Drownings and Free Falls and Snakes, Oh My!
Night Stalker's Gabrielle Union
The fun thing about doing a show like Night Stalker
[Thursdays at 9 pm/ET, on ABC] is how different it is every week.
This series takes a "minimovie" approach to television, where each episode is a different stand-alone mystery about the supernatural.
Our task, week in and week out, is to make the unreal seem real.
Because each episode involves a different supernatural phenomenon, the production challenges vary enormously. In one episode, it's staging a chase in a subterranean cave, complete with computer-generated bats, puppeted creatures and stunts. The next, it's a tense psychological drama about a man in solitary confinement.
Last week's episode, "Three," written by Adam Sussman and directed by Daniel Sackheim, was a particularly interesting challenge.
Because the story was about people facing their worst fears, we had to stage quite an array of fantastic phenomena — a woman drowning in a shower that supernaturally fills up on its own, a man falling to his death from a great height, another character being crushed to death by a giant snake in his bed and (climactically) a college student being transported back in time to 1994, where he's pursued by his ax-wielding father.
That's a list of sequences long enough to sustain a small feature. But from the time the script came in, our production crew had only seven working days in which to figure out how we were going to pull off all those spectacular effects.
As you know, filmmaking is a collaborative medium, and to execute these sequences, we ended up calling upon many disciplines — stunts, special effects, props, wardrobe, camera, production and art design and visual effects (CGI).
Without giving away all our secrets, you might be interested to know some of the following:
• For the shower scene in the teaser, production designer Bernard Hides
built not only the bathroom and shower set in which Liza Valenti (Austin Highsmith
) hid, but a second, identical shower inside a massive glass tank. Under the supervision of special-effects coordinator Kelly Kerby
, that tank was filled with 1650 gallons of water. A 4000-gallon water tank was standing by, along with heaters to keep the water warm. Stunt coordinator Danny Weselis
supervised the action while Austin simulated drowning in the water, filmed by director of photography Robert Primes
using a variety of cameras placed in and outside the water.
• For the scene where Professor Carr (Yancey Arias) walked off a sidewalk that magically became a skyscraper, a set piece was constructed to look like a sidewalk, so that his foot could seem to walk right off the pavement and into the abyss. Our shots looking down were captured from a real skyscraper, while the angles showing Carr hanging from below were accomplished by building a set piece that matched the face of the building. For Carr's fall itself, Yancey was hung on a device called a "hip pick" in front of a "green screen," which created the illusion that he was falling away from camera. Mat Beck and his visual-effects team at Entity FX then composited the actor with "plates" we'd shot downtown to create the illusion that he was falling to his death.
• This may surprise many of you, but the sequence that involved the least visual trickery was the one in which Craig Borten (Lane Garrison) is crushed by a giant snake in his jail-cell bed. In fact, Lane was in bed with a real 16-ft. Burmese python. While at first Lane seemed understandably uncomfortable having a giant snake wrapped around his body, within a few minutes he was gamely wrapping the snake around his own throat and pushing its head toward his own face to make it look like it was slowly crushing him to death.
• The climax, which involved Jack Mercer (Gil McKinney) being transported back in time to a dilapidated house from 1994, was staged by building the inside of the house on a soundstage in Hollywood. To show the before and after, we filmed all the scenes where the house looks as it did in 1994, then our production design and art department teams went to work, making the same set look rundown and dilapidated, as if it had been abandoned for the past 11 years.
One small piece of trivia: In the climax, it looked particularly convincing when Jack was being chased by the memory of his ax-wielding father and then hit his head against a glass cabinet. There's a reason for that. He did, in fact, accidentally bang the back of his head against the wood, requiring stitches.
That was the only instance where the illusion in Night Stalker became just a little too real.
Have a question for Night Stalker boss Frank Spotnitz? Share it with him here!
For even more "Frank talk" about Night Stalker, check out the exec's blogs from Sept. 29, Oct. 6 and Oct. 13.