New Frontiers: The Making of 'Defiance'
In a landscape of endless sequels and reboots, Syfy teams up with Trion Worlds to take both television and gaming beyond the boundaries.
As television networks struggle to keep their audiences engaged, the Syfy channel has a solution—get viewers to play along. On April 15, Syfy will premier Defiance, a TV series about life on a futuristic, alien-inhabited Earth. In addition to watching the show, fans will also be able to access the Defiance universe by playing the video game—a third-person shooter of the same name that corresponds with the show’s characters and plot lines. While the game and television series operate separately, meaning that fans can understand and enjoy one without the other, only those who engage with both will get the complete history and future of the Defiance world.
Creating the first television-game hybrid was a complicated endeavor. In fact, it took Syfy and game development firm Trion Worlds five years to bring the transmedia project to life. Struggling with conflicting production schedules and physical limitations, the project forced both sides to make compromises while upholding the integrity of the story. After a recent appearance at South By Southwest, Defiance showrunner and executive producer Kevin Murphy and Trion Worlds VP of Development Nathan Richardson dished on the triumphs and tribulations of merging two distinctly different art forms.
Kevin Murphy explained that the idea first sparked five years ago when Syfy made a major investment in Trion Worlds. Syfy president Dave Howe and Trion CEO Lars Butler were eager to engage in a project together.
“The big idea really was about, ‘How do we create a big universe with two distinct portals that would allow you to enter that world?’ And by creating a new world,” Murphy said, “it gave you sort of an infinite sort of number of permutations of ways to tell stories and ways to find characters. Because they were developed together, the mythology is seamless.”
Elements of the core mythology were frequently augmented to meet the needs of both the game and the television show, allowing the immersive world to build organically through the development process. But creating a game and show in tandem could potentially create friction if either gamers or viewers felt that one side was getting more or better quality content than the other. Syfy and Trion had to find the line between what goes into the television series and what goes into the game. A major struggle, Murphy explained, was the learning curve of communication between the two studios.
“At Trion they would do a big beautiful bible of everything that was going on in the game and we would use that as a reference. We would pull something out,” Murphy remembered “like some creature or some political figure, and they’d turn around and say, ‘Oh sorry, that’s not it anymore. We took that out.’ And they would have the same frustration with us.”
The answer was to create a unique position that bridged both production teams. The mythology coordinator served as “kind of an editor” according to Murphy, who patrolled the line between what elements of the Defiance universe emerged in the show’s debut season and the game, ensuring cohesion. It was important to both Trion and Syfy that the canon be upheld thoughtfully, Murphy added.
Inevitably, compromises were made when reconciling the otherworldly expectations of both the game and television sides of the project. One such casualty was flight. “That was something that could have been cool in the game and for us to do that,” said Murphy. “My fear was that it would make everything feel a little too Buck Rogers to have flying cars, so we decided that we were not going to have that. There’s a Stratocarrier that you enter the game in, but it crashes.”
Creative trade-offs were also made when developing designs for the seven races of aliens featured in Defiance. “We had to figure out, okay, we could only have so many races that are CGI just because of the limits of the budget and the limits of technology in terms of acting,” Murphy explained. “Some of the decisions about how the aliens look, like for the Irathients, we decided that we would do most of what they do with makeup and we would use a forehead prosthetic, so that affected the way that Irathients look in the game. Of course in the game you can do anything because it’s an entirely digital domain, but that’s a case of the game sort of cooperating with us.”
In fact, makeup and prosthetics became crucial to not only the logistical execution of the television show, but also the overarching story of Defiance. As Murphy detailed, bringing the alien species to life with human actors required a bit of fancy chemistry and creative innovation.
“The Castithans, we decided, would settle with contact lenses. We did a lot of experimentation with makeup to make them glow, but they don’t actually have any latex,” Murphy said. “The Sensoth and the Liberata are very expensive suits, so we see fewer of those aliens. The Indogenes are also very expensive because they’re an entire latex head.”
The production extensively tested paint techniques under stage lights to avoid the dreaded “Buck Rogers” effect and ensure the execution was believable when broadcast to homes in high definition. When a character design finally met approval, Syfy worked with Trion to “reverse engineer” the finished look into the game. As Murphy stated, “This is a case where [Trion] was incredibly generous and were wonderful teammates in adapting to our needs.”
But what about all of the painstakingly detailed digital characters built by the artists and animators at Trion? In fact, the two productions did share when it was feasible. The Volge, a race of automatons, appear in the pilot and other upcoming episodes as entirely CGI characters. Implementing the aliens into the live action show, Murphy detailed, was not as simple as drag and drop.
“What we discovered is, when you put them in kind of a photo-realistic environment with actual flesh and blood actors, they looked a little too Buck Rogers. They didn’t look grounded,” Murphy said. Finding a solution became the job of Gary Hutzel, visual effects supervisor on the show who previously worked on Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica. “[Hutzel] did some tweaks to the design and then ran it back with the folks at Trion and happily, the folks at Trion really loved what Gary did and so they incorporated those changes into the design of the game. I think we ended up with something that was better than we would have come up on the TV show on our own and it was better than the original first pass that Trion had.”
Kevin Murphy said that the biggest challenge for both the television and game portions was figuring out the other side’s process and vocabulary. “[For television,] you’re breaking the [episode] story maybe six weeks before you actually go before a camera, which seems really, really fast. I think it was a little shocking for our partners at Trion when they were saying, ‘Yes, well we don’t know that because we haven’t gotten to breaking that episode yet.’ Then it’s suddenly, ‘Okay, now we’re breaking the episode. Sorry, we shot it.’ It just seems incredibly lightning fast.”
“So when we call and say, ‘Can you just maybe tweak this one thing or this one look or this one color?’ They would look at us like, ‘You’re crazy.’ Then we realized, no, I guess they really can’t. I think that educational process, for me, was the biggest challenge,” said Murphy.
A television series is segmented into the phases of pre-production, principal photography, and post-production. Each phase, as Trion Worlds VP Nathan Richardson learned, is tightly bound by deadlines. The same is not so in game development, he noted. “With a game, there is no pre and post-processing as such. We are always creating the full 3-D assets. That takes a considerable amount of time, especially when you have a lot of terrain.”
“If nobody starts trying to kickoff new franchises, new intellectual properties and worlds, we’ll be watching like Call of Duty 9 and Rambo 13 in a couple of years. For me that’s not a very compelling future.”
Though Defiance is a huge financial risk, Murphy and Richardson agreed that the challenges of creating a new franchise from scratch were outweighed by the potential benefits of breaking new ground in both mediums.
“The big reason is because no one’s ever done it before,” Murphy said. “The idea here is to take that idea of a second screen presence and building it into the DNA of the actual project. I think that creates a form of entertainment that is not available elsewhere. And I think that with so many great games and so many great television shows on right now, creating something that sort of cuts through the clutter and noise is something that no one has ever seen before.”
For Richardson, the creative imperative to push new boundaries and branch out to undiscovered stories was a no-brainer. “People often ask like, ‘Why would you try to start a new franchise?’ If nobody starts trying to kickoff new franchises, new intellectual properties and worlds, we’ll be watching like Call of Duty 9 and Rambo 13 in a couple of years. For me that’s not a very compelling future. Everybody is trying to find and figure, ‘What is the new form of entertainment which is going to be interesting to people?’ and this is one approach. I believe it’s a good approach. It’s risky, of course. That’s the reason why people haven’t taken it on, but I think we’re going to be doing some amazing things.”
The Defiance game is currently available for PC, XBOX 360, and Playstation 3. The Syfy Defiance series permiers on Syfy April 15 at 9pm EST.
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