Virtually every film and television production in Hollywood is currently on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, and The Orville is no exception. But just before the city and state crackdown began, Ars Technica had a chance to visit the set and talk to the people who use magic behind the scenes to bring one of our favorite shows to life. We can’t divulge specific details about the upcoming third season as the series moves from Fox to Hulu – because of SPOILERS – but we can give you a spoiler-free peek behind the curtain to whet your appetite for S3, when it finally airs.
(NOTE: That said, there shall be some spoilers for S2 below.)
The series is set aboard the USS Orville (ECV-197), an exploratory starship employed by a 25th-century interstellar alliance known as the Planetary Union. Series creator and star Seth MacFarlane (Family man), who plays Captain Ed Mercer, was a big fan of Star Trek growing up, especially The next generationso it’s not surprising that The Orville has embraced a similar sensibility. As I wrote in my S2 review, “This is a clever series that blends humor and witty dialogue with cutting edge science, ethical musings, the occasional literary reference and genuine heart.”
The first season introduced us to the characters and their fictional worlds as we developed the central relationships. The second season put those relationships to the test. So what can we expect from the show’s third season after such an ambitious and emotionally powerful S2 finale? Of course, given everything that’s happened, there’s an unspecified fallout for the characters to grapple with in S3.
“All the things we’ve set up in the previous seasons, without mentioning them — the stories big and small that we’ve gone back to more than once — will be obvious to all fans of the show,” executive producer/writer David Goodman said. Ars. “We’re expanding the characters and storylines, building on everything we’ve done before.”
While Goodman was understandably tongue-in-cheek on the plot details, the move to Hulu brings with it some definite storytelling benefits, such as not having a specific run time or factor in commercial breaks. “Being on a streaming service allows us to create episodes that are longer than those on network TV,” he said. “That gives us a little more time every episode to tell our stories.”
Co-producer/supervisory editor Tom Costantino agreed. “We can let the episode breathe, let it be what it is,” he told Ars. “We don’t have to spend days figuring out how to remove an important plot point so we can get 43 or 48 minutes for the network.”
This larger, almost cinematic scale has since become a bona fide TV trend, as sci-fi shows like Game of Thrones† Modified Carbonand The Mandalorian, just to name a few, now have production budgets comparable to some films, further blurring the line between the two mediums. This really puts the strain on the VFX and tech side of things. (Side note: The art department now includes the legendary Doug Drexler, the Emmy Award-winning makeup artist and VFX specialist who has worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyagerand SyFys Battlestar Galacticaamong other things.)
“We’re trying to make 11 films over 60 minutes in length” [for S3]said Costantino. The S2 episode, “Identity Part 2,” was by far the series’ most ambitious to date, featuring a full-scale space battle between the Orville (with last minute reinforcements from the Krill) against a Kaylon fleet. “That would be one of the smaller episodes this year,” Goodman said. And that translates into even more ambitious and extensive special effects, and the need for even tighter coordination between the different production teams and suppliers.
“Last season we did the impossible for the [midseason] struggle,” Brooke Noska, VFX producer/co-VFX supervisor, told Ars. “Now we try to do that almost every episode. And we do more content in less time. Our goal is that you should be able to watch it years later and the shots still hold up.”
In that sense, the show is a victim of its own success. “We pushed ourselves into a corner because it worked,” Costantino joked. “If I had to do a crappy job, you should’ve let me know,” Noska teased back.
Along with other refurbished designs, Orville spacecraft is getting a bit of an upgrade for S3. It already has a distinctive design, with three different “quantum rings” on the back. VFX supervisor Brandon Fayette calls it a “highly aquatic” look. Many different people contributed to that design, which was initially conceived as more of a freighter or freighter – a “Mack truck in space.” As the narrative concept evolved, it called for a more refined, regal design for the Orvilleand eventually developed into a design vocabulary for all of the spacecraft featured on the show.
“The Union ships have this Nike swoosh,” Fayette said. “In the Krill ships, they are broken or damaged quantum rings, while the Moclan ships are more like triple-split, split-rings.” And the Kaylon ships in S2 were essentially interconnected modules, which could be coupled and uncoupled as needed. A memorable shot from the penultimate S2 episode showed a Kaylon module disconnecting from the armor to allow the Orville†
The third season boasts of storytelling on a larger scale, but the series remains unchanged in terms of its central focus on character-driven storytelling and social issues. The original Star Trek, after all, had a strong social conscience and caused a stir with the first interracial kiss in the air. In the first two seasons, The Orville delved into gender identity, addiction, bigotry, the pros and cons of social media, superstition versus rationality, and racial tensions and genocide, just to name a few.
Human nature, both good and bad, transcends time and space, no matter how much technology changes. “The show can’t just be fun space action,” Goodman said. “Reacting to today’s society and social mores – we almost see that as our responsibility. The reason people watch is the characters. Those emotional stories really define the show.”