ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

'Sanctuary' exclusive: How they do all that cool stuff

VehiclesHuman InterestRobin DunneRyan RobbinsSyfy (tv network)EntertainmentChristopher Walken

When I walked onto the “Sanctuary” set at Norco Studios in Vancouver Sept. 2, cast and crew were filming a scene in the hallway of the sanctuary.

In character, Amanda Tapping, Agam Darshi and Ryan Robbins were closing the drapes while talking to someone who looked like a Borg from the “Star Trek” franchise, if a Borg had assimilated a lizard man.

Turns out it was Robin Dunne, wearing full make-up and, well, headgear that rendered him unrecognizable.

“I wore headgear all through grade school, thank you,” Dunne joked last week on the phone from Vancouver.

This headgear was a lot different. As befits “the little show that could,” the folks at “Sanctuary” came up with the crazy idea for “Metamorphosis,” which follows Will’s transformation into a lizard man. At some point while Alan McCullough was writing the episode and bouncing ideas amongst showrunner Damian Kindler and others, they decided that the episode should be filmed from Will’s point of view.

And that’s when crew members invented the Will-cam, so to speak. The headgear on Dunne’s noggin consisted of a high-quality camera and monitor bolted to a bike helmet, with all the cords flowing to the back of the helmet and, ideally, off of Dunne’s head.

Although the helmet weighed “just a few pounds,” Dunne said it took some time to get used to.

“I had the camera and the wires hanging out back. Dean, our focus-puller, was following me around because he had to make sure I was plugged in all the time,” he said. “But also, I had all the prosthetics on me all the time, the hands and the face and that kind of stuff. So it was definitely a challenging episode.”

Dunne’s responsibilities didn’t end with acting and being cameraman for the episode. He also did some of the stunt work, like when Lizard Will climbs the wall to install a light bulb for Henry. (Watch the how they did it video above.)

I was on set to watch the scene being filmed entirely in green screen. And even though I know how the process works, it still floors me to have seen the green screen work and then the final product. That’s why RedEye photographer Lenny Gilmore and I put together the behind-the-scenes video clip above with the footage I shot and the Syfy clip from the episode. In it you’ll see Dunne and the crew filming the “light-bulb” scene from “Metamorphosis,” which took several hours of prep, discussion and actual filming. Notice in the clips Dunne keeps the camera on his hands awhile, and also shoots up at co-star Ryan Robbins.

I also was able to get shots of the plan for Will’s make-up in the episode, which you can see in the "Metamorphosis" photo gallery I’ve created here. Remember, there is a whole lot of work to be done before and after the green screen work to reach the final product you see in the clip above, and Dunne will be the first to tell you that. After the scenes are filmed, co-exec producer and VFX supervisor Lee Wilson and his team create the virtual world that fills in the scenes. Hopefully we'll get to see some of that on the real Season 3 DVD extras.

Let me know what you think of my attempt at giving you a “DVD extras,” of sorts. And thank you, Sanctuary 3 Productions and Syfy for the opportunity to do this.

Below you’ll find the rest of my conversation with Robin Dunne about his headgear, doing stunt work, the make-up process and how his bosses are after him. If you ever meet Dunne in person, ask him to do his Christopher Walken impersonation. (Dunne, as Walken: “Christopher Walken loves ‘Sanctuary.’ Magnus is hot. I love her in the stilettos, you know? She’s hot.”)

Let’s talk a little bit about this episode, “Metamorphosis.”
I was really upset when I heard how they wanted to shoot the episode. I’m like, “Guys, not only do I keep the show afloat with my brilliant acting. Now you want to shoot the show, too? What? Put a broom up my [butt], I’ll sweep the floor while I’m at it.” They’re turning it into a one-man band. I’ll starting writing and then everyone else can go home. I can’t do everything! I know I resemble a super-hero, but I’m really not one.

When you learned how they wanted to do it, did you still have reservations?
I was always really excited. It was really odd because it’s a weird thing, first of all, to have all this equipment strapped to you all the time. To be looking through glasses but you’re not looking through your own eyes, sort of. You’re actually seeing a monitor that’s through the camera. I had a little vertigo at first, but I got used to it quite quickly. It was just a really fun way to make an episode.

At first I think the camera guys were like, “Oh, OK, whatever. Whatever, buddy, taking our jobs.” But I think I kind of won them over after awhile to the point where Andy Mikita, who directed the episode, was telling me, “Keep it more messy. Your composition is getting too good. It still should be shaky.” I got the hang of it quite quickly. It was fun.

I recently saw the final cut; Andy and I actually did the DVD commentary. What a great episode. I’m really proud of the episode. And also, the story is really, really nice, the metaphor for the guy sort of losing himself. I think it’s a really well crafted script and I think the way Andy directed I really liked. … Stylistically, I thought it was a really fun episode.

Poor Will always seems to be the target within the show. But then, it’s you who seems to be the target on set.
I’m convinced that the whole MO that Damian [Kindler] and Martin [Wood] and the creative team have is just to see what kind of fresh hell they can put me through every week. I’m on my way to the studio right now to learn how to walk on stilts, if you can believe it.

But I’m definitely a guy who says, “Come on, guys, I’m doing this.” I’m always pushing to do the stunts and stuff. Marshall Virtue, our stunt coordinator, has been great with me. I know I’m a pain in the ass to him because I’m always, “No, I want to do this. I want to get hit by the car!”

They’ll let me do as much as possible, even some stuff that makes them kind of uncomfortable. But not everything. They won’t let me get hit by a car yet. At least not on camera.

Although Damian or Martin might run you down one night, right?
Oh yeah, believe me. Happily; they would happily do that.

You did climb while doing the light-bulb scene I watched. How about the others?
[Stuntman] Clint [Carleton] did the climbing in my office, but climbing the green wall, that scene with the reflection and the burning, that was all me. Again, I never get tired of this stuff. Stage 1 is our green-screen stage. It’s green floor, green walls, green everything. Then you watch that episode and you’re like, “Wow.” All that [background] stuff has been put in. I guess I should be used to it by now, but it’s really amazing to me what they can do and how they can just replace all that with a room in the Sanctuary.

But that climbing stuff, it’s not easy. You’re all harnessed up and you think, “Oh yeah, they’re just going to pull me up and I’m going to pretend to climb.” I guess I should do more core work because [laughs] I’m exhausting after those things.

They had you going up and down a lot, and with the camera on your head. How much did that weigh?
The original camera they were going to use was quite heavy and then Andy nixed that because, I guess, he didn’t want me to have permanent neck problems. The camera wasn’t heavy—it weighed a few pounds—but you’re just aware of something else you’re carrying around, it’s sitting on your head. It definitely kind of throws your equilibrium off, but it wasn’t too bad. Originally, the helmet they were going to use was a workman’s helmet. They were even worried about that being too heavy, so we ended up using a bike helmet, which saved me a little bit.

So they just took a camera and sort of duct-taped it to the helmet, or fastened it somehow? Homemade job?
Well they constructed it; drilled it into the helmet and had the wires come out the back. And it’s quite a high-quality camera they’ve managed to rig with this headgear…

Did you have a sore neck after the shoot?
It wasn’t too bad; it just was really weird. You’d get acclimated to looking through the lens and that would be how you sort of walk around during the day. And then when you take the thing off its like, “Whoa, wow, now I’ve got to look through my own eyes.” It’s weird.

And also the depth perception is really weird. … There was one scene where I go into the lab with Magnus and she’s testing stuff. She has all these Petri dishes and she’s trying to find a cure for me. Andy was like, “Just look down and grab one of those Petri dishes and pick it up and look at it and then put it back down.”

Trying to do that when you’re looking through the camera lens completely screws up your depth perception. We did so many takes because I was just grabbing at thin air because I couldn’t figure out where it was. It was definitely odd.

The process with those scenes, Andy walked you through it without the camera, and then you filmed the no camera part of it. Then he walked through it with the camera, and then shot with the camera. Is that right? That was the process for all your camerawork, right?
Yes. And also, the trick of falling. I don’t mind falling; I can do it. For stunts, it’s better, obviously, the more that I can do then the more that they can use. So I always try to do as much as possible. But the trick with that particular scene—forget about breaking bones—it was more like trying not to break the actual camera when I fell. To give the illusion of me falling, and to give that viewpoint, the POV of Will falling down without actually landing on the camera and breaking a big piece of equipment.

Alan McCullough wrote this episode. Did he have it in his head to shoot it this way?
I think the evolution was that they came up with this idea of Will getting infected and sort of losing himself and the team not knowing what to do or how to handle it or how to cure him. In Season 1 we saw Will get infected in “Warriors” and become Mr. Muscle and become a monster that way. I think there was an effort to tell this story in a different way and in the process [they came up with], “Hey, why don’t we have it shot entirely from Will’s perspective?” And again, it puts the audience in his brain, and [let’s them] be able to look through his eyes. That’s the evolution of it.

And again, it’s a really lovely script, but putting that extra piece using his POV and having the audience actually experience what Will is going through adds to the episode.

Do you plan to wear that camera again when you direct your episode?
I would like to use that camera in my personal life.

You could wear it at Comic-Con this year, on stage at the panel.
Exactly, just make it, “Robin Dunne: The Documentary.” It’d be like “The Truman Show.” That wacky helmet-cam thing.

Speaking of wacky, did everyone make fun of you wearing the helmet-cam?
Everybody makes fun of me all day long, Curt, are you kidding me? I mean if I wasn’t here they would have no one to mock! Yes, they certainly did make fun of me. “Where’s headgear?”

The scene where you are climbing on the ceiling: Did they just build up and have you basically crawling on the floor and flip it over?
Yes. It’s amazing how low-tech that is. The lights were coming up out of the floor and I’m literally just crawling along on the floor. But when you see it, it looks like I’m crawling on the ceiling. I remember when I was doing it going, “Is this going to look real?” When you walk on set, you see these [upside-down] light fixtures. It’s so simple. But when you watch it on screen, it’s like, “Wow, that guy’s crawling on the ceiling.” But I don’t think there was any green screen in that scene.

Let’s talk a little bit about the make-up. I saw a thing in the make-up room showing the stages of your face make-up. Did you have to shoot in order to not screw up the continuity, or do that make-up over again?
Yes, we did shoot semi-in order, the stuff at the beginning where you saw my face and hands start off with just a few things here and there. Then later in the episode we got into the full-face stuff. The trick with the prosthetics was, with the camera and the prosthetics, you don’t want to damage the facial stuff, and so trying to get the camera on and off my head for different scenes without damaging that stuff was tricky.

I get these little tastes every now and then of what it’s like to be Chris Heyerdahl, because that’s his life. I had calls at like 3:30 in the morning because it would take about four hours to get all this stuff on and I’d have to be on set at 7 to shoot. You’re setting your alarm for 2:15; I’m driving to work and there are still people falling out of bars and stuff. Think of the absurdity of that. But that’s Chris Heyerdahl’s life. Every episode he has a crazy early call like that.

Those monster hands were actually prosthetics you wore, right?
It’s just bits of make-up or prosthetic stuck to me as Will is changing, but then toward the end those are gloves. And the trick there, too… Remember the scene with me and Agam [Darshi], which I think is one of the nicest scenes in the episode, Agam does some nice stuff in that scene where she’s feeding me. That scene begins with me on the ceiling and then crawling upside-down. So you see my hands kind of crawling down the wall. It was tricky because most of my weight was on my hands and I’m trying not to destroy these rubber gloves while at the same time making it look like I am actually crawling down the wall. A lot of that stuff was just tricky trying to get it right.

Later in that scene I sit down and Agam starts feeding me. Poor Dean Marin, our focus-puller. Every time I am moving around, Dean is right behind me holding cords and trying to keep everything in focus. In the scene where Agam’s feeding me, she puts a ravioli on the fork and pretends to feed me. And I’m pretending to bite and chew. And Dean, right in the camera, is taking the ravioli off the fork with his hand and throwing it to the side. Then grabbing another one. I got a pretty good workout on that episode, but so did Dean. I think Dean had the more difficult job.

Was that ravioli from Kraft Services?
I don’t know. I hope it was prepared by Kraft Services and not by Martin.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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VehiclesHuman InterestRobin DunneRyan RobbinsSyfy (tv network)EntertainmentChristopher Walken
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