Judge Cynthia Boris wants a green screen and mahogany shutters.
Our review of Sanctuary: The Complete Second Season, published July 30th, 2010, is also available.
Even things that go bump in the night need protection.
It's one thing to use green screen technology on a major motion picture, or even on a short series designed for the web. But creating an entire world with green screen for a weekly TV series—now that's a challenge, and it's also the main reason to watch Sanctuary: The Complete First Season on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping, Stargate SG-1) runs a halfway house for "abnormals"—basically creatures, mutants, and anyone or thing that can't live amongst humans because they are a danger or are in danger. Born in Victorian England, she has an old world sensibility and a new age philosophy. Helping her in her work is her lovely daughter, monster-hunter extraordinaire Ashley (Emilie Ullerup), the very practical Dr. Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne, Dawson's Creek), and tech geek Henry (Ryan Robbins, Battlestar Galactica). And who is the mysterious John Druitt (Christopher Heyerdahl, Supernatural)? He's a sinister figure for sure, but he and Magnus share a past, and that's enough to keep her off balance whenever he's around.
Thirteen episodes make up the first season. They are:
Sanctuary is the brainchild of Stargate writer/producer Damian Kindler. He originally designed the project to be a webseries that was sold in eight 15-minute installments over the course of several months. Working against almost nothing but green screens, Kindler was able to build a world that would be completely out of reach on a traditional TV series budget, let alone a webseries. He called on his friends from Stargate, and it's their experience in the genre that elevated the show beyond what had been done before on the web.
The webseries created a strong buzz, due in large part to the Stargate fans who came out in support of Amanda Tapping and the others. So strong, that the Sci Fi Channel decided to pick it up as a regular series on TV. As if its origins weren't groundbreaking enough, the production took it a step further becoming the first TV series of its kind to shoot predominantly against a green screen. And they were the first North American TV series to use the RED camera exclusively.
If you watch the behind the scenes footage on new DVDs, you'll find more and more people talking about the RED camera. Unlike normal cameras, the RED system doesn't use film. More of a computer than a movie camera, RED stores the information digitally, which allows you to see what you've shot moments after you've shot it. It also allows visual effects teams to begin preliminary work on the spot so you always know if you got the shot you wanted before you end your day.
Green and RED—those are the two reasons to watch Sanctuary.
Usually, I don't recommend watching the special features before you watch all of the episodes due to spoiler issues, but here, that's not the case. After you watch the pilot, watch the making-of featurettes "Welcome to the Sanctuary," "Sanctuary Residents," and "Sanctuary Visual Effects." Once you see what the show looks like before the effects are put in, you'll have a whole new appreciation for the series.
The level of detail in the green screen backgrounds is unparalleled on TV. They could have taken the easy scifi out and gone with futuristic cold steel and simple shapes, but creator Kindler says he's not a fan of big and shiny. He likes his scifi old and dusty especially when he can pair that with something new. Since Magnus is a child of the Victorian era, the Sanctuary itself is decked out with antique furniture, warm woods and rich velvets, and there are more books than computers strewn about the place. It almost reaches that steampunk sweet spot that is so popular right now, but it's just this side of high-tech making it feel more Sherlock Holmes than Jules Verne.
The storyline for the series has two components—a mythology arc and the monster-of-the-week episodes. Magnus' past, her connection to "The Five," and the exploits of the dangerous "Cabal" run throughout the 13 episodes. For Monster-of-the-week you have creatures such as The X-Files reminiscent Folding-Man, a trio of witches, and the Nubbins, furry little creatures that reproduce at an alarming rate. Cough, (Tribbles) cough.
In addition to the featurettes I've already mentioned, the DVD has audio commentary on all episodes, the obligatory gag reel (which actually has some very funny staged moments), a photo gallery and a peek at season two. You also get the complete webseries and that's a nice bonus. Though much of the pilot story is the same, it was reshot for television and David Hewlett's (Stargate Atlantis) character was taken out for the TV version. Atlantis's Kavan Smith does appear in both the web version and the TV version of the pilot so that's a plus for all you Major Lorne fans.
The high resolution of the RED camera makes this DVD look great on my HDTV. There's a lot of dark and shadows in this show but I always felt like I could see what I was supposed to see. And given that much of the light is computer generated, since they're working on a green screen, I'd say the end result is pretty amazing. The audio is good, in balance to my ear and the dialogue was clear across the board.
The four-disc DVD set comes packed in a fold-out that fits into a sleeve. There is a nice range of graphics and the box art captures the mood of the show. The navigation is straightforward, though I would have preferred a bigger font.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
From a visual and technological standpoint, Sanctuary is an amazing work. Unfortunately, the non-technical aspects—the story, the acting, the dialogue—don't meet the same standard. I'm a fan of Amanda Tapping's work in Stargate and I know she can handle a page of dialogue, so I have to think it's the material that's the problem here. Some of the dialogue in the early episodes is cringe-worthy and the plots are all over the place. The biggest offender is the character of Magnus' daughter, Ashley. She's played like a character out of a Disney tween movie who disobeys her parents so she can go to a rock concert. The parent-child bickering set against the fact that Ashley's supposed to be a kick-ass monster hunter is simply ridiculous.
Sadly, in the first half of the season, the jokes are lame, Magnus' speeches sound like they came from a 50's B-movie, and the exposition is boring. Things do pick up later in the season, so hang on until the end if you want to see them get it right.
A little Torchwood, a little Dark Angel, a little X-Files, there's a lot of good stuff in the mix. Trouble is, as I watched the show, everything I saw reminded me of some other show, and where an homage is nice, these guys really need to find a niche and make it their own. If you like your scifi on the fantasy side, check this out. It's also a good pick if you're simply interested in the future of TV production because this is where we're heading, especially with genre shows such as this.
This court finds Sanctuary: The Complete First Season to be guilty of being a pretty face that needs to work on finding its inner beauty.
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