Saving the cheerleader to save the world is the high-stakes onscreen mission for NBC's freshman series "Heroes," but it's even more challenging for the cast and crew to bring it to life.
"It's as big as two shows in some ways," says Tim Kring, creator and exec producer.
Globe-trotting stories aside, the show has yet to venture beyond the studio zone, shooting on location nearby as much as half the time and maximizing its resources to re-create the look of Tokyo, Las Vegas, India, New York and Texas.
"The intention was always to make it feel like it was bigger in scope than it really was by having a story that took place in a global environment," Kring says. "And so we now have the ability on a TV budget to place us in downtown New York with a virtual back lot that is reasonable to do on a television budget."
For the final episode of its first season, the cast and crew set up in downtown Los Angeles in the courtyard at Arco Plaza -- redressed as Kirby Plaza in honor of comicbook artist Jack Kirby -- to film the final showdown with the villainous Sylar, played by Zachary Quinto.
The large production at Arco Plaza gets under way after dark. Exec producer Allan Arkush directs, referring constantly to a large binder of storyboards -- many of them marked with colored tags indicating visual effects. They start with actors Ali Larter, Leonard Roberts and child actors Noah Gray-Cabey and Adair Tishler. Later scenes involve a showdown between Sylar and Masi Oka's Hiro Nakamura.
A veteran TV director, Arkush says the biggest challenge on "Heroes" is its complexity. "It feels like you're shooting four or five different shows a month because the cast is so split up," he explains.
It's complex technically, too. The previous night's shoot at the Arco Plaza included a scene of a parking meter flying across the courtyard that will be done in CG, and later scenes will feature more visual effects with a glowing, explosive character named Ted. "And you still have to do 25 to 35 setups per day," Arkush notes.
For the cast in particular, this was a special episode because their disparate plotlines rarely assemble them all in one place. In addition, other actors were wrapping up their commitments to the show's first season.
"For us, it's really fun," says, Greg Grunberg, (Matt Parkman in the series), who has shown up on set even though he has no scenes to shoot. He adds the show is complex for the actors as well: For example, in this episode, he notes, his character is shot and wounded but his scenes were shot in reverse order.
Other cast members mill about the set awaiting their call, including Sendhil Ramamurthy, Malcolm McDowell and Jack Coleman. Roberts, made up with fake blood, says not knowing what the other actors are doing has its benefits. "That's what great about the show: I can watch it like a fan."
Co-exec producer Jeph Loeb hovers over the shooting, doing such things as answering Arkush's questions about dialogue. Loeb comes to the show from stints on "Lost" and "Smallville." He also has been a fan-favorite comicbook writer for nearly 20 years, turning out hits for Marvel and DC. His frequent collaborator, Tim Sale, is responsible for the prescient artwork painted on the show by Isaac Mendes.
Many comparisons are made to "Lost," but Loeb says "Heroes" is a very different show. "Because our shows are more character-driven, our dependence on plot is not as heavy," he asserts. "On a conceptual level, it's a much wider net that we can cast."
Loeb adds he is pleased with how the first season wraps up. "Ninety percent of questions asked in the pilot are answered," he says. That still leaves things wide open for the second season, which was already being planned early on, to change things up by possibly doing shorter story arcs and altering the mix of characters.
The show is a demanding one for the crew. The sets that production designer Ruth Ammon builds at Sunset-Gower studios are often as long as 80 feet to 100 feet. They also need to accommodate the show's unusual visual language, which pays tribute to comicbook storytelling by using low angles that require sets to have ceilings and extra setups to get coverage. "Every episode is an interesting new journey," she says.
Kring says bringing over crew members from "Crossing Jordan" has helped the show tremendously through the efficiency that comes from working with familiar people. "This show is running in a very lean kind of way, and it's all ending up on the screen," he says.