Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

GUEST POST: Losing Science in Drama (and Finding Drama in Science)

04.04.17
by Daniel Abraham

[NOTE: This post contains minor spoilers!]

There is a singular feature in the novels of The Expanse that we have tried very hard to express in the series: the idea that space itself is a character.

From the start, we’ve always attempted to portray the physical realities of life in space with as much, well, realism, as we can while still serving our dramatic needs, and whenever possible, we use physics itself to create drama in a way that almost every science fiction film or TV series tends to ignore, avoid, or just get flat-out wrong (the one film that got pretty much everything right was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—which was made almost 50 years ago).

I feel there have been lots of times we succeeded at this, other times we got things mostly right or not entirely wrong, and a few times where we failed. This is about one of the fails.

In Episode 11 of Season 2 (which airs this Wednesday at 10pm ET on Syfy), one of our characters (Alex, the pilot) has tucked his ship behind one of the smaller moons of Jupiter to keep it hidden from Martian patrol ships that have blockaded a base on the inner moon Ganymede, while his crewmates carry out a mission on Ganymede Station. When his crewmates become trapped, Alex has to come up with a risky rescue plan:

He plots a complex, gravity-assist (“slingshot”) trajectory to return to Ganymede without using the ship’s main fusion drive (which would expose him to detection by the patrols). Later, while he’s performing a maneuver, he barely avoids straying into the path of an unexpected ship.

The sequences are quite beautiful, well-acted and nicely directed, and the visual effects are gorgeous (particularly the immersive, holographic orbital trajectories of the Jovian moons, which are all scientifically accurate… at least I hope they are). And it’s a lot of fun to watch.

It’s also utterly preposterous.

But if we already knew that, then why did it end up on screen? Here’s what happened:

When we were working out this particular story line in our writers room, we needed a pick a  moon to hide the ship behind, so off we went to Wikipedia, and we settled on moon #54 (Jupiter XLVIII), “Cyllene”.

Why Cyllene? Well… mainly because it was a girl’s name and it sounded pretty, which suited the scene and Alex’s character. It wasn’t until the picture had been locked and we were well into post-production that I realized we had a problem, due to one, simple fact that we hadn’t fully thought through:

Cyllene is really, really far away from Ganymede.

And that has big ramifications. The gravity-assist trajectory Alex (i.e., we) had devised would’ve in reality taken months to complete, but the sequence we’d created showed Alex slingshotting around several moons and getting back to Ganymede in a ludicrously short period of time.* (In a moment of derangement, I briefly considered fixing the problem by using VFX to make Alex’s beard appear longer each time we cut back to him, with empty beer cans and food bar wrappers accumulating around him to imply that a lot of time was passing in each cut. I’m only half kidding.)

By the time I was able to really focus on this sequence and understood the problems, it was too late. We were married to what we had physically shot on stage and the (extremely expensive) VFX already being built in our pipeline.** So I decided to let it go and wrote it off to dramatic license.

And that’s what bugs me more than anything else.

It’s far too easy in TV/film science fiction to ditch reality for (what you perceive to be or rationalize is) the sake of drama. In a fantasy space opera, this is forgivable, but for a show like The Expanse that prides itself on a realistic portrayal of space, it is not.

I did finally come up with an alternative sequence, one that would’ve better reflected reality and been far more exciting to boot… but by that time it was too late to change what we had. For the record, what I should have done was this:

1) Change the moon we picked to another one (with a pretty, girl’s name, of course) that was much closer to Ganymede (this would’ve required changing a few words of Alex’s dialogue, but that wouldn’t have been difficult to do);

2) Build the flight sequence around a single event: a complex trajectory adjustment around one moon, perhaps involving a dangerously close pass over the surface, with a limited window for Alex to complete the maneuver, which gets further complicated by the appearance of an unexpected patrol ship. Remember that terrific sequence in Apollo 13 in which James Lovell (Tom Hanks) has to hit a tiny re-entry window on manual control? This could’ve been as riveting like that.

As they say, that and a buck will buy me a coke (though I would much prefer a martini).

But stayed tuned. We’re planning another slingshot sequence, far more elaborate than this one, in season 3. I’ll make sure we get the science (at least mostly) right.

Naren Shankar

Executive Producer/Showrunner

The Expanse

*Ludicrous even by our own standards. One area where The Expanse consistently takes big liberties with physical reality is time-to-travel. The novels don’t do this, but they have the luxury of literary devices like interior monologue; in TV, you tend to cut out the parts where things aren’t happening. The series adaptation of Game of Thrones also often significantly compresses time and distances for the same reason, so at least we’re in good company.

**The accounting department at our studio often refers to the show as “The Expense”. 

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Some cool news!

04.04.17
by Ty Franck

So this happened!

Thank you everyone.  A lot of people worked very hard on this show, and it’s so gratifying to see that their efforts resonated with the fans.

 

 

 

 

And here’s the Season 3 writer’s room starting up!

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I answer questions

01.14.17
by Ty Franck

So I get asked these things a lot, and the answers are too long for twitter, so here they are:

Q: Does the internet exist in The Expanse? How does it work?

A: Of course it does, or some version of it does. The big difference between a solar system wide electronic communications network and the one we have now is a thing called light delay. See, in The Expanse, everyone still has to obey the speed limit of the universe, the speed of light. This includes things like radio waves. So, if you go onto Google on Ganymede and run a search for something that exists on a computer on Earth, you won’t be getting your search results any time soon.

This would mean that there would be two layers to the “internet.” The local network on whatever body you’re living on, and the wider network that requires signal repeaters and is only as fast as the speed of light. I’d imagine this would also mean that local computers would cache as much of the most requested items as possible, to limit delays.

Q: Why call them ‘hand terminals?’

A: Because they are not phones. In the universe of The Expanse, we are living in the true internet of things. Nearly every object more complex than a hair brush is a smart or semi-smart device connected to the network around it. The hand terminal is barely a device, on its own. It has little or no memory or processing power. It is literally just a dumb terminal to give the user access to the network and to the various devices around them. It is a portable UI for operating other things. Which is why when the networks go down, the hand terminals become bricks. You can’t even play that game of angry birds classic you downloaded with your google store coupon.

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A great wealth of Expanse news, not all of which I can share

11.11.16
by Daniel Abraham

Hey, folks.  Been a while, and I have some news to share.

First off, if you haven’t seen it, the season 2 release date announcement is accompanied by a spiffy trailer.

Second, a reminder that season one is on Netflix globally (with the exceptions of US, Canada, and New Zealand), and will be streaming on Amazon Prime in the US in a little less than a month.

Third, I don’t get to talk about, except that I’ve heard some interesting rumors surrounding some audiobook stuff that, if they come to fruition, would be genuinely awesome.  Keep your dial tuned here and your ears sharp…

And finally, Babylon’s Ashes will hit shelves on December 6, and we’re doing a few signings to support it. If you’re nearby any of those, come hang out.  We’d love to see you.

Tuesday, December 6
6 PM: Bookworks, Albuquerque, NM
Friday, December 9
7:30 PM: Mysterious Galaxy, San Diego, CA
Saturday, December 10
5 PM: Borderlands, San Francisco, CA

So that’s what I’ve got.  How’re all y’all doing?

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Streaming season

10.11.16
by Daniel Abraham

So, there was a little news today. The Expanse has been picked up for global distribution by Netflix. That’s a little more complex than it sounds.

In all the territories Netflix serves except the USA, Canada, and New Zealand, streaming of season 1 will start November 3rd.

In the US, streaming of season 1 will be on Amazon Prime later this year (probably later than November 3rd) but it’s available for purchase on BluRay and streaming right now.

As far as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, I’m not sure what the details are, but as I find out, I’ll let y’all know.

Season Two will start airing in early 2017.  (I’m writing this from the sound spotting of the premiere which is looking awesome.)

Also, NYCC was great.

EDIT: There’s some confusion for me about how the New Zealand distributor affects the Australian streaming.  I’ll try to get that cleared up.  Also, I’m seeing comments from Those In The Know that Amazon Prime is streaming the first season in its entirety December 14th.

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New York Comic Con!!!

10.04.16
by Ty Franck

So Daniel and I will be at NYCC this year, doing a number of events. We have a booth signing at the Orbit booth on Saturday starting at 11am. And for those who line up early, we’ll be giving out some small props we stole from the TV show. These are things that actually appeared on the camera and were handled by the actors, so they’re unique collector’s items. They’re first come first served, and supplies are limited, so line up early!

Also, we’ll have a life size standee of Frankie Adams in full Bobbie Draper regalia that you totally want your picture taken with. So come see us. Oh, and we have an Expanse panel that same day at 3pm with a bunch of the cast. So that might be fun too.

 

Click to Embiggen!

Click to Embiggen!

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Toronto Diary Day Twenty Six, that’s a wrap baby!

09.19.16
by Ty Franck

So here we are at wrap. Episode 13 is in the can. All that’s left is another five months of post production. So let’s talk about that.

Today, Naren Shankar and I spent most of our day over with the Visual Effects folks doing approvals on the episode one and two effects. Episode two is especially effects heavy, with a lot of complex choreography in the story telling. Even at this late stage, we’re still tweaking the exact staging. Keeping in mind, of course, that altering these mostly rendered effects comes with a hefty price tag. So sometimes you have to let the less egregious things go.

Naren is also spending a ton of time in editing. We have all the footage from 13 episodes. We even have cuts in one form or another of the first 12, with the last one due in a week or so. But going from a rough editorial assembly cut to a director’s first cut to the producer’s first cut to a studio notes cut to a network notes cut to a final producer’s cut to a broadcast locked cut is a long and winding road. Naren, along with a small army of editors, will guide the show along that road.

We’re also doing our first sound spotting sessions, where the sound design team begins crafting the sound of the show and recording the additional dialog or looped dialog we’ll be putting in. On our show, nearly every scene with people in helmets means a loop session to rerecord all the dialog.

And now that we have soft locks on most of the episodes, our music composer Clinton Shorter can start working on his score for the season.

And finally, we’re spending some time talking about where all this goes in season three, so fingers crossed for that. Hope you all had fun going on this trip with us.

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Toronto Diary Day Twenty-Five

09.14.16
by Daniel Abraham

Last night, we went to dinner with Amy, our production coordinator.  It was one of the weirdest dinners I’ve ever been to, mostly because of the venue.  O Noir is a restaurant where the servers are all blind and the meal is served in absolute pitch darkness. In addition to ordering the listed items from the menu, there was the option of saying “surprise me” and getting dishes that weren’t listed, and that you’d just have to figure out what they were as you went. Which I did.

If the idea was to sharpen my sense of taste and smell by denying us sight, it didn’t particularly work. The thing I came away with was the realization that it was probably the first meal I’ve had in months where I never once checked the time. Amy, our production coordinator, said she was surprised to find the darkness very relaxing. Naren says back when he was on CSI, they did an episode about someone being murdered in a place like this. So yeah, as adventures go, pretty fun.

One of the things we talked about over the meal was how little people know about the office.  Like, for example, we have an office. The Expanse includes a huge crew of people on the soundstages.  Lighting, wardrobe, props, makeup, construction, special effects, visual effects, and on and on.  We have dedicated art and editorial departments. We have a transportation department that gets everyone to and from location.

We also have accountants and coordinators.  The people who work with the critical business side of getting everyone paid, keeping the lights on, arranging travel and supplies, and dealing with human resources issues.  All of the things that any small business would have to do, we have to do too.  And these are the folks who do it.

And there are other facets of the office peculiar to our work.  We have a script coordinator, for instance, whose job it is to track every change in every script, make sure updated pages get to everyone who needs them every time dialog or stage directions get tweaked, and maintain both an up-to-date place for all the most recent versions *and* a complete record of all the previous versions.  With thirteen episodes, we have literally hundreds (quite possibly thousands) of pages of changes over course of the season. Without a good script coordinator — pardon the language here folks — we’d be fucked.

Amy, the production coordinator, handles — among other things — the travel.  When Ty and I had our flight cancelled out from under us the day before we came out, Amy was the one who scrambled to get us a new booking.  And when Ty got pulled aside by immigration, Amy was also the one calling the Canadian government with the rules and statutes in hand, ready to raise hell if we got turned away for want of a (it turns out unnecessary) work permit.

One of the things Naren always says about television is that for a show to succeed, a thousand things have to go write. For one to fail, three things have to go wrong. That goes back to the office too.

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Toronto Diary Day Twenty Four

09.13.16
by Ty Franck

So I want to talk about props today, and I wanted to share a picture, and then when it came time to take it, I found I had conflicts.

So, short story long…

Turns out it’s hard to make a TV show where nearly everything that appears on screen has to be built from scratch. I mean, think about that. For most TV shows, the props department buys almost everything they need, and builds very little. You make a modern day family drama, you can buy all the furniture and clothes and cars and bicycles and TV remotes and toothbrushes right off a shelf somewhere.

Making a Science Fiction show set a couple hundred years in the future, and suddenly even a thing that cuts hair gets a lengthy discussion and a custom build. What DO hair cutting thingies look like in three hundred years? Or, more properly, what can we get away with saying a hair cutting thingy looks like in three hundred years? Or a toothbrush? Or a shower head?

These are not trivial problems in the world of our show, and that’s where Jim Murray and his amazing prop department come in. They buy, modify, or make from scratch nearly everything you see on screen that an actor carries around. They’ve made tools, grooming appliances, hand terminals for three different factions, a few nuclear bombs, and a virtual trunkload of firearms.

This topic is one my mind, because for an important scene we shot today, we had a character drop a weapon off a ten foot platform. It then came up, “we should probably not drop that, that’s a 4000 dollar prop.” You read that right. 4000 bucks for a gun that doesn’t even shoot. How is that possible?! I could by ten REAL guns for that much money.

Well, I’ll tell you how it’s possible. This gun is a thing that has never existed before. It is an entirely original creation, custom designed and then cut from actual metal. It’s a freaking work of art and absolutely one of a kind. So, yeah, maybe don’t toss it off the balcony just yet. For that, we had a custom copy of the gun made out of hard rubber. Looks almost exactly the same on film, doesn’t cost four grand to break it.

So the props department are kind of like wizards. We make shit up, they cast some dark sorcery and make it real.

But that brings me to my quandary. See, the props department needed to make a purple heart for a Martian Marine. And they created a beautiful medal, including the cameo of the founder of the Martian Republic on its face. And, because they are extremely awesome, they used my profile for that cameo.

And then, after we used it in the show, they gave it to me. And I mean, this thing is beautiful. I will treasure it as a prop forever.

But when I went to take a picture of it and post it, I got this weird feeling. My uncle served in Korea, and was severely wounded at the battle of the Chosun Reservoir, where a lot of US military folks died or were wounded. He came home 90% disabled, and with a purple heart on his uniform. That’s not something I take lightly.

So even though I love this prop, and will treasure it always, I just can’t take a picture of it and post if to the internet like a gag. Not sure if everyone will understand, but it’s just a thing I’m feeling right now.

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Toronto Diary Day Twenty-three

09.12.16
by Daniel Abraham

It’s been a little rowdy, folks, so I feel I owe y’all something a little more substantive than pictures, however amusing they may be.

Yesterday was the wrap party.  That doesn’t mean we’re actually wrapped.  The tradition is to put the party on the last weekend of the shoot rather than waiting for the whole thing to really be well and truly over so that as the actors finish their last scenes of the season, they can head off to their next gigs or their families or a little well-earned vacation.  And with our cast especially, there are a lot of places to which we’re scattering — the UK, New Zealand, New York, Los Angeles. This was the last moment when we were all — cast and crew — together as a family. We had this year’s party at a gallery space with food and drink and a running slide show from the year’s work.  We watched a blooper reel and a fun iPhone-shot music video by Joel the Assistant Director and scenes from the first episodes of season two.  We had speeches from the show runners and the president of Alcon’s television division.

And we shut the joint down.  At 2am, the turned the lights on and told us we had to go home. At that point, all the main cast was still there. That may not sound like a big deal, but it kind of is.

It is not uncommon, at the end of a shoot, for people to be kind of ready to take a break from each other. That isn’t true with The Expanse this year. Over the last couple years working together, things have become if anything more comfortable.

We had some guests who came as friends of the show too, including Ted Chiang who’s in town for the Toronto International Film Festival and the premiere of Arrival.

After that, we went to the Director of Photography’s condo for a smaller after-party, and I crawled home about 4am.

Today was the Canadian Film Centre fund raising barbecue — Bob Munroe, our head of VFX is on the board — and the world premiere of The Promise directed by Terry George (of Hotel Rwanda fame) and featuring our very own Shohreh Agdashloo.

So that was the last weekend.  We began this in April. We end on Wednesday.

Which isn’t true either.  We finish shooting the raw footage which goes to the editors and directors, the studio and the network, which we fit together with VFX and sound and music and color correction.  If the writing room is step one, this is the end of step two.  Step three — the last one before it comes to y’all — is already underway, but can now take the focus of our time and effort.

And the conversations about how to promote the show is starting to gear up too, at least for those of us who now have a few spare cycles that the shoot isn’t taking up.  NYCC is going to be a thing for us.  Ty and I will be there, and there will be an Expanse panel, though the details of that are still getting worked out.  Our friends at Syfy have had a crew on set interviewing the cast and preparing to roll out their own promotions.  There are conversations going on about some other ways in which The Expanse may well be expanding even more in the next few months.  And I’ll put the details about that out here as I can.  Short form: we’re going to want y’all’s help singing this from the mountaintops when season two drops, and there are going to be some surprising and wonderful voices in the chorus with you.

In the meantime, we’re working through the final galley proofs of Babylon’s Ashes (actually really-and-for-true coming out December 6th) and a couple other James SA Corey related prose things, planning out book 7…

…and Season Three.

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