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From Budapest, National Geographic Blasts Off for Mars

Hungary's studio infrastructure and crews rose to the task of an ambitious TV project

In July, season 2 of National Geographic’s “Mars,” which is produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment and RadicalMedia, started to shoot in Hungary.

The series is a hybrid, combining a fictional story about the colonization of the Red Planet and documentary sequences about real-life plans to travel there. The latest scientific research underpins both.

While season 1 followed the first mission to Mars in 2033, season 2 jumps several years forward to a time when a full-fledged colony, Olympus Town, has been established on the Red Planet. The scientists have been joined by miners employed by the Lukrum Corporation, who have established a colony of their own.

Although it is set in space and in the future, “Mars” is not so different from other dramas that Dee Johnson, the showrunner on season 2, has worked on. “At the end of the day you are still writing about people. ” says Johnson, whose credits include “Nashville” and “ER.”

The production team looked at the experience of settlers living in unfamiliar and hostile environments in the past in order to gain insights into the mentality of colonists. Says Johnson: “One of the things that we wanted to look at was frontier life and how the people deal with the environment, and what happens in a world in which there is no rule of law. With every advance to be gained in terms of exploration there is a certain amount of damage that can be done too.”

“If we were telling the story of the Jamestown colony in many ways it would be no different than the story we are telling on Mars,” adds co-creator and executive producer Justin Wilkes of RadicalMedia.

Although much of the drama is focused on the clash between private industry, in the form of the miners, and the scientists, Johnson says their differences are nuanced. “I wouldn’t say [the miners] are villains. They are doing a job and their company has an agenda that is different to the original colonists. Everybody on that planet wants the same thing: to make it habitable. It was about having those shades of gray rather than a definitive black and white.”

Production designer Sophie Becher, charged with building the settlers’ “worlds” on Mars, made the living quarters of the miners and the scientists distinct. “Lukrum is more utilitarian. It’s like an Arctic research station or an oil rig. The way they live is not comfortable. They are going up there for a short amount of time to make a load of money,” she says. “Whereas in Olympus Town they are developing a community, so it’s an environment where people want to stay and live. They need to provide more things that relate to Earth, like a bar, and a communal eating hall; their [personal] rooms are nicer, more individual.”

Both set design and costumes were grounded in reality. “It was science fact, not science fiction, so we made an effort to create a believable world,” costume designer Caroline Harris says. “It wasn’t like ‘sci-fi-crazy, do-what-you-like.’ I liked the brief, which was ‘keep it real.’”

Wilkes says they initially considered shooting in Los Angeles, then looked at international options like South Africa and South America, and then opted for Hungary. “The trick for this show is that there is a tremendous amount of stage work as well as the exteriors of Mars, and you have to have both those in some sort of proximity to each other because we had to be able shuttle cast and crew back and forth between a Mars backlot and the stage,” he says. “So when we really looked at the numbers and more importantly the locations and the creative, Hungary and its proximity to Morocco started to make a lot of more sense.”

Season 1 shot at Origo Studios and season 2 at Korda Studios, which has the largest soundstage in continental Europe. Both are near Budapest.

“It’s a tremendous set. Season 1 was a big build and season 2 ended up almost doubling in size,” says Wilkes. “We need a stage facility that could physically handle those sized sets, as well as a first-class facility where we had the production support, the below-the-line support, and proximity to talent that were coming in from both Europe and the U.S.”

He adds he would put Origo and Korda “on an equal footing in that both are relatively new, state-of-the-art facilities, in some cases they far surpass facilities that we have in the States.”

Pioneer Stillking Films provided production services on the shoot, with a crew of around 200-250 strong.

The Mars exteriors were shot either at a backlot that was built at Korda, which the production team called “the sandbox,” against a giant green screen, or on location in Morocco.

Visual effects were supplied by Framestore in London, with the company involved in a lot of the “world building” when portraying the colonies on Mars.

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