Stargate: Atlantis Plots Course for Series' End

Stargate: Atlantis Dir. Plots the End

Those who saw Stargate Atlantis’ fourth season finale "The Last Man" know that by the end of that episode the immediate future looked rather bleak for some of our heroes. One of their more formidable adversaries, the human/Wraith hybrid Michael, had lured Colonel John Sheppard and three of his colleagues to one of his off-world experimental facilities in the hope of finding and saving their kidnapped teammate Teyla and her unborn child. Instead, the building they were in exploded, burying Sheppard and the others beneath the debris. Fortunately for them veteran Stargate director Andy Mikita came to their aid in the Atlantis year five opener "Search and Rescue."

“The big challenge with that episode was to convincingly film people who were trapped deep under rubble from a structure that had fallen on top of them,” says Mikita. “So I sort of took my visual cue as well as design cue from the [2006] World Trade Center feature film because they shot a number of scenes showing people buried beneath the remains of the Twin Towers. With Atlantis, we had to show two different teams of people; we had Dr. McKay [David Hewlett] and Major Lorne [Kavan Smith] in one debris pocket, while Ronon [Jason Momoa] and Sheppard [Joe Flanigan] were in a second pocket.

“It was very difficult for the show’s art department to come up with a set design that would be believable and show that these people are trapped underground, without resorting to using just Styrofoam rubble. On top of that, we had to keep the [work] environment very safe as well as user-friendly and do things on a TV schedule and within budget, which isn’t always easy. Basically Sheppard is completely immobilized and Ronon is trying to offer his support and at the same time assist in freeing him. The two of them eventually get ‘beamed out,’ but prior to that there are some neat character beats between these guys as things aren’t looking too good given Sheppard’s condition and the fact that both men are stuck so far below the surface.

“Ultimately, James Robbins [production designer] and the rest of his art department along with the construction team designed and built a really cool set. It was very effective and I think allowed our story to come across quite well to the audience. Besides the two debris pockets, we also built a debris surface that our rescue teams, led by Colonel Carter [Amanda Tapping], could physically climb up onto and walk around on before eventually locating Sheppard and the others and then begin the process of digging down to extract them.

“So it was a big art department show insofar as those particular scenes, and from a shooting perspective they were also the most interesting component for me. All in all this was a really fun story to work on and a nice way to start the year off as well.”

In "The Daedalus Variations", Mikita’s next fifth season episode, Colonel Sheppard and company are trapped onboard a duplicate of the Earth battleship Daedalus and on a seemingly endless journey through parallel universes thanks to the ship’s malfunctioning alternate reality drive. “That was a wonderful team-based story where our heroes have to solve the puzzle of how to get themselves back to their own reality,” notes the director, “and in the process they encounter a new and dangerous enemy.

“We initially thought about creating different visual cues and changing the whole esthetic look when Sheppard and his team jumped into each timeline, but in the end it didn’t really make sense to do that,” continues Mikita. “Ultimately, the only thing that ‘changes’ are the situations they’re put in. In one reality the ship is boarded by aliens, while in another they’re getting incredibly close to a sun-like planet and the Daedalus is at risk of burning up, and then the ship jumps into an asteroid belt. There’s a VFX for the actual jumping transitions, which we began just by using a big bright light on the set, but then the VFX took over from there and created the transition that got us from one place to the next.

“There was a slight concern at the beginning that this episode might not work just from a story perspective and everybody being on the same set for the entire time. However, Alan McCullough’s [Atlantis co-producer] script very cleverly put our characters in different places where they each had to deal with their own situations while also attacking a common problem. I think it turned out quite well and ended up being a pretty strong episode.”

The director has nothing but good things to say about David Hewett’s performance in "The Shrine", where McKay contracts what appears to be a fatal disease that slowly robs him of his intellect. “David did a remarkable job,” says Mikita. “He’s a gifted actor and he and Joe Flanigan, much to his credit as well, had some terrific scenes together. Brad Wright [Atlantis co-creator and executive producer] wrote a wonderful script and the guys just went to town with it. It’s not so much a shoot ‘em up action/adventure as it is a character study and David had some real layers that he had to deal with.

“The art department put together yet another impressive set for this episode. It was basically a shrine inside a cave underneath a waterfall with little window views looking out at the waterfall. We had to re-create that visually with some rear-screen projection and practical components as well. The SFX guys put little pressure washers underneath the set to kick the water back up a bit, and the greens department added moss and lots of other things that interacted with the water to add to the illusion of a waterfall.

“For me, the main challenge with this episode was that, because it was performance-based, I didn’t want to cloud it with trying to get too creative with the camera. At the same time I didn’t want it to be so slow that it would become boring. With a script like this it’s easy for the pace of scenes to really slow down, and sometimes I did let that kind of get away from me a little bit. Consequently, we wound up being close to five minutes over on our first cut, so we had to make some fairly substantial changes to how the original script was laid out in an effort to get it back to TV time.

"That was unfortunate, but I’m still pleased with the end result, again, thanks to a solid script and amazing performances from David and his [real-life] sibling Kate Hewlett, who reprised her role as McKay’s sister Jeanie and just did a tremendous job. Everyone did. Even though it was a McKay-centric story, it was also very meaty for the rest of the cast, all of whom really rose to the occasion.”

At the time of this interview, Mikita was just starting prep for the Atlantis midseason two-parter "First Contact" and "The Lost Tribe", which features not only the return of an old friend from the Stargate SG-1 universe, but also the ever-duplicitous Todd the Wraith (Christopher Heyerdahl) and one of Atlantis’ newest allies, the Travelers.

“This morning we had our concept meeting and art department meeting just to get things up and running and talked in terms of the broad strokes as far as filming this two-parter,” explains the director. “The ship has already sailed with regard to a few key components and some of the story’s key cast as well as the design of our new spacesuit that some of our creatures in these episodes will be wearing. The suit is very cool, and due to the complexity of it we began talking a while ago about the conceptual drawings when the [story] idea first came up.

“In terms of actual prep time, we have only six days. So we’ll be doing plenty of cramming just to get it all together because there are several layers to these episodes, but it’ll be fun. Martin Gero [Atlantis executive producer] has written a couple of great scripts and, in fact, will be directing a few days on them. Daniel Jackson [Michael Shanks] appears in these episodes, and there are a lot of scenes between him and McKay. I suspect the way it’ll work out schedule-wise is that Martin will likely do the lion’s share of the work that involves just the two of them. It’s a lot of the cool stuff and I wish I was doing it, but the reality is we’re trying to condense the schedule. Martin can film those scenes while I’m shooting ones with the rest of the cast, so it makes sense from a scheduling standpoint to do it that way.

“What else can I tell you about this story? Well, the spacesuits are a big deal and we find out in 'The Lost Tribe' who and what are inside them. The suit itself is a pretty neat concept and design. Among the things we did discuss earlier today are the scenes in this episode where Daniel and McKay have to put on these suits in order to go incognito and solve a particular puzzle.

"One of the issues that came up was how do you photograph people wearing these suits that, except for their voices, the audience won’t be able to see who’s inside them. That could be kind of boring just looking at one inanimate suit basically looking at another one. So we’re taking a page from the movie Iron Man and thinking about filming really tight close-ups of the actors from an inside-helmet point of view and maybe adding some reflections and layers without getting as complex as they did in Iron Man. So there are lots of little details to think about, but, again, the scripts are fantastic and will be a blast to shoot. It’s also a treat having Michael Shanks back and I’m very much looking forward to working with him again.”

Since doing this interview, Mikita has directed two additional season five Atlantis stories, "The Prodigal" and "Infection". He is currently prepping to film the milestone 100th adventure (and what is now the series finale following Atlantis’ recent cancellation), "Enemy at the Gate". “I’m super-excited and honored that they [the show’s producers] gave me that episode to direct,” he enthuses, “and hopefully I’ll be able to do it justice.”

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