When Steven Calcote and Lillian Diaz-Przybyl conceived their science fiction series “Orbital Redux” about a year ago, they broke down the story arc, the characters, and the stunts they wanted to include. But because the show is a live series with an interactive audience element, very quickly in the production process they realized they were going to have to be more flexible than they originally expected.
“It’s a ballet,” writer-director-executive producer Calcote tells Variety. “We have the writers’ room each weekend [to assess] what has changed, what’s the new development, how have the characters grown?”
The show, from Butcher Bird Studios for Alpha and Nerdist, follows a former astronaut named Max (Yuri Lowenthal) as he teaches the pilot who is actually sent in to replace him, Tommie (Yasmine Al-Bustami), how to navigate the space program. Calcote has been happy to let his actors find moments in the scenes to improv in order to enhance their characters’ relationship.
Lowenthal shares that dancing was only introduced into the scripts after he started doing it organically on-set, while Al-Bustami reveals that she often finds Lowenthal’s actions so humorous she can’t help but laugh, which she has worked into how her character has come to warm up to him. The fifth episode of the show drafted off of these behaviors, calling for Max to start dancing and Tommie to watch and rib him that he reminded her of her parents. But in an early rehearsal, Lowenthal pulled her into the scene and made her dance with him, which Calcote loved so much he kept in.
“We realized they’ve earned that,” Calcote says. “The actors know that if they make that choice, there’s no going back. We’re live-cutting, and it becomes part of continuity. … The actor is back at the prime position.”
Calcote and fellow executive producer Diaz-Przybyl have also been pleasantly surprised by the ways the story has evolved through the audience interactive element, In the second episode, the audience came up with “Cake or pie?” as a line of dialogue, and Tommie’s answer became an in-joke that the writers began calling back to as they tweaked later season scripts.
The one area they work around more stringently, though, is the performance and safety of stunts.
“We’re designing things that we can do safely in the context we have,” Diaz-Przybyl says. “We’re not actually doing pyro because it’s a wooden ship and two performers five feet away. We’re going to figure out a way to get the effects that we want while being something that we can achieve safely.”
Although she points out that it is important for science fiction shows, “Orbital Redux” included, not to get “too caught up in a gimmick and let all of the set dressing take over the story,” the team has prided itself on mixing emotional character stories, such as Max learning he is being replaced as the ship’s captain, with action-packed moments to grab attention and further shine a light on the craft that goes into the show each week. As the episodes have gone on, those action sequences have increased in complexity.
“Because we are limited to the space inside the ship, I think we owe it to [the audience] to bring something bigger or different each time so they don’t get bored within that space,” Lowenthal says.
The second episode of “Orbital Redux” featured a zero gravity element with an apple that “terrified” the team, admits Calcote, because rather than just “clicking your fingers [to] do a really simple CG gag, we’re going back 100 years of film history to make it live again.”
They relied on monofilament, placed strategically between set dressing pipes to help pull the apple up. A crew member was waiting to grab the apple and drop down another one, all while the cameraman stood at a precise angle to hide the monofilament and only capture the motion of the apple.
The fifth episode featured a hacker take-over that required live light and graphics effects inside the ship, as well as debris hitting the sides and punching through the ship’s windows. To achieve the latter, an effects crew member stood at one of the ship’s windows with a paintball gun, which was filled with paint balls that “had a little bit of sawdust and a little bit of magnesium in them,” reveals Diaz-Przybyl. When he shot the paint balls into the set, they hit the walls and upon impact the magnesium combusted with the oxygen in the air to make sparks.
Additionally, they used an air compressor to blow bits of soft debris, including pieces of cork and paper, around the set — “stuff that [would] have a visual impact but isn’t going to hurt our actors,” Diaz-Przybyl notes.
For the actors, this means a lot of trust in the process and the team. “We do these long rehearsals, and that’s important,” Al-Bustami says. “Knowing that we’re all on the same page, what people need from us, what we need to do for others — seeing that all together and doing it several times puts me in the head space.”
The combination of using 10 state of the art cameras, multiple “pocket sets” in addition to the main set, multiple live effects boards from lighting to graphics and live-stream technology to make the show with decades-old classic practical effects for the stunts is what makes everything “Orbital Redux” is doing so rewarding, notes Diaz-Przybyl.
“There’s a lot of relying on the fundamentals,” she says. “We couldn’t have done this even five years ago with the tech that we had.”
The sixth episode will feature the ship losing a tank and starting to spin out in space, which Diaz-Przybyl previews will also be done completely practically, with “old-fashioned camera craft.”
“The ship is actually built on a keel so we can inflate the tires and put a crowbar under it and rock it. It’s built to withstand an earthquake,” she says.
And the season finale will feature the biggest stunt to date when Max performs a spacewalk to fix something on the outside of the ship. For this, a stunt performer will be suspended in the air and crawl horizontally along a wall while Lowenthal stands by in the same costume so Calcote can cut between the action of performing the stunt and close-ups of Lowenthal’s face inside his helmet providing the emotion.
“The stuntman we got was my stuntman on ‘Spider-man’ for PS4, and we have developed sort of a dance that we do on the motion capture stage where I will do the acting almost over his shoulder and he does all the movements,” Lowenthal says. “Like all of the stuff we’re doing here it will take a little rehearsal, but we’ve got a jump start on the fact that we’ve been working together on and off for years.”
The biggest challenge for the team comes from not knowing how the episode will cut together ahead of time, despite all of the planning. Although Calcote notes they know the “basic narrative spine,” Diaz-Przybyl points out that sometimes there are “gremlins in the system” that cause things to go wrong, and they have to think on their feet. But that is also what makes it exciting for them and, they hope, their audience.
“We are learning how to do this every week. Every week we are adding a new element, every week we are challenging ourselves to do something, every week we’re figuring out a new way to tell the story in the space,” says Diaz-Przybyl.
“Orbital Redux” airs live Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. PT on Alpha.