Stargate: Atlantis stars Jewel Staite and David Hewlett have joined forces yet again in an innovative sci-fi web series on Hulu called State of Syn. Instead of being a traditional series, however, this one uses photographs, sound, video and animation layered together to create a graphic novel set in motion. Staite and Hewlett spoke to Blastr in an exclusive interview about their new series.
“What I love about the State of Syn concept is that, while it's exploring science fiction, it's also trying to explore the future of film and television and the Internet, just in the nature of how they put it together and promote it and add apps and all that kind of stuff,” said Hewlett. “To me, it's the perfect nerdy mix. It's a heady cocktail of geeky goodness.”
State of Syn takes place in 2043, in an unstable world in which corporations have replaced the government and a giant wall divides the rich from the poor. Annika Drake (Staite), a young woman with a special neurological condition called synesthesia, finds herself at the center of a plot by tech giant Psylosense after her father is murdered. Aslin Kane (Hewlett) runs Pyslosense, and his plot to bring a highly addictive new sensory experience, Vibe, to the masses, might just cost Annika her life. State of Syn consists of eight five-minute episodes, all of which are up on Hulu.com right now. The series also features Stargate: Atlantis's Rainbow Francks as the Preacher, and Torri Higginson doing the opening narration of each webisode.
Here's what Staite and Hewlett told us about State of Syn, about working together again, and about how the filming turned into a Stargate: Atlantis reunion, of sorts.
How would you describe the web series?
Staite: State of Syn takes place in a very dark future where the government has segregated the poor from the rich, so there are two very different worlds going on and it's creating a lot of unrest. It's got a Mad Max kind of feel to it in that the poor are basically left to fend for themselves and have started rioting against the government for change.
Why did you want to do State of Syn?
Staite: State of Syn is totally unlike anything I've ever done before. The best way to describe it is like a live-action comic book put to animation. It combines still photography with a voiceover performance, so shooting it was like doing the longest photo shoot of your life. Every single emotion had to be told frame by frame, so it was a completely unique style of acting out a character. We did all of the photography first in front of a giant green screen that was later digitally painted to look like the State of Syn world, sort of in the same vein as Sin City, so while we were performing, nothing was actually around to react to. We then dubbed the dialogue over in a sound studio and the two were combined at the end to create the show.
Hewlett: This was just a neat idea. They emailed me and sent me a couple links of what people were doing on the web with this stuff and how they were combining video and photographic stuff with graphic design and really graphic novel stuff. Basically I'm such a nerd, so I fell for it right away. This is my realm of geeky wonder. To me, the appeal is just, imagine being able to go into a room, a room with a green screen on it, take a bunch of photos, and then create your story from there. Basically, write a graphic novel without having to need all of the Illustrator skills that I don't have. And they did this. I think, in hindsight, they said, themselves, they wished they'd shot more video, because basically, I was like a supermodel. Not quite as super as Jewel, perhaps, but we basically just did still photos of key moments of action, and then they animated them into this dystopian world that they created with animation and stuff.
It's funny, one of the owners of Shaftesbury was in a meeting the other day and said, “You had Jewel Staite and David Hewlett together and you only took stills?” But I think that was the whole point, was the limitation, trying to do it as simply as possible.
Jewel, tell us about your character, Annika. What's special about her?
Staite: Annika is a synesthete, meaning her senses are all sort of “one.” She can hear shapes, feel color, things like that. She's always felt like an outcast because of it, and so her father, who's a successful scientist, created a surgical shield for her to make her “normal.” What she doesn't know is she's a special kind of synesthete with a really unique gift that some very bad people would love to get ahold of to market to the masses.
David, tell us about your character, Aslin Kane.
Hewlett: Bad guys are always fun. It's one of the reasons why I love McKay so much. Yes, he was a regular, but he didn't want to be a good guy. Playing villains is always much more fun. Aslin doesn't plan on being a baby-disfiguring world-dominating madman. He's got bills to pay. He's got a company to run. He's been put in this ridiculous situation where he doesn't have access to the very thing that he's supposed to be responsible for. And he's a scientist who's gone corporate, basically. He's struggling to find a reason why he's doing the right thing. He thinks he's being pragmatic, but the reality is, of course, he's lost his way in the world of science, which is a great science fiction theme ... the idea of somebody starting out with all the right intentions, but basically becoming everything that everyone fears from the future.
Aslin is actually a very bad guy.
Hewlett: Any excuse for me to put little glass domes on babies' brains, I'm there for. I've got to say, it's very, very hard to try to put the positive spin on that. My poor scientist character trying to say, “You know, we fit them up well. Sure, we took their heads off and put things in them, but they're okay now! We put them back together!” [The babies] all just looked so happy. He's such a father figure, that Aslin character.
The story involves a drug that called Vibe, which basically alters the mind so the senses combine. What does State of Syn say about where we're going with technology today?
Staite: Vibe is a drug that was created as a way for normal people to experience the high of synesthesia, and it's become so popular that there are Vibe clubs filled with people addicted to the high. State of Syn is an extreme world in which the government has become truly the bad guys, so I'm not sure it's safe to compare it to reality in any way. It's a dystopian depiction of the world gone wrong.
Hewlett: The idea of these designer drugs ... I mean, in the old days, you took something, it just destroyed you. If there were positive effects at the beginning, the middle, or the end, fantastic, that was the idea. But basically, you were faced with pretty nasty side effects or uncertainty in how these various pharmaceuticals were going to affect you. And now, we're rapidly approaching a time where we will be able to design them in such a way that they do exactly what you want them to do without those side effects. Whether it is a good thing to be able to just hit those pleasure zones, is that addictive unto itself? My love of science fiction comes from the idea of being able to explore ideas and concepts to an either logical or illogical extreme. Like, the idea of saying, “OK, so here's where we are right now. What if ... ?” There's just so much fun in that. I think good science fiction gets you thinking about that. I think State of Syn definitely plays with a bunch of those different elements.
What was it like to work with each other again?
Staite: David was one of my favorite people to work with on Stargate: Atlantis, and we got to know each other so well in the years of making that show. He makes me laugh my head off, and we basically act like idiot children whenever we're around each other. But I'm not going to lie ... it was kind of fun getting to kick the crap out of him in this project. And he got to play a crazy psychopath, so that was fun to see.
Hewlett: We were like ships in the night. We'd pass in the doorway and just throw out a couple of insults as we went back and forth. No, it was really nice. It was her and also Rainbow [Francks, aka Stargate's Aiden Ford] as well, who we hadn't seen for ages. Then, when I saw the thing, I was like, “Hey, that's Torri talking! Torri [Higginson, aka Stargate's Elizabeth Weir] doing the voiceover! So it was like a Stargate reunion without actually seeing anybody. I got a little bit of time with Jewel, but as always, it's never enough. It was fun, though. It's funny how quickly you fall back into the Stargate rhythm where you end up in a corner bitching and complaining about stuff again and making fun of things, especially each other. It's really fun.
After episode 8, there's an opening for a second season, of sorts, involving the Preacher, played by Rainbow Francks, and the other people who have Annika's special talent. What would you like to see happen with your character if a second season is produced? How far can State of Syn go?
Staite: I think things are just getting started! The State of Syn world is so huge, there's a ton to explore, especially with the Preacher, who's got his own agenda of revenge. As for Annika, that girl needs a vacation! I'm not sure she would be allies with someone like the Preacher, but I could see her wanting to further avenge her father's death and keep her fellow synesthetes safe.
As for you, David, might we see Aslin Kane again?
Hewlett: My character deserves being reduced to whatever he gets reduced to, yes. Even more reasons to watch it till the end. I drool like nobody. We talked about what would happen if it would go to another season, if it got pursued in some way. One of the things they said was they wanted more video. They wanted more actual footage, which I think is great. The posing, the modeling, I love it. Tyra Banks, eat your heart out. But the acting is more ... I think I can give more in acting than I can in modeling, as fun as it is and as wonderful as it is to show up on set and not have lines. But yeah, if we were to come back, apparently there's a fun twist to what's happened to him that turns him into a very different type of villain, which would be kind of fun.
Why should people watch?
Hewlett: It's really neat. It's funny, the way it overcomes its limitations, I was very taken with. I saw the first one and I was like, “Well, is this going to work?” So I saw the first episode and I kept going. The director has done this great job of building this kind of visual glossary. When people are going to have an argument or a conversation, we're going to show this happening in stills in this kind of format. There's this great thing with a motorcycle: She has this motorcycle that she drives along, and they have this beautiful red line that follows us. Whenever you see the red line, you know that she's in motion. He really plays with it. I was very taken with it.
Staite: Because it's a kick-ass little show with some fun characters and a dark and gritty premise. It's also a totally different way of viewing a story because of the style.