Last year, SNOBBY ROBOT reported on an innovative new web series that combined dramatic, suspenseful storytelling with the increasingly popular subgenre known as “steampunk” to create the tale of Victorian-era England’s greatest computer hacker, and his pursuit of one of history’s most notorious killers – Jack The Ripper.
Produced by Nicole Wright and Armando Saldanamora, the ten episode web series PROGRESS (available at the link below) takes place in an alternative version of England, where steam powers all technology – including computers. It’s there where cyber sleuth Oscar Lewill (Ben Whalen) tracks the killer through what could be described as the 19th century equivalent of Wikileaks, where files containing evidence of Jack the Ripper’s heinous crimes are posted for all to see.
However, Oscar finds that his efforts to solve the mystery behind a series of unexplained murders is hampered not only by the culprit, but also by Scotland Yard constable Alben Scot (Kai Cofer), an obnoxious right wing radio gabber named Mr. Humbbaugh (Andy Pandini), the webcam harlot Lila DeClide (Rebecca Lynch) and the endless amount of trolls that roam throughout cyberspace, including Adam Rhett (Derek Houck).
While PROGRESS has made quite an impression with viewers through its great storytelling and characters, it’s made an even bigger one with both the viewing public and the industry as a whole through its dazzling special effects and set design. Even more incredibly, the series’ distinctive visual look and effects were achieved on an extremely limited budget.
As a result of the hard work of a team that included some of the top designers in the industry (one of which worked on some of Hollywood’s biggest recent blockbusters), PROGRESS achieved it’s greatest and most important milestone to date – earning 2 nominations for both visual effects and art design at the upcoming IAWTV (International Academy Of Web Television) Awards. The ceremony, streaming live Tuesday, January 7th from Las Vegas’ Rio Resort and Hotel at 6:00 PM Pacific (9:00 Eastern) on the official IAWTV web site, plus the popular site What’s Trending (see links below), honors the past year’s best web series in various categories.
There’s another factor that makes PROGRESS’ nominations all the more unbelievable. In both the set design and visual effects categories, PROGRESS will be up against two higher profile sci-fi series: CONTINUUM and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: BLOOD AND CHROME. Recently, I interviewed Wright about PROGRESS’ 2 IAWTV nods, about how the show’s amazing visual effects were achieved, and as she explains, how neither she nor any of the show’s talented cast and crew believed (at first) that they had been nominated:
When we first sent our project to IAWTV we thought it was a long shot. We are a very, very “indie” production company and we were going against some very big projects. So when we found out we were nominated, our first reaction was “Wow! is this for real?” Armando, my co-producer, said “Check again just to see if it’s not ‘trolling'” you know? “See if the Nigerian Prince is involved.” We just couldn’t believe it!
How did it feel knowing that you were also up against two higher profile series in CONTINUUM and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: BLOOD AND CHROME?
Being in the same category of these powerhouses of sci-fi is both flattering and threatening. I mean, BATTLESTAR has always been a contender of the STAR WARS franchise! We are honored to be alongside them and we feel a bit like the “Wayne’s World” characters: “We’re not worthy!” You know? It’s a big honor.
How were the visual effects designed for your show? Who designed them and what was the process like?
We had a meeting with our editor/effects-artist Paul Lada (he has big credits in PROMETHEUS, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS…you name it) and together we envisioned the look for our primitive Internet and what would be the technology for a steam-powered computer. We’re all big fans of THE MATRIX and we said “how would The Matrix look like in the hands of Queen Victoria?” Paul created a lot of tests first and then came up with the “steambyte transitions” and did an absolutely incredible job creating all the effects and putting them onscreen. We also need to give credit to Boa Simon, our Director of Photography. He is a genius when it comes to lighting for green screen and made the transition for visual effects a lot easier.
That was a three part project: David King (who’s a master of steampunk design and a magician who creates sceneries within little budgets) did the set design; Shannon Arrant (who has encyclopedic knowledge of Victorian-era garments and culture) did our costumes and Andrea Garduno (our in-house Rembrandt) did the illustrations — which are a big part of a series where most scenes happen online. Also, Tim Repsher created some original props and accessories for the series too!
What equipment was involved in the visual effects design?
Paul is very mysterious on how he does his magic. He says stuff like “I used a Watt steam engine” or “I used pixie dust from Arthur Conan Doyle’s private stash…” I said to him, “Paul, just do your thing… but it’ll be awkward sending Sean and Mike (our sound editors) a file of pixie dust.”
What equipment was involved in the production and art design?
Basically, a hammer and lots of elbow grease. We really work with a bare-bones budget and I don’t know how our team manages to do it.
It was surprisingly fast! We sent the scripts to the designers and they responded right away: “ok, I have a great idea on how this will look.” For some reason they felt right at home working within this strange anachronistic universe.
How were the actors filmed during the ‘steampunk computer’ sequences?
All of them in green screens. Shooting PROGRESS was very weird because all the characters are in different realms. The online characters talk to the ones in real life and all of their responses and reactions have to match as if they were talking face to face. I mean, the actors were never in the same set when we were shooting, but it looks like they’re looking eye to eye.
What went into designing the graphics for the computer sequences? What equipment was used, and what was the process like for those sequences?
Andrea is some sort of hacker herself. She went into this thing she calls “the Deep Web” and found a lot of strange and creepy websites. She based her designs on them. It was sort of a parody. You know? How would they look with the aesthetics of the era? What kind of ads would they have and what kind of dirty pictures would they show?
How many sequences overall were filmed with live actors as part of the computer sequences?
Most of them. Lila (the cam-harlot), Adam (the Mad-Hatter troll), Mr. Humbbaugh (the political blowhard) and the Constable (who’s some sort of Victorian NSA)… all of them are online. Only Oscar (the hacker) appears in-real-life.
Two schillings and a sixpence. LOL! No, seriously, our overall budget is one-sixth of the budget of an average web series — or about one-thousands of the budget of an average feature. The reason we ended up with a series good enough to be nominated is because our team always find creative solutions to every shortage.
What has the reaction been to your show, not only in terms of the writing and acting but also the production aesthetics and style?
We just got a review from an online sci-fi blog (The 7th Matrix) that says “PROGRESS is a visual treat with impressive Victorian sets, costumes, dialogue and visual effects…” and most of the reviews are pretty similar. However, the reactions we love the most is when our audience just says “when is the next episode coming out? I need to see what’s going to happen to the hacker!”
What do you hope to prove to not only viewers, but also potential web series creators through your show?
We want to prove this: “times have changed.” Today a small, independent production company is able to make a series that goes side-by-side with studio series, but also we want to prove that the Internet can be as entertaining or more than a TV show or a theater feature. Times have changed. This is a “future shock” as big as putting an Internet in the 19th Century.
Without going into spoilers, what kind of visual effects can viewers expect to see in the remaining 7 episodes?
In the upcoming episodes we get to see more of the hacker’s workshop and his steam-powered technology. There’s also a Denial-of-Steam attack that escalates into full international boiler-warfare and the pressure goes off-the-gauge in this series of tubes. And Jack the Ripper is in the middle of all this.
To watch PROGRESS, visit:
and on Youtube:
To watch the IAWTV Awards on Tuesday, January 7th, visit: