TrekMovie was invited to the Fox lot to visit the sets of The Orville, Seth MacFarlane’s new sci-fi dramedy due to premiere on September 10th. The event was done last week, a day after they wrapped the 13-episode first season. The sets were kept up an extra day for the assembled online media to tour and talk with some of the people who make the show happen. TrekMovie has been covering this show because it is a clear homage to Star Trek and because a number of Star Trek vets are working on the show, and like many Trek fans, we find it interesting. I came away from the event with a few takeaways that stood out.
Fox is sparing no expense
Of course the first thing as a Trekkie you sense when walking onto the sets of Fox’s The Orville is how familiar it feels. There is no doubt that you could be on board a Starfleet ship from the 24th century. But once you get past that, the main thing that strikes you is the scale of the main U.S.S. Orville sets which are built on two levels. The lower level has corridors, crew quarters, captain’s quarters, captain’s office, sickbay and the mess hall. The upper level has more corridors, more quarters, a meeting/briefing room, the second level of the captain’s quarters (yes he has a two-story cabin) and the bridge. And there were also other stages housing engineering, shuttle bay and a swing set for alien ships and settings we didn’t even get to.
Beyond the size, there is also an impressive amount of detail and technology being used. For example they use the same kind of on-set display technology utilized for Rogue One (basically a massive screen of LEDs) to allow shots on the bridge to have visual effects displayed practically, such as when the ship is at warp (sorry, “at quantum”). And speaking of visual effects, producer Jason Clark revealed they are doing a total of 3,800 effect shots over the season.
And beyond the sets and VFX as you talk to the various behind the scenes people you can start adding things up like how costume designer Joseph Porro talking about how they literally shipped in two tons of fabric from China. Or makeup designer Howard Berger (Oscar winning co-founder of the KNB EFX Group, probably best known for The Walking Dead) talking about how they did 5,000 different prosthetic applications during the first season. One of the reasons for this quantity of work is that the show is episodic so very little gets re-used as the crew visits a new world (with new creatures, sets, props, etc.) every episode. As producer Clark noted “It’s like we did 13 movies.”
It looks like TNG for a reason
Just looking at promos for The Orville, many Trek fans have noticed similarities with Trek and specifically Star Trek: The Next Generation. Of course there are a number of high profile TNG vets working behind the scenes including Brannon Braga and Andre Bormanis. And Jonathan Frakes even directed an episode, but it goes deeper than that. Seth MacFarlane even hired Marvin Rush (veteran of TNG, VOY, DS9 and ENT) as the director of photography. Rush said that MacFarlane explicitly wanted The Orville “to feel like Next Generation…he wanted that vibe.” Rush also noted he is using ARRI Alexa Mini camera which he feels is the best digital camera to get a cinema feel to replicate the look of shooting on film as he did while on Star Trek.
And the connections go beyond hiring Trek veterans. Production designer Stephen Lineweaver noted that when it came to designing the sets, Seth definitely had a “Next Gen sensibility” to the approach for the designs. This kind of thing even flowed into hiring production staff. Editor Tom Costantino – a genuine Trek fan and apparently regular reader of TrekMovie.com – told me that he feels he nailed his final interview with MacFarlane when he made a reference to a TNG episode, specifically “Chain of Command, Part 2.”
Seth is a perfectionist
The Orville is something that has been a dream for Seth MacFarlane since his childhood, and so he is paying attention to every detail of the show. Pretty much everyone you talk to will tell you how much passion MacFarlane puts into The Orville, and how he works closely on every aspect – very, very closely in fact. Costume designer Porro said that they went through 75 different prototypes for the uniforms until Seth signed off, noting “It was a challenge.” Makeup designer Howard Berger told a similar story of how it took three months to finalize the look of the character Bortus to the point where finally he took a clay mold into Seth’s office and they worked it out together as the shooting date approached.
As for the U.S.S. Orville itself, producer Jason Clark revealed they went through 140 different designs of the ship with 13 different designers including Ryan Church (who designed the U.S.S. Enterprise for J.J. Abrams) and Andrew Probert (designer for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: The Next Generation). However, apparently nothing was working for MacFarlane so in the end Seth made his own doodle sketch of the ship which was then finalized by concept artist Matt Tkocz.
Don’t expect goofy looking aliens
The general consensus from the writers and crew of The Orville is that the humor on the show comes from situations and character moments and not silly looking things. The remit for those designing the show is like any serious sci-fi movie or series. Listening to the various designers, you would never know they were talking about a show with a strong element of comedy. They all talk about creating a believable futuristic science fiction universe with practical props, costumes, makeup and sets. As noted by makeup designer Howard Berger, “everybody is very immersed in this universe.”
Berger told me that when it comes to his department, they aren’t using the aliens the crew meets each week to create the laughs by the way they look. “I never wanted anything to feel goofy or cartoony.” said Berger, “I wanted it to feel real. They are designed so that you believe they exist.” You get a similar story from the prop department. Not only are they not going for laughs, Bryan Rodgers noted that when designing the weapons for the recurring main bad guys (the Krill), the objective was to give them “a scary looking feel to create a tension and fear in anyone who sees them coming.”
There is a science to it
One of the Trek vets on the show is Andre Bormanis who began his career as a science advisor for Star Trek: The Next Generation before moving on to writing and producing in the franchise. He is also wearing those many hats for The Orville and he is again striving to make this futuristic sci-fi show grounded in real science. When it comes to Orville science, they are paying attention to the little things, such as how the wall paneling on the ship is supposed to be a form of plant life that acts as CO² scrubber.
Bormanis has written a whole show bible about the various science elements within the universe of The Orville. A good amount is dedicated to the ship. On The Orville you don’t have a warp drive, but you do have a “quantum drive.” And for this faster than light sci-fi ship they are using the theories of physicist Miguel Alcubierre who has postulated a form of drive that works within Einstein’s general relativity. And this theory’s call for torus rings are what is behind the rings of the U.S.S. Orville itself. They have even named the exotic matter that is required for such a drive “Dysonium” after physicist Freeman Dyson.
The Orville is trying to do something different
One thing is clear from talking to all the people behind the show and that is a deep commitment and a passion to create something different for television today. They want to tell serious sci-fi stories with a message of hope and optimism. They want to to make people think through allegory while making them laugh through relatable characters and situations. As noted by Jason Clark “no one is doing this now.”
Audiences who tune into The Orville will not find it packed with gags like MacFarlane’s Family Guy. And even though this is an hour-long show set on a space ship, it really isn’t like The Expanse or even Star Trek: The Next Generation. For The Orville, they want to find a sweet spot in between, and the closest analogy they come up with is M*A*S*H, a half-hour comedy about Army doctors in the Korean War which has been off the air since 1983.
A word you hear a lot from the writers and producers on the show is “balance.” That will be the key for The Orville. Can they strike that balance and find a sweet spot of making a fun (and explicitly funny), optimistic, entertaining, exciting and thoughtful sci-fi show? From what I have seen so far, this show has that potential. Hopefully Fox can give them time to find their way and find an audience for new kind of show that still feels familiar to fans of Star Trek.
The Orville Premieres September 10th
The pilot of The Orville (directed by Jon Favreau) premieres on Fox on Sunday September 10th at 8PM. Here is the latest promo from Fox.