Sci-Fi Storm

A day on the set of Defiance

by on Oct.19, 2012, under Television

I was fortunate to be invited up to Toronto earlier this week as part of this year’s Syfy Press Tour, and visited the sets of Defiance and Warehouse 13. It was a far different experience compared to the last couple years, where it was held at Universal Orlando. It was quite interesting to see the actual sets that you see on TV! Very surreal – seeing places that you see on TV and that you are familiar with – but to see it in person is a very different experience.

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For those unaware about Defiance, check out the trailer here. Set in the near future, Defiance introduces an exotically transformed planet Earth, its landscapes permanently altered following the sudden – and tumultuous – arrival of seven unique alien races. In this somewhat unknown and unpredictable landscape, the richly diverse, newly-formed civilization of humans and aliens must learn to co-exist peacefully. Each week, viewers will follow an immersive character drama set in the boom-town of Defiance, which sits atop the ruins of St. Louis, MO, while in the game, players will adventure in the new frontier of the San Francisco Bay area. The dramatic tapestry of the series and the intense action of the game will exist in a single universe where their respective narratives will inform one another and evolve together into one overall story.

Defiance stars Grant Bowler (Ugly Betty, Liz & Dick), Julie Benz (Dexter, No Ordinary Family), Stephanie Leonidas (MirrorMask, Crusade In Jeans), Tony Curran (Gladiator, The Pillars of the Earth), Jaime Murray (Warehouse 13, Hustle), Graham Greene (Dances With Wolves) and Mia Kirshner (The L Word, The Vampire Diaries). The series is executive produced by Kevin Murphy (Desperate Housewives, Caprica; Hellcats) & Michael Taylor (Battlestar Galactica). Kevin Murphy serves as showrunner. Scott Stewart (Legion, Priest) directed the pilot; Michael Nankin will serve as director/producer on the series.

A Castithan female

In Defiance, there are seven different alien species that come to Earth, collectively known as the Votans, who all developed on separate worlds of the same star system but fled when their star system died out and come to Earth and terraform it to their own needs. Defiance takes place in the aftermath of the war to defend Earth, and the species are trying to learn to live together. The town of Defiance was founded as a joint effort on top of the ruins of present-day St. Louis.

There are three main species: The Castithans, who appear almost as human albinos and who used to have a rigid caste system that breaks down when they flee to Earth; Irathients, who are more geared to both nature and warfare; and the Indogenes, who appear to be more scientific and technical. Several others are seen, but I don’t have all the species names.

Before visiting the set of Defiance, we had dinner the night before, and I had dinner with Being Human‘s Meaghan Rath and her brother, Jesse Rath, who will be appearing on Defiance as Alak Tarr, the Castithan son of Datak (Curran) and Stahma Tarr (Murray). We got to talk about speaking the alien languages which were developed by David Peterson, who also developed the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones (watch Peterson’s presentation on the alien languages of Defiance here.) Peterson has created an extensive spoken and written language for all three of the major races.

Jesse mentioned that Tony Curran, who plays his father, will even sometimes start speaking the language when talking to him – although neither one really knows what he is saying 🙂

At the studio, we broke into several groups and our group was led by production designer Stephen Geaghan, who has worked on V, the Highlander series, The Outer Limits and Jeremiah among other things. He took us around for a tour of the sets.

The NeedWant bar set

The very first set was the NeedWant bar/brothel, which is a central place for the show. Calling it a set is strange – it is pretty complete, with walls and details in every direction, but items are movable to allow shooting. The central round bar wraps around a tree trunk, giving an organic feel. To put costs of filming in Toronto vs. LA into perspective, the NeedWant set would likely have costs three times as much to build in LA.

We then went through several other areas of brothel rooms, and entered the Mayor’s (Benz) office. The office isn’t anything unusual, except for the odd assortment of decorations around – models of the space shuttle fleet are next to a display of old soccer items. The walls have the backs of vertical pinball games, and a nice looking jukebox sits in one corner. There are a large number of books, both on shelves and stacked on the floor, and vary from art to cars to Asian cooking. Maps of the area adorn a table.

The next set was a corridor of a spaceship, which had a gaping hole in the side. Inside was a table set up as a workbench – which had vinyl records, cables and electronics on it – not sure what the records were for! And on one wall was an old CG unit – a character generator for TV/video production – although I don’t know if it was standing in for something else like a computer.

On the way to the next area, there were a few alien bodies on the floor – not sure from which episode, but there will be dead aliens…

The kitchen set – it looks like a real, functional kitchen

We then entered a house set, and I’m afraid I missed who’s house it was. But again, this was a pretty complete house! Aside from seeing the backs of other sets through the windows, and ceiling sections open for lighting, it looked like a real house! There was a living room, hallway, and a full kitchen. However, all the walls were removable – what they call “wild walls” – so they can shoot any angle they want.

We then got to step outside – into the town of Defiance – and into another world in a sense – an almost alien landscape. The town is build pretty much from anything, similar to a shanty town. Shipping containers make a build of the architecture, although some are also of alien design. A subway car is converted into a café. And in the center stands the Statue of Defiance.

Production designer Stephen Geaghan showing us around the town. The Lawkeeper’s office is to the left, and the NeedWant on the right

The outside of the NeedWant is strangely adorned at the second level with a bunch of bicycles, while an strange cross between a golf cart and baby carriage sits outside. Across from the NeedWant is the Lawkeeper’s office, outside of which sits a converted Dodge Charger…vehicles are converted to run on something called Petrohol, and there is a Petrohol station nearby (I didn’t catch what the cost per liter was 🙂 ). Inside the Lawkeepers office is a jail cell, small kitchen, and a table with some electronics, one of which looks like an XBox painted green…

In the doctor’s office you can find all sorts of medicines – all labeled in Indogene, a language based on hexagons (more on the hexagons and Indogenes later), along with a large truss hanging from the ceiling to help accommodate one of the larger species.

The converted subway car is actually from Toronto, but redressed to look like it is from St. Louis (including the St. Louis route maps inside), then converted to a café with an assortment of tables and decorations inside.

In total the backlot set is about 600 feet by 400 feet!

After we finished the tour of the set, we went back to the NeedWant to meet some of the producers and the cast. First up was a VFX presentation by Gary Hutzel, the Emmy award winning VFX producer who worked most recently on Battlestar Galactica and Caprica. Unfortunately, I can’t show you anything from that yet – they don’t want it seen just yet.

After that was a presentation by David Peterson about the creation of the languages for the three main Votan species…here is my video from the presentation:

Then we got to meet the cast for a Q&A session. Just so you know who everyone is, here is the primary cast and who they play:

Grant Bowler plays Nolan, a former Marine who fought in the alien conflict. After losing his wife and child in the war, he became a wanderer in the dangerous new world, eventually joined by Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), a young Irathient he raises as his own and as his lone companion in the lawless badlands.

Julie Benz portrays Amanda Rosewater, the idealistic mayor of the bustling mining boomtown of Defiance, one of the world’s few oases of civility and inclusion. As the newly appointed mayor, she is determined to maintain peace in the community, an ambitious task in this deadly new world.

Cast (l-r) Graham Greene; Tony Curran; Mia Kirshner; Jaime Murray; Stephanie Leonidas; Julie Benz; Grant Bowler. Syfy President Dave Howe is on the extreme left

Stephanie Leonidas plays Irisa, an exotically beautiful warrior who is part of an alien race called the Irathients. After Nolan (Bowler) killed her criminal father, he adopted the girl and raised her as his clever – and lethal – right-hand.

Tony Curran portrays Datak Tarr, part of an elite alien race known as the Castithans. Datak grew up in the slums of his home planet, but despite being part of the under-privileged class, he schemed his way onto one of the alien arks, saving himself before his home planet was destroyed.

Jaime Murray portrays Datak’s beautiful and proper wife, Stahma, a high-ranking Castithan before her home planet ceased to exist. Clever, imaginative and darkly opportunistic, Stahma is perhaps more dangerous than her husband.

Graham Greene is Rafe McCawley, a self-made success who owns and operates the largest mine in the territory. However, Rafe’s status as the richest and most powerful human in the town of Defiance comes with a price, as he struggles to navigate both familial and political alliances in this precariously assembled new world.

Mia Kirshner is Kenya, the self-assured, dauntless town madam whose unvarying devotion to the town of Defiance has inexorably woven her into many of its complicated affairs.

I also took video of the session, but it was broken into two parts when I had to replace the camera battery (I didn’t have a way to charge one while using the other like last year, and the batteries aren’t lasting very long 🙁 ), so there is a bit of a gap:

After that the session broke up and we were able to talk one on one and take pictures of the cast, including the ones in costume. I spoke briefly with Tony Curran (been a fan of his since his portrayal of Vincent van Gogh in Doctor Who, and I mentioned that I noticed that of the 7 main cast members, the 4 who played humans had no accents (or, more properly, North American accents) while the three aliens had European accents, and asked if this was a conscious decision or not. He wasn’t aware, but he did think it added something extra to the alien language.

Tony Curran is fascinated by Doc Yewll’s outfit

I also spoke with the acrtress playing the Indogene doctor, Doc Yewll (the lovely Trenna Keating) about the prosthetic makeup. As you can see from the photos, it is highly detailed close up, with small hexagons visible all over the skin, and even hexagonal pupils thanks to contacts. The headpiece is a single piece which is pulled on and then glued around the ears, nose, etc. and she has to be cut out of it at the end of the day, so they have to use a new piece every day of shooting!

The clothing, which Tony was actually fascinated by, appears metallic, almost like an armor, but has a plastic feel.

Closeup of Doc Yewll – here you can see the skin detail

I then hung out at the bar area, dreaming of tending bar there (casting agent: if you need a fill-in bartender extra, give me a call…), and Jesse Rath walked up behind me, in his full costume. Here you can see the white skin and bluish-white hair, and blue-white eyes. I get the feeling that Alak is a bit of a rebel, wanting to appear more like a human in his mode of dress.

And that was our visit to Defiance! After a quick lunch we then sped off to the Warehouse 13 set…

Don’t forget – a lot more photos are available in the complete picture album available on our Facebook page.


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