Monday February 1, 2021

By Naiia Lajoie


Imagine a fascistic republic whose sole goal is to expand its autocracy in order to exert influence. Through a longstanding campaign of propaganda, indoctrination, bribery, and extortion, they rally impressionable recruits in order to execute said directive, utilizing whatever means necessary. Now toss in interstellar bounty hunters, arachnid-like aliens, and Dr. Evil-esque “frickin’ laser beams”.

While the former may have sounded like an encapsulation of government in 2020, the latter betrays that it is actually the setting for Escape Velocity, a science fiction–action/adventure half-hour series in the making. The brainchild of the trio who brought you Terrordactyl in 2016, director Don Bitters and producers Christopher Jennings & Eric Edmonds, has been in development for a few years and is set in space. Taking place in a world that has expanded past humanity’s grasp a la The Fifth Element or Serenity, the character dynamic mimics old western chase films like 3:10 to Yuma or True Grit amid a Star Wars or Alien-like realm. As the series’ website expounds, “Escape Velocity is a sci-fi adventure series with each season consisting of 8 half-hour episodes. Set in the distant future, somewhere in the outer reaches of the known universe… Lee (Daniel Mills), a down on his luck interstellar bounty hunter, and his crew risks it all to capture Canis (Naiia Lajoie), the most wanted criminal in the Galaxy, who has an ulterior mission of her own. They’re forced to work together to survive an intergalactic plot greater than a simple bounty.” And yes, you read that correctly – I play Canis Teumessian.

Director & Virtual Production Supervisor Don Bitters is a Chicagoan, self-described as “cinema-forged” and the founder of the award-winning Los Angeles-based visual effects, production, and graphics company 3rd Films. Some of his resume includes doing visual effects for House of Cards (Netflix), Supergirl (CBS), Quantico (ABC), Perception (TNT), Paul Feig’s Other Space (Yahoo), The Maze Runner (20th Century Fox), Cloverfield Paradox (Bad Robot), and Power (Starz). Producer Christopher Jennings is not without his filmic merits; he worked as a professional stage actor in the Midwest prior to relocating to Los Angeles. His subsequent career encompasses executive level positions on a plethora of successful franchises. He has produced projects for MTV, VH1, Oxygen, Lifetime, Nuvo, ITV2, Food Network, Lifetime, Twitch, and YouTube. As for Producer Eric Edmonds, he has produced three globally-distributed feature films and has worked with top-tier companies including Subaru, Porsche, Ford, and United Airlines. He currently serves as the Employment Committee Co-Chair for the Producer’s Guild of America.

With an imaginative and experienced production team such as this, it is no wonder that they opted for a virtual production to bring their universe to life. Through the use of Unreal Engine, a game engine that allows for photo-real and near photo-real visuals to happen in realtime, the team was able to capitalize on cost and postproduction scheduling. Where traditional VFX require a long period of time in post, “with a good amount of preparation we can now create large landscapes, alien worlds and anything else that can be imagined in real time, on set and in camera,” Bitters illustrates. “It will directly affect every department, from art, to camera to casting and even performances.”

Performing alongside a large LED wall serving as a virtual backdrop did set forth certain hurdles to overcome. For one particular scene surrounding the character Zara (Aishwarya Sona), her actions involved piloting a spaceship. From her perspective, she was simply moving ship controls with nothing other than a large screen behind her. When Bitters turned the monitor towards her however, she exclaimed “Oh my god I look badass!” as she maneuvered the ship. Ultimately, while every television series uses VFX to some extent, this process allows every shot to be a visual effects shot. Yet unlike traditional visual effects, production can turn around several more shots in a faster and facilitated manner.

Based on the aforementioned talent, one can ascertain that the cast is incredibly diverse; from Daniel Mills (African American) to Aishwarya Sona (Indian), and yours truly – a Filipina/Syrian/French Canadian hyphenate. When asked if this was specifically the production’s intent, Bitters offered, “For most of the roles, we went in with a rather agnostic view, not thinking of race or nationality other than for a few key characters. We really just wanted the best performers for the roles, and we definitely got them!” Seeing as Escape Velocity occurs in a world where cultures clash and people from all walks of life find ways to survive & thrive, naturally actors from various backgrounds and beliefs are best suited to accurately convey this variety onscreen. Bitters posits, “It’s a foundation of how we interact with each other in society and it’s something woefully missing from many science fiction shows and films.”

Having shot the concept trailer in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic last year, casting and filming proved to be problematic in certain capacities. Unable to hold in-person castings, the team relied on casting websites like Actor’s Access to find its talent. Those chosen were asked to submit self-taped auditions, and from those submissions few were selected for live video calls. “It was a strange way to cast for sure, but it also helped highlight how talented our cast was, that you could get a clear read on the characters even through a screen” Bitters recollects. “If I can believe a performance over Zoom, the audience definitely will when they watch on their screens at home.”

I can personally attest that the production took all steps necessary steps to ensure a safe and smooth shoot. All cast and crew were required to take Covid tests, and pending a negative result, were permitted onto set where they were met with temperature checks, wore masks at all times (other than cast being filmed), and the different production departments were distributed throughout the studio to further minimize any transmission risk. The reality of Covid-19 was not only evident on set, but also on screen. “I think the current wave of science fiction stems from both a need for escapism,” Bitters speculates, “but also of a fear of the unknowns of the future. This is one of the reasons why the world of Escape Velocity is a reflection not just of where we are headed as a society and civilization, but where we are today.”

What final frontier will Escape Velocity find itself in? The team is currently working to find the financing and distribution to make this TV sizzle more than just a showcase of what they can digitally accomplish. “We want to see this show happen, with the same drive, dedication and quality that’s on display with the sizzle,” Bitters concludes. So if you would like to sneak a peek at the 30-second official teaser or full 1:30 concept trailer, strap in and buckle up because we are about to blast you in the face with a dazzling display of epic visual effects reminiscent of your favorite summer blockbuster.

For more information on the launch:
Series Instagram – @escapevelocity_theseries
Series Website – www.escapevelocityseries.com
3rd Films Website – www.thirdfilms.com

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