The Expanse interview by Steven Bereznai.

October 5, 2017 | By | Reply More

The Expanse: on set with cinematographer Jeremy Benning. He talks Protomolecules, Miller’s last moments and season 3.

Intro: I walk into the heavily damaged command centre on one of the not-yet-seen spaceships in season 3 of ‘The Expanse’. It’s a Truman-class dreadnought that has seen better days. Wires poke out from everywhere, computer monitors flicker on and off and there are orange pylons with warning tape around a pool of fake blood. It took three months to build this set and a morning for the set dressers to trash it.

‘It will get repurposed,’ cinematographer Jeremy Benning assures me.

Two things strike me as Benning tours me around this and other ships. First is the attention to detail. The ships all have ceilings. I was expecting to look up at production lighting attached to scaffolding. The dreadnought set has a working ‘scenic lift’, they can’t call it an elevator, because that’s a whole other set of building codes. The lift actually leads to other parts of the vessel, making it feel like a real place. Ride the lift down, walk through a spaceship hallway with tubes labelled ‘water’, ‘CO2’ or ‘ammonia’, past a trio of bloodied extras in flight deck uniforms eating snacks and another production crew is rehearsing an zero-g scene in a sickbay where an actor is being foisted up by wires. ‘Zero-g scenes always double the time of a shoot,’ Benning says.

 

The Expanse. SyFy Channel

Despite the challenges, there’s a clear enthusiasm for working on the show. ‘Some people left “Star Trek: Discovery” to come back to “The Expanse”,’ one of the camera operators tells me. Benning wears a Tycho t-shirt and several other production crew are in OPA shirts. None of its swag. ‘It’s the only show I’ve worked on where people buy the merchandise themselves,’ he tells me. Like much of the crew, he’s been working on the SyFy series since season 1, which contributes to the sense of camaraderie, one that extends to the cast. Between takes, actor Cas Anvar (who plays Alex Kamal) jokes about ‘Admiral Douchebag’ and colleague Dominique Tipper (who plays Naomi Nagata) accuses someone of being ‘a closet belter’.

‘O-P-A!’ she shouts.

Clearly, a lot of love goes into this epic. Benning sits down with me to discuss how much, including his pivotal role in creating the show’s signature look, what it’s like collaborating with the authors of ‘The Expanse’ books’ and what fans can expect in 2018.

Steven Bereznai: In layperson’s terms, what is it that you do?

Jeremy Benning: I’m in charge of the photographic palette, the lighting, the framing, lensing, camera movement, how the action’s going to be photographed…I’m the cinematographic leader of the show.

The Expanse. SyFy Channel

SB: ‘The Expanse’ is a pleasure to watch, for the content and the look. What’s one design example that you’re particularly proud of?

JB: The episode where Miller goes to Eros and meets Julie. The Protomolecule has sucked the energy out of Eros…the place is almost entirely lit by the molecule. We wanted it to look beautiful, ominous and eerie without looking goofy and hokie. It was a challenge.

The special effects team came up with this idea of covering parts of the set with a mesh that would simulate the matrix of the Protomolecule. The plan was to spray it with a hot glue from a spraying machine and I asked is there a way to mix UV paint into the hot glue…We tested a bunch of different UV pigments and found a couple that really worked great on camera

All those shots you see inside the Blue Falcon lobby, in the hallway that Miller walks down in the tunnels when he’s making his way to Julie’s room…80% of what you’re seeing is the way it looked to the eye on set.

SB: That scene reminded me of fantasy, but with a SF edge. Overall, how would you describe the look of the show?

JB: I’ve heard a lot of people call it ‘sci fi noir’, and that’s how I would describe it.

SB: The authors of ‘The Expanse’ novels (Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, writing under the name James S. A. Corey) are very much a part of the writing process for the TV show. How involved are they with the show’s look?

JB: Daniel is usually back in Albuquerque working on the scripts and the books…Ty is more the guy on set. When we’re shooting, Ty is almost always sitting next to me with my monitors. He’s been a great resource. Fans of the book can be confident knowing [the authors’] stamp is on the show.

SB: What’s a specific example where the authors shaped something you were working on?

JB:It goes back to the Protomolecule. In the beginning, the big discussions were what does it look like? That was a question for Ty…It undulates, it flickers, it has life, but what is that? How much does it move? How crazy is it? I had to rely on him for that. That was a direct collaboration.

SB: I’ve seen your location scouting pictures on Instagram for season 3. What new settings can fans expect?

JB: I can guarantee you’re going to new places. Last year, we were on Ganymede. Now we’re going to Io, a different moon of Jupiter. A lot of season 3 is in space. We want to show Earth whenever we can to remind the audience that Earth still exists but as the books progress there’s less Earth. We’re in a lot of new spaceships.

The Expanse. SyFy Channel

 

SB: What’s something from season 3 that you’re personally excited about?

JB: The books kind of outline it so people who read the books are going to know, there’s a construct that appears. And where we left off in season 2 is Eros smashes into Venus. That progresses. The next phase of what’s happening on Venus is the big through point of season 3.

SB: What’s one of the most interesting moments from working on the show?

JB: Working with Tom Jane was great…When his character dies, that was the wrap for him. Everyone gave him a standing ovation. He was still in his spacesuit and all sweaty and he gave a speech. He said this was the best experience he’s had. He got choked up and teary eyed because he was so happy to be a part of the show and sad that it was the end.

SB: You talk about him sweating in his spacesuit. There must be a lot of added challenges for the actors because this is an SF narrative.

JB: Their dialogue, it’s a lot of Science Fiction terminology….it’s not relatable words, it’s future words…I’m always amazed that [the actors] can do it and make it natural and conversational.

The Expanse. SyFy Channel

SB: Most of us don’t talk about Protomolecules on a daily basis. And what about from a technical point of view? How do the SF elements impact a shoot?

JB: There are days where I think couldn’t we just have a conversation between a couple of people at dinner? It’s never that for us. It’s two people talking, but they’re in a spacesuit and they’re in zero gravity and there are so many technical layers. You’re trying to tell a story, that’s what the audience cares about. At the same time, it has to be believable for that period of time …which means technology surrounds you…you have to deal with all that stuff, you have to deal with helmets…There are wirelessly controlled lights in them, they have air supply fans, they have microphones, they have headsets…they’re finicky…Helmets can suck.

SB: It’s not ‘Days Of Our Lives’.

JB: You’re doing serious scenes with serious dialogue, but now you’ve got that added layer. It’s part of making a sci-fi show. Nothing that we do is easy. Everyday is like a Rubik’s cube.

‘The Expanse’ returns to SyFy in 2018.

 

For more about Jeremy Benning, look at www.jeremybenning.com and https://www.instagram.com/jeremy_benning/

 Steven Bereznai is the bestselling author of ‘I Want Superpowers’. His latest novel, ‘How A Loser Like Me Survived The Zombie Apocalypse’ is available on Amazon. He can be reached through his website, www.stevenbereznai.com and Instagram .

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