COVID-19 Rental Procedures

Wrangling Space Cats for SyFy’s “The Expanse”

February 1, 2017

The season premiere of the hit SyFy show, The Expanse is tonight! You won’t want to miss it. If you are not up to speed I happen to know a really cute way to get caught up. We are especially pumped about this season because our good friends at All Ages Productions produced and directed an incredible promotional video for the show using cats in place of the actors. I’m sold.

The Expanse Season 1 Recap: With Cats (Recat!)

We are extremely grateful to have been a part of this amazingly creative undertaking and proud to share it with you here today. I am also very grateful that Ted Passon (Director) and Dave Dunn (Producer) of All Ages Productions were kind enough to be interviewed and share some details about the process of working with cats.

James Madison, Expressway Cinema Rentals (ECR): OK. So, cats in space suits. Tell us about this concept. Where did it come from?

Ted Passon (TP): We had been talking to SyFy about doing a job with them but there was nothing specific yet. Then they called one day and said, “Hey, we have this idea. Do you want to do this thing?” We just heard “space… cats…” and said “Yes, please!”.

Dave Dunn (DD): Well, originally they were like, “Hey we have a shoot with maybe three cats involved.”

TP: Yeah… It grew in scale pretty quickly, but SyFy had the idea to use cats. We are assuming that it came from one of the characters, Julie Mao, which is pretty close to “meow.”

DD: Even if they just needed something viral it was a good way to go.

TP: “Space cats” is a pretty decent elevator pitch.

ECR: Hilarious

TP: It went from, oh yeah, there’s gonna be a couple of cats and then there were more cats to more cats to hairless cats in space suits and it got really big really fast. We only really had two weeks to turn it around. So that was a challenge.

Wrangling Space Cats for SyFy’s “The Expanse”

ECR: Who pushed for the space cat sex scene? Was that you guys or SyFy?

TP: That is something that SyFy wanted, but they weren’t expecting us to be able to actually visually portray anti-gravity because they just figured budget and time-wise we just wouldn’t be able to do it. But we were like, no! We really want to do that. We’ll make it happen.

ECR: Well I’m glad you went all out where it counted because you did a really fantastic job. But when Zac (Rubino, Expressway Owner and Cinematographer of this shoot) explained to me the concept; cats on set in space suits, my knee jerk reaction was, “That sounds like a nightmare”.

TP: (laughs) Totally! We knew it was going to be a challenge to direct cats, but I still think we thought it was going to be easier than it was.

ECR: Well that actually segues nicely to my next question. Were you mentally prepared or were all bets off once the cats showed up?

TP: I don’t know. We had all talked at length about how hard it would be to get a cat to do anything. We really pushed as much as we could for the cat actions in the script to be really minimal. From our standpoint, it was, if we can get the cats to do anything then great, but let’s be prepared if all they are going to do is sit there. We’ll still come up with shots that will work with that and we’ll be good.

DD: In retrospect, it seems like, just even getting the cats to sit there… (laughs)

TP: Yeah, yeah. There’s this idea that, well maybe if you put a cat in the scene it might just do cute cat things and we’ll just let the camera roll.

DD: And the cats are like, “I just want to get out of here!”

TP: The cats just… leave (laughs). That’s what they do. They just leave. You’re so lucky if they do anything other than leave.

DD: I feel like you see cats in commercials that are doing stuff, but they are usually not wearing costumes. I don’t know how that cat feels being in a costume wearing a helmet. Probably not that into it. (laughs)

TP: The first cat certainly wasn’t (laughs).

Wrangling Space Cats for SyFy’s “The Expanse”

ECR: What were some of the unique costume challenges.

TP: Carrie Collins, our costume designer, and her assistant Tran Nguyn were working around the clock. Getting the proportions of a cat down was tricky. The funny thing is that the original measurements we were given turned out to be incorrect. I don’t know if there was miscommunication between the handlers as to what cats they were supposed to measure.

DD: Or how to measure cats.

ECR: The cats were lying about their weight.

TP: (laughs) Totally! At the zero hour, they had to fix eight out of fifteen costumes or something like that. The vast majority of costumes had to be changed at the last second. The wardrobe team was awesome, but they didn’t get much sleep leading up to the shoot. They found out on Saturday and worked all day Sunday and right up to the shoot on Monday.

ECR: Oh, so they were test fitting on Saturday and found out then? Wow. Can you explain some of the nuances of this work? How do you accommodate a cat… in costume.

TP: Good question. Creating a form-fitting costume on the back legs of a cat and still allowing it to move was a challenge. A funny thing I learned about cats from watching the whole process is if you put something around a cat that covers it and constricts its movement in any way, it kind of just plays dead. You would put a costume on a cat and it would immediately roll on its back and freeze.

ECR: I bought a lobster costume for my cat once. Hillarious, but she hated it.

TP: Getting the technique right for the hind legs of these costumes took a lot of guessing and check work to create something that was still form fitting and not restrictive. That was the biggest challenge. That and creating a helmet for the cat that would actually sit the right way and not upset the cat’s nose, which is very sensitive.

Wrangling Space Cats for SyFy’s “The Expanse”

ECR: So what was the solution?

TP: Carrie had to pad the back and front of the helmet so it would be big enough to clear the nose, but balanced so it wouldn’t fall off. That was a hard one, but it was my favorite costume. The Martian space warrior.

ECR: I need a hat like that. So were there any unique challenges in terms of set design? (perfect segue)

TP: Yeah. So, we have to give all the credit to our design team. The production designer was Lenore Romas. She killed it. She really went above and beyond what we even asked of her. Originally the concerns were simpler; we don’t want set pieces that can be damaged easily or eaten. Creatively, we were trying to take inspiration from the sets on the show and put a craft and cat spin on them, like using kitty litter for the Martian landscape. But Lenore had bigger plans. The set for Eros is probably the best example. It was multi-level. We thought that the multi-level part of the set was just aesthetic, but she made each level sturdy enough to support cats and used a cat scratch friendly carpet as the base with catnip to attract them to it. She incorporated cat scratch columns up the sides as well. So it had a real functional quality for the cats.

Wrangling Space Cats for SyFy’s “The Expanse”

ECR: So you’re prepped and ready and the crew shows up. Tell me what it was like when the cats arrived to set. Did it go as planned?

DD: Well we knew it was going to be a long day. SyFy knew it was going to be a long day. So we had really braced ourselves and when the cats showed up it was like, OK. Here we go.

TP: I think we all were ready and this first shot was going to tell us what our day was going to be like. It is either going to be a nightmare or it is going to be easier than we thought.

DD: In a lot of ways the first shot lied to us.

TP: It totally did. The first shot was the anti-gravity sex scene. We had cats in harnesses. Actually, the cat who plays Holden, the trainers told us that he would not be OK with being in a Harness, but they have another cat that looks exactly like that cat. Same coloring and is totally into being in a harness, or he was more agreeable I should say. Not totally into it (laughs) but more agreeable. So that’s actually a stunt double cat (laughs).
So wardrobe made harnesses out of a fake cat fur fabric and we rigged them up on high-density fishing line.

ECR: OK.

TP: Getting the cats up in the harnesses was tricky. They were not that excited about it. We had apple boxes under their feet until it was time to shoot and when the cameras rolled we pulled the apple boxes out so they would be suspended above the set. The first time… they freaked out. They did not like it. They went nuts.

ECR: Did you say this was the first shot you did?

TP: This was the first shot we did (laughs).

ECR: Alright! Way to ease your way in.

TP: We were all like, “Holy shit. This is going to be a terrible day.” But by take two, suddenly everything was just OK. I don’t know what the trainers did. They just kept feeding them chicken and suddenly they were OK.

ECR: I heard they had raw chicken in their pockets.

TP: Yeah. So eventually it just worked, but it was definitely terrifying because we were afraid that every shot was going to go like that. The next shot was the Martian landscape shot and should have been much simpler. The trainers had a cat that typically is their A1 cat.

ECR: Right. You guys had a celebrity cat.

TP: Yeah. He was John Turturro’s cat in “The Night Of”. His name was Bam Bam. The trainers figured he would be the easiest one to wear the helmet and the most constricting costume. So we put him in the costume which he fought to get in. Apparently, the cat was a little sick, which we didn’t know at the time.

ECR: OK.

TP: When we put him on set and put him in the helmet, he freaked the f**** out. So we gave him a break and let him chill and then tried it again and he attacked the trainers and tried to kill everyone. So, new plan, let’s get another cat. Luckily the new cat fit the costume and was much better. Her name was Amara and she was adorable.

Wrangling Space Cats for SyFy’s “The Expanse”

ECR: Did Bam Bam make it into any other shots.

TP: No, we decided that maybe he just needed the day off.

DD: He was having some potty issues. The cats were being…

ECR: The cats were being cats.

DD: They were being cats. Every time I walked back to wardrobe I was like, “Oh yeah, cats”.

TP: (laughs) The green room totally smelled of cats.

ECR: I remember James (Doolittle, producer for All Ages and dreamy voice extraordinaire) approached me casually in the office and nonchalantly said, “Hey, if you notice a… smell issue later, come talk to me about it.” I was like, “Whaaaat?”

TP: Yeah, he was already looking up numbers for cleaning crews just in case.

ECR: Surprisingly it was pretty much gone by the next day. I was surprised but I was happy about it.

TP: That’s good.

ECR: Going into this, what sort of rules and regulations were you made aware of? What can and can’t you do with cats?

TP: The trainers advised that we should build the sets on tables. Cats are more comfortable when they are elevated.

DD: Also, just giving the cats breaks and reverse engineering our shot list to make sure the cats had time off. Rotating cats in and out.

TP: We never had a scenario where one cat had two shots in a row. With everything else with the sets and the lighting, we still had to prioritize no double cat shots.

ECR: Is there a time limit or just no two shots in a row?

DD: The cat will let you know when the time is up.

TP: It’s true. When the cat is done, the cat is just done. The trainers did say that nine times out of ten, you’re going to get it in the first two takes or you’re not going to get it. Sometimes you just figure out what each individual cat needs. One cat we realized that he couldn’t handle the number of people. We just had everyone who could leave the room and everyone else was completely silent. The trainer just petted the cat and we were able to eventually get the cat to do what we needed.

ECR: Were there any other interesting Cat personalities?

TP: Well actually we realized pretty quickly that certain cats couldn’t be near other cats. Part of the issue was that most of the cats came from one trainer, but the hairless cats came from a second trainer. Usually, the beef would be between the hairless cats and the haired cats, or the cats with hair… I don’t know what you say there.

ECR: The hairy cats.

TP: (laughs) If you put them next to each other they would hiss at each other or try to fight. But sometimes even the haired cats would hiss, but we learned pretty quick, OK those cats can’t work together. We need to figure something else out.

Wrangling Space Cats for SyFy’s “The Expanse”

ECR: How did the crew handle working with cats?

DD: Our stand in cats, our stuffed cats were not the right size. So any time we were preparing a lighting set up, it was very difficult to imagine the extra six inches of the real cat. There were always last minute changes once the cat was on set.

TP: They just don’t make stuffed animals the size of real cats for some reason. It turns out that cats are not a popular taxidermy item.

ECR: (laughs uncontrollably)

TP: For lighting, this shoot was particularly challenging with the timing and the setups, but they stepped up to the challenge.

ECR: Any other cat related shoots on the books?

TP: No, not right now, but SyFy is talking about doing more of these, for other shows.

ECR: You’re the experts now.

TP: We do have a cucumber shoot coming up. Cucumbers playing Cucumber characters.

DD: Hooked up to polygraph machines.

TP: In a lot of ways, cucumbers are way less fussy than cats. So we should be more than prepared to deal with them.

ECR: I am excited for that. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me about all of this. I am excited for the next season of The Expanse.

TP: Thanks. We are really excited and for the record, it was awesome shooting at Expressway. It was the perfect size for what we needed and the perfect kind of everything. It really just worked out.

Wrangling Space Cats for SyFy’s “The Expanse”

ECR: That is much appreciated for sure.

TP: From a logistical standpoint. Something that we realized after the shoot was over, was the time savings of shooting at the studio where you are renting the equipment and where most of the crew works. It was at least an hour savings on each end. We were pretty far over as it was. So that really saved us.

DD: The only drawback to shooting at Expressway is the same as the benefit. Any expendables that you might need are all right there.

TP: That’s true. That’s true. It’s like there’s too many things you can do and the worst time to ask us is when we are on set and we’re going to be like, “Yeah go do it”. Later on, we’re like, “how much did we spend?”

ECR: (was mysteriously quiet during this segment)

DD: Zac asked me like five times, “Are you sure I can cut this?”. I was like, “Yeah cut it already!” Afterward I was like, “I wonder how much that costs?”

ECR: (laughs)

TP: But we can’t complain! Because in reality, we are lucky to have everything at our fingertips to solve any problem that comes up during the day. You can’t put a price on that – although SyFy would probably beg to differ. We love working with the crew at Expressway and rely so much on their expertise and quick thinking. Any opportunity we get to bring the team together is a good one.

ECR: Hey, thanks again so much for taking the time. I know you guys are busy. This has been awesome. We are really excited about the premiere and we love the video.

TP: Thanks, Jim.

DD: Thanks.

Behind The Cuteness

Written By: James Madison – Owner / Producer

James Madison Expressway Cinema Rentals

James has a ton of kids and drinks a lot of coffee. When not busy sleeping, James is usually awake. He can often be spotted roller skating on Kelly Drive or pondering deep thoughts in wide open vistas. I’m not going to go as far as to say he’s the greatest blogger ever, but come on… you read that too right?