humans vs. aliens on a weekly basis.

Although it is technically marketed as a family-friendly sci-fi show, it has a hard enough dystopic edge to lure in most genre fans. The plot goes that the planet has been invaded and taken over by insectoid "skitters" - some with mech super suits - and their leaders, the grey "uber-aliens." Without explanation, they destroy much of civilization and kill of 90 percent of the population. Almost as equally heinous is the aliens' move to kidnap young humans, and "harness" them with parasites that attach to their spines and turn them into slaves - and even turn them into something more frightening. Among the disaster, groups of human survivors attempt to fight back against the highly-intelligent beings. One such group is the 2nd Massachusetts militia regiment, led by former college historian Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), who struggles to fight the alien threat while retaining his humanity and be a good father to his three sons (Drew Roy, Connor Jessup, Maxim Knight).

After shooting its first season in Ontario, the second season relocated to Vancouver, British Columbia for Season Two. Fittingly, the 2nd Mass has also relocated. After the first season finale had the survivors leaving their makeshift HQ in a school - and after Tom disappeared with the aliens - the band has hit the road, living on buses and always on the move.

The press visited two sets during the trip. The first was to the "Skitter unit," which was shooting at a demolished town that appeared to be a location somewhere in Virginia. We were led around by Connor Jessup, who plays Ben Mason on the show, and by SFX guru Todd Masters.

Falling Skies Fact: Connor Jessup says he collects spikes & bullet casings from set

Despite signs of human life - graffiti, a mural of Robert E. Lee, a tourism board advertisement - this was a dead zone. Destroyed, burnt-out cars and building debris littered the area. This reporter picked up a rather large "rock" that ended up being nothing more than a light chunk of foam. That speaks to the level of Hollywood magic here; even though the area looked like it was rotting away, it was incredibly fresh and was the work of set artists. It turns out this set is actually a fall-back street set they use as needed.

Falling Skies Fact: When we meet Ben in Season Two, he is "changed, stronger, faster, better," says director Greg Beeman

A skitter loses his head. Photo by Aaron Sagers 
Jessup and Masters took us to a pile of skitter legs, and explained the process for animating the creatures. They are more real than CG, and the legs are removable joints that can come off when the buggers need to move fast and require computer effects. Hold them up and take a bite, and they taste like chicken. Skitters: It's what's for dinner.

Falling Skies Fact: Five people puppeteer one Skitter 

We also were given a chance to meet with "Skitter Keith," the "suit performer" who appears as a live alien in a rubber suit. Fun fact: He says it's pretty comfortable in there, but he does need an air duct to breathe when in the full-getup. Keith is considered one of the harder working guys on set because of his skitter work. He's also one of the more important aliens around.

Falling Skies Fact: The uber-aliens and mechs are totally CGI, but the skitters are largely puppets.

From there, we were ushered into a warehouse set where director and co-executive producer Greg Beeman was shooting. This was a pivotal shot where something important happens. What, I cannot tell you, as TNT has sniper rifles trained on spoiler-tempted reporters. However, amongst the debris of a trashed building, there was a track where Beeman was focusing his shots on. Something was let loose in this area, and the result of the shot has an impact on the characters of the show.

Falling Skies Fact: Greg Beeman says, "That Tom learns things that are scary and this season isn’t going to be pretty."

After a quick stop to the craft services tent for hot cocoa - it was rainy and cold in Vancouver - the press was taken to a high school gymnasium that was standing in for a soundstage. We were able to sit for some informal interviews with cast members Colin Cunningham, Peter Shinkoda, Drew Roy, Connor Jessup and Sarah Carter.

Falling Skies Fact: Colin Cunningham stole his medallion from Season One before he knew the show was picked up for Season Two

Following the interviews, we took a seat in the bleachers to watch first unit shooting of a scene involving Noah Wyle. Also working this day were Moon Bloodgood, Maxim Knight, Seychelle Gabriel and Mpho Koaho.

Cunningham, Shinkoda, Roy, Carter listen to Jessup
Falling Skies Fact: Noah Wyle said Season Two is still character & family focused, even with these new directions & darker elements but the show goes in "very new, very exciting directions" and that it's still same show but even better.

The scene in progress involved a school bus converted into an armored vehicle traveling down the road. On board is Maxim Knight's character Matt, who appears to be emerging as a historian. He seemed to be trying to keep a record of the events that had happened to the survivors, creating a new world history, as it were. Wyle's Mason steps onto the bus and the two have a father-son conversation. One cannot help but speculate that there may be some separation here. Is Matt heading somewhere with other children, away from his father?

Falling Skies Fact: Colin Cunningham - who Peter Shinkoda calls "HamCunning" - jokes the cast passes the time by placing bets "on how much Noah Wyle is making" on the show.

We then spoke with Wyle and wrapped up the set visit with some pictures.

For more spoilery tidbits about the set visit, keep reading. But if you want to approach Season Two completely fresh, take a look at some pretty pictures and move along.

  • Colin Cunningham says Season Two  is 'darker, dirtier, edgier'
  • Viewers character will see inside the alien ship. "Whatever happens, it won't be pretty," says Beeman.
  • Ben will have light-up spine action when he connects w/ others, so those spikes will see action (Connor Jessup also has an electrical system running up his back to the spikes, with a dimmer, that allows the effects crew to adjust the lights).
  • The 2nd Mass will visit Richmond, Va.
  • Episode four filmed at the Vancouver sugar refinery for some critical scenes.
  • There's a new mysterious character called "Red Eye"
  • Terry O'Quinn - Locke from Lost - will be appear as Noah Wyle's mentor in the final two episodes of Season Two.