<I>Orbital Redux</I>: Shooting a live, interactive sci-fi drama
Issue: September/October 2021

Orbital Redux: Shooting a live, interactive sci-fi drama

Orbital Redux (www.orbitalredux.com) is an eight-episode web series set in the year 2050. On another delivery mission to the moon, a washed-up astronaut is stuck with a new trainee that he can’t stand. When things go wrong, they must rely on one another to survive. Yuri Lowenthal plays Zachery “Max” Levodolinksy, a 45-year—old captain of a heap-of-junk orbital tanker, and Yasmine Al-Bustami portrays Tomasina “Tommie” al-Qasimi, a 25-year-old astronaut, who’s full of enthusiasm and confidence. The narrative series is shot live and offers realtime audience interactivity. 

The series is produced by LA-based Butcher Bird Studios, with Lillian Diaz-Przybyl acting as showrunner and Steven Calcote serving as writer/director. They recently shared details on making one of the first live and interactive sci-fi adventure shows, which is available for viewing on Dust (watchdust.tv). 

Tell us a little about Orbital Redux. 

Lillian Diaz-Przybyl: “Orbital Redux is an eight-episode science fiction adventure, set in the year 2050, starring Yuri Lowenthal and Yasmine Al-Bustami. It’s the story of an ex-NASA astronaut named Max, who has been relegated to a space trucker job. Then he finds out that the new trainee he’s responsible for on his latest run to the moon and back is being set up to be his replacement. Of course, all hell breaks loose, and they have to work together to survive.”

Steven Calcote: “We wanted the audience to own the show, along with us, so we created plenty of interactive choices for them to shape the characters and plot when the show first aired live. But these choices were final and created the canonical version of our series. So our post production began as a realtime experience, where we created the first cut of the show with our audience. Our technical director Griffin Davis wasn’t just switching cameras, he was editing each episode as our cameras rolled for maximum dramatic impact. 

How much of the show was actually live? 

Calcote: “In short? Everything! From zero-gee stunts to the ship getting hit by space debris - a practical effect - from DMX-controlled lighting changes and on-screen monitors resetting en masse as a hacker tries to take over the ship. Even our score was live, with a band tucked right behind the set.” 

Diaz-Przybyl: “Our actors loved one live element in particular. All the ‘video calls’  - from ship to Earth or moon - were also live, as opposed to recorded separately, like in traditional film and television. This meant each call was completely interactive, connecting actors from the ship with actors in our incredibly narrow ‘vertical’ pocket sets.”

With so many moving parts, how were you able to ensure success? 

Diaz-Przybyl: “Prep, plan, practice, and then practice again! Each week we spent days doing intense rehearsals for the entire crew, from actors to camera operators to production assistants. Everyone had their cues to follow, and the whole show became a 40-person dance.”

Calcote: “There’s no ‘fix it in post’ in live! You gotta fix it in ‘pre’. We increased the complexity of filming challenges from each episode to the next, so our rehearsals became more complex during our two months of live episode production. The fifth episode featured live special effects, including smoke and simulated fire.”
Diaz-Przybyl: “By the final episode, our team was ready for live stunts and wire work - all precisely timed to Yuri’s performance in a helmet-cam rig. Again, the key was to rehearse everything until it became muscle memory.”
Calcote: “And don’t forget, actors also had to rehearse branching plot choices so that whatever the audience selected during the live show would be just as polished as any other part of the show. The final cut had to feel as if every scene and performance was flawless and organic.”

It sounds like it was a hybrid workflow? 

Diaz-Przybyl: “Absolutely. Our goal with Orbital Redux was to create an exciting live experience during the first airing of the show on Legendary Digital’s Alpha platform. But, we also wanted to have the assets we needed to do a proper post production process, and have a cinema-style, broadcast-ready version in the end, which is what you can now see on Dust (watchdust.tv).”
Calcote: “Although our live stream was HD, we recorded all camera iso’s (up to 10 Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pros and Micro Studio 4K cams at a time!) in 4K, and dozens of audio iso’s to give us maximum opportunity to polish the story for our final cut. Then we added traditional audio mastering and a full post color grade.” 

Do crew and actors perform differently for live narrative? 

Diaz-Przybyl: “The great thing about doing all that prep is that everyone on the team becomes super invested in the project. Each crew member has a role, and each role is equally important, because whatever happens once we go live becomes a part of the final show. Our camera operators were as much a part of the performances as our actors, and there was a feedback loop of energy between them as they’re working in a way that I’ve never seen anywhere else.”
Steven: “I find that live narrative requires a deeper understanding of the world, characters and plot by everyone on both sides of the camera. We kicked off each day with a mini ‘TED Talk’ on the art of being an astronaut, or the power of exploration, or the engineering mindset required to survive a quarter million miles from home. Once everyone began living that world together, we could all offer organic artistic choices as the show transformed while we performed it live and also integrated audience choices in realtime.”

Were there unexpected issues that came up during the live production? 

Calcote: “One of my favorite moments was at the end of Episode 5, where the audience had selected one of three possible ship disasters (airlock fire, electrical disaster, or oxygen leak) that Tommie, the trainee, had to solve. We didn’t share the final choice with Yasmine ahead of time to increase audience excitement. Only, there was so much special effects smoke in the ship at that moment in the live show that she couldn’t figure out at first where the disaster was. There’s a moment of her frantically searching on camera that plays with a wonderful raw energy!”

Lillian: “The happiest surprise I got was actually the positive response from our chat feed throughout the run of the show. They suggested lines of dialogue for us, voted for choices that they thought would help save our heroes, and even named a character in the final episode. They put careful thought into it, and gave us a better name than we could have ever come up with on our own.”

Why does broadcasting a narrative show live matter? 

Diaz-Przybyl: “It may sound like a gimmick, but the energy that is created when you have a big team working together like that, creating a story that they’re all excited about and invested in, is really incredible.” 

Calcote: “As much as we’ve celebrated the technology behind Orbital Redux, it’s worth remembering that live narrative is actually our oldest artform. I think it still touches us at a level deeper than anything else can.”

What does this mean for media and interactivity in the future? 

Calcote: “As virtual production becomes more and more accessible, that really opens the door for some exciting live interactive opportunities, with audiences being able to reset locations almost upon command. Imagine if an audience could choose which planet your spaceship will land on! I think audience involvement in the storytelling process will continue to expand as technology advances.” 

Diaz-Przybyl: “But I think the big lesson of Orbital Redux is that we never want to let the gimmick get in the way of the story. All the interactivity is meant to support the core narrative, and that’s our philosophy, no matter what we’re working on, for whatever platform. We’re already working on new stories that will give audiences even more opportunities to engage, and we’re excited to be a part of the next leap forward!”