It’s only when you see The Bridge Studios in Vancouver, Canada, that you begin to realise just how big Stargate is.
Nine tenths of British Columbia’s largest studio complex is taken over by Stargate — and the other tenth is currently used for the new SCI FI Channel show, Sanctuary, produced and directed by Stargate’s Martin Wood and starring Stargate’s Amanda Tapping.
The place is huge, the sets are huge and the amount of work that lies beneath the work that ends up on screen is phenomenal. At the moment, production is in full swing on Stargate:Atlantis, Season 5, but touring around the massive soundstages, cast and crew point out ‘that’s where we shot Continuum‘.
These are in the biggest soundstages of all.
It’s no surprise that the people behind Stargate are keen to get their work onto the big screen, from whence it originally came.
We’re talking about Stargate: SG1, here, of course, the spinoff of the Roland Emmerich directed 1994 film, which ran for ten seasons, but was cruelly curtailed before finishing off its final story arc.
In a gesture of compromise, studio execs allowed creator/writer/producer Brad Wright and the rest of the Stargate: SG1 team to finish off the story with the direct to DVD film, The Ark of Truth. At the same time, they also gave the go ahead to the stand-alone adventure, Stargate: Continuum.
Whilst it has been designed for people who haven’t seen any Stargate before, it really does have a lot to say to the fans, with plenty of inclusions and references that will make the hard core fan burst with pride.
Says Brad Wright, “The franchise has now been off the air for almost two years. If we’re going to go forward with new movies, we have to get new fans. You can’t just hope to get your base from years ago. It’s not the first time we’ve tried to make a feature. We need to have access to 100% of the audience, not just our own audience. Under previous management we had toyed with a bigger movie. Continuum could have been even bigger.”
That said, the film is big — really big, given its restrictive budget of only $US7 million, with a huge time-travel plot and a mammoth attack on a little blue planet the scale of which is reminiscent of Independence Day. There’s a huge amount of visual effects shots that distinguish it from ‘just another episode’. Michelle Comens and the Stargate visual effects team have already won eight Emmys for Stargate.
“It looks so easy” says Michelle, “you put up a blue screen, how hard can it be? But really — there’s a lot of give and take — because you have to halt production to do Vfx shots while everyone else is waiting around. It’s an extremely long process for everyone involved in the CG department. We had over 240 shot on this alone. But we do have fun — I don’t think people will be able to tell if some things that we’ve done aren’t real!”
What we have here isn’t a ‘double episode’ as some pundits have predicted, but a real feature. If anything, it’s the audition for Stargate’s return to the big screen – and with the success of Ark of truth and the buzz on Continuum, it looks to be closer than ever before.
Says Brad Wright “We’ve done so many two-parters you’d think it would be easy, but it’s a very different structure. It doesn’t have to owe anything to the episode before or after. The fun part was setting out to write a movie, and not just a long episode. Robert Cooper helped me a lot on Continuum. I had December and January to write the movie – I hadn’t had that much to write something in years. But I had to finish the Arctic scenes first — I had to have that part of the film done long long before. We actually shot that even before we shot Ark of Truth!”
Which is fair enough, given that the film was also shot on location in the Arctic circle, at a remote Naval research base. Ben Browder, Amanda Tapping and Richard Dean Anderson joined director Martin Wood and a film crew of 20, to travel 200 nautical miles north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
There they braved temperatures of fifty degrees below zero, Fahrenheit, or about minus forty five centigrade.
Christopher Judge, who plays Teal’c, didn’t join them, after he heard about the polar bears that regularly patrol the region. “I’m not afraid of flying, just of crashing. And nature – I grew up in LA – I didn’t even see a possum until I went to college. You see dogs and cats in LA – that’s it. Maybe the odd lizard. For someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time around nature – is it abnormal to be afraid of bears? I think my fears are well within reason.”
Those that did go up were accompanied by armed polar bear guards at all times.
Ben Browder, who plays Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell, had an extraordinary experience. “Going to the Arctic was mindboggling — but the first day — I’m thinking — ‘what the hell am I doing here?’. You walk outside and you feel your flesh freezing. You’re thinking of the polar bears. How do I do this for a week? Cutting the ice that you drink, checking your comrades for frostbite, no phones no contact with the outside world.”
“It’s surprising to find yourself as an adult bonding with people in such an environment. It’s so tangibly real — you walk outside, and you can die. It leaves a lasting impression. I don’t know if it changed me, but it sure stuck in my head.”
The US Navy’s Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station (APLIS for short) conducts submarine-related research, which is a great place to shoot a movie if you want to get footage of a $US 2 billion nuclear submarine bursting through pack ice. The USS Alexandria and her crew feature heavily in the film in one of the most spectacular sequences ever shot for TV.
Says director Martin Wood, “Brad has beautifully crafted, as he always does, a story that works around the biggest piece of production we can get, which in this case was a two billion dollar submarine surfacing in the high Arctic. I remember reading the script and thinking – I can’t believe this is happening, I can’t believe that’s going to happen – all the way through it. There’s no break in the action — it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. This is a huge movie.”
The film may have its big sequences, but it also takes the time to focus on the main characters in ways that a regular Stargate episode wouldn’t — particularly with the alternate timeline plot. Brad Wright was able, with the help of Robert Cooper, to achieve some long-held goals.
“I like seeing characters forced to see themselves in a different way — that’s the joy of alternate timelines. For example, you have Daniel Jackson who phones himself. He’s compelled to give himself a pep-talk. I talked to Robert, and asked him – “is it weird to have Daniel phone himself?” He said,”yeah. Do it, but yeah.”
Ben Browder agrees: “One of the great things about Continuum — there’s s sense of fun in making it. And I also like the middle bit where it slows down, you see how the actors interact. It’s a good ensemble of actors. It’s hard in the series to find the time to do that sort of thing. Carter doing her shopping is a scene I’ve been wanting to see for ten years! Do I know drama or what?”
Stargate Continuum, out now on DVD and Blu-ray.