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’12 Monkeys’ Time Travels to 2015: The Science Fiction Tale Is Reimagined as a Syfy Series

In conversations about the look of the show, the production team realized the necessity of adopting distinct thematic elements to represent each time period, helping the audience navigate the nonlinear storytelling method.

Few motion pictures are celebrated two decades after their theatrical release with a television series, but what’s 20 years to a time traveler?

Inspired by the 1995 film of the same name, Syfy’s 12 Monkeys concerns a time-traveler named James Cole who journeys from the future to locate and eradicate the source of a plague that will nearly wipe out the human race. His method of time travel is dangerous and untested, and his actions bring up issues regarding fate, free will and the possibility of second chances. The ambitious 13-episode series comes from Universal Cable Productions in association with Atlas Entertainment, producer of the 1995 Terry Gilliam film starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt.

The new production, which debuts Jan. 16 on Syfy, was shot in and around Toronto and stars Aaron Stanford as Cole, Amanda Schull, Kirk Acevedo and Noah Bean. Todd McMullen served as director of photography on the pilot and David Greene shot the series.

Photo by Russ Martin/Syfy.

In conversations about the look of the show, the production team realized the necessity of adopting distinct thematic elements to represent each time period, helping the audience navigate the nonlinear storytelling method. According to Greene, the team naturally used sets, art direction and costumes to represent the differing time periods, but they also called on an arsenal of cinematographic elements to differentiate “the future” from “the present.”

“Our basic formula was that the future would have a palette in blue/green tones, as well as the use of smoke and atmosphere,” Greene says. “The future scenes are moodier and darker and bleaker than present day. It was this strict palette that would help distinguish it from present day.”

Present day has a wider tonal range, he explains. “Sometimes warmer tones were right. Other times blue tones were correct. I felt we would need to be moody and dark in the present, too. So we had a bit of an issue in separating the two worlds when both needed to delve into the same tonal ranges. My concept was that the palette of the future, because it didn’t waver, would be the constant.”

Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) might be the only person who can help Cole in his quest. Photo by Alicia Gbur/Syfy.

Greene chose to shoot digitally with ARRI Alexa and Cooke 5/i lenses. “I also love Panavision Primos and use them frequently. The Cooke 5s are great because of that softer Cooke look, as well as the T-stop. These are 1.4 lenses, and when you pair that speed with an ASA rating of 800, it’s amazing how you can dig into the shadows and work at very low light levels. This can present a tremendous challenge to the focus pullers since they have a very small depth of field to work with, but our focus pullers were very comfortable at this stop and did a great job.”

While the camera and lens package is important on any project, it’s the cinematography that establishes the tone. “While choosing a great lens package is important, it really boils down to the subject you’re shooting and how you photograph it via lighting and choices with camera angles and such. You can bring the same camera package to a show like ours [or] to a sitcom set and end up with very different results,” Greene says.

Photo by Tim Voelkner/Syfy.

What did not greatly affect the DP’s approach to the 2015 series was the fact that it’s based on a 20-year-old motion picture. “I can’t speak for the other creative heads, but my approach really wasn’t grounded in the work of the original film at all. I know we share a basic premise, but the story they told and the stories that we were about to tell are separate and unique. I really approach my work being grounded in the story being told. We made creative choices that worked for our situation, and this always takes you down a new and unique path.”

Those “creative choices” included the deployment of high-grade visual effects, which were created by Stargate Studios under the direction of VFX supervisor Eric Grenaudier. “CG was very important to us. We needed to transport through time. We needed to create the desolate world of the future,” Greene explains. “It was vital to us to employ CG elements. When [lead character] Cole ‘splinters’ out of the time machine chamber, we give the CG team a base to work with, but in post it’s up to them to make it work. They do a wonderful job. From splinter effects to matte paintings of the decayed ‘future world’ to putting a skyline out the window of a stage set, we rely on all of this to make our world come to life.”