Mark Savela Talks Emmys, Echoes & The Changing Landscape of TV
Mark Savela is no stranger to the Emmy awards. Over the course of his time as Visual Effects Supervisor with the Stargate franchise he has been nominated no less than 4 times in the category of Outstanding Visual Effects for a Series.
This year’s nomination for Stargate Universe’s Awakening is a bittersweet one however. The nomination will be Stargate’s last, following the show’s cancelation last year. Additionally, Mark is breaking new ground with Echoes, a new scifi pilot of his own.
In this interview Mark talks about what this particular Emmy nomination means to him personally, where Echoes stands in terms of production and how the uncomfortable changing landscape of TV might just be a good thing for viewers.
“It’s quite a big category this year,” observes Mark. “It’s very nice that we snuck in there with Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire and Walking Dead. They’re all the huge HBO and AMC shows, so it’s really nice to be in there with that group. It’s amazing.
“In other years, I never felt like we were true underdogs but this year I kind of feel that we are so we’ll see how it goes. It’s really nice for the franchise to end this way. It’s a cool way to go out.”
During the course of its run, the Stargate franchise garnered 16 Emmy nominations (9 for SG-1, 4 for Atlantis and 3 for Universe). I ask Mark how it feels to be representing Stargate for the final time. He tells me that Stargate creator Brad Wright was responsible for encouraging and supporting the submission.
“I was so happy about that,” he confesses. “Throughout the years I don’t even know how many Emmy nominations we’ve had in terms of visual effects with SG-1, Atlantis and Universe. We’ve had 3 in the last 2 years. SG-1 had so many, and we’ve never won one, so I told Brad that if we won I’d give it to him. He deserves it more than anybody.
“We’re kind of the last spaceship show standing. It’s interesting. The landscape is really quite different this year and this year especially, I felt so removed from it. Usually the nominations are announced right before Comic Con. We’re usually rushing to get a Comic Con trailer together. We’re usually in the middle of shooting. And the cast and crew are usually so happy and proud because they are part of the nomination as well.
“I always consider every member of the cast and every member of the crew as part of the nomination. Everybody worked so hard on that show. It was always so nice and this year I feel so removed because we aren’t shooting season three and everybody’s in different parts of the world.
“Universe was one of the most challenging shows I worked on. And it was definitely one of the most rewarding. It was such a treat and a joy and a dream to work on that series. I’m happy and I’m so proud of everybody on that show.
“The cast and crew on that show were a really tight knit group of people. It’s funny, since we’ve been gone we’ve had about three or four mini reunions whenever people are in town. David Blue and Brian Smith were in town at the same time so there was a mini reunion. Then Ming Na was in town and there was another mini reunion!”
He laughs. “We just keep on doing it. We just keep on getting together. The show’s over but all the relationships that were made during that show will stay. They’re very strong. Now I’m all nostalgic!”
How does Mark feel about the outpouring of congratulations that have flooded his Twitter recently?
“I’m so appreciative of all the congratulations from everyone. I just want to thank everybody for that. We’ll go down and represent in some way!” he laughs.
“I really really appreciate all the fans of Universe. I think I know something about our fans. I listen to them and I stay in touch with everybody.”
Those familiar with Mark’s Twitter stream (@MarkSavela) will know just how closely he maintains connections with fans. It’s something that not all people in his position would do.
“Well people do it to me,” he says, deflecting any praise. “I just love to do it back. When people come on and say congratulations I try to take the time and answer everybody personally.”
When we last spoke to Mark Savela he was busy working on a science fiction pilot presentation called Echoes (See our interview here) with co-creator Ken Kabatoff. I ask what every scifi fan out there wants to know. How is Echoes progressing?
“I think we will be announcing something in some form if we’re allowed to, probably in the next three weeks or so. It will be a pretty cool announcement, I think. There are a few balls up in the air that have to come down. The negotiating – all that boring stuff – will be done by then and we’ll be able to talk about something, which will be good.
“There are a lot of moving parts behind the scenes right now. We’ve gotten the music in from Joel Goldsmith which is just incredible. It’s so amazing. We’ve done all our post production parts. We’ve done our first audio mix which is wonderful. Our color correct is great. The visual effects are amazing. We’ve been developing our bible and our stories as well. And we have such a unique cool story to tell. And I really believe, even more so now than when I talked with you before, that people out there are really gonna love it. I believe people are going to love the characters.”
Mark also has ambitions to release a companion novel series accompany the show.
“Going down the novel route at the same time would give us a lot of freedom to tell really grand stories. The more I work on this show and the more people get behind it I believe it can be a brand which is kind of a cool thing. You’re not limited by TV budgets and the stories we have are very big. There are so many stories to tell, and there’s so much going on that I really hope that happens as well. I would love to see a companion novel series go with it,” he says.
I ask Mark if he thinks there is a vacuum for scifi purists at the moment.
“It is really a shame because you can tell the hunger is out there for it,” he agrees. “You can see it if you go on Twitter. People are watching old DVD collections. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of really good TV out there at the moment. I think this year is going to be really exciting. There are some big new shows which I’ve seen pieces of which look really amazing like Once Upon a Time and stuff like that. But it kind of leaves the more pure scifi fans a little left out.
“I think it’s an exciting time and I think the void is there which is a good thing because we have all the elements in place and a show that’s good to go. I think it would be a real thrill to get it off the ground.”
Of course, it’s hard to discuss an alien invasion TV show like Echoes without mention of Falling Skies, the TNT production co-conceived by Robert Rodat and Steven Spielberg on air now. I am curious to know if Mark has seen it and what his thoughts on the show are.
“I haven’t actually seen it,” he admits. “And as weird as it may seem it was a conscious decision not to. I heard of the show just after we had shot our piece. There was a moment where our hearts kind of sank, but I think we’re truly unique from it.
“I never wanted to be influenced by it in any way. It was the same when I worked on Atlantis. I never watched Battlestar. I knew the comparisons would be there and I didn’t want it ever to be supported. I could always say no, I’ve never seen the show. And I want it to be the same way now. I want it to be pure. I want it to be our show.
“I know for sure if I wasn’t working on our show, it would be a show I would be watching. And it’s taken some restraint not to watch,” he laughs. “I think the differences are quite great in terms of the major points and the major plot of the show but I know there will be comparisons.
“I think there’s room for two similar shows,” he tells me. “Look at Armageddon and Deep Impact, or Antz and A Bug’s Life. They do it all the time. Everyone finds their own success and their own audience.
“I consciously do that [avoid watching] because I want the projects I work on to be pure for me and my style. Untouched. I hope that comes across. Before it aired, I saw a trailer and our show looks a lot different. It has a very different style and a very huge and different storytelling point.
“Their success has been really good so far. I think that works well for us. If Steven Spielberg can’t make a science fiction show work on TV then I don’t know if anyone’s going to take a chance on anyone else’s effort.”
During the course of our interview Mark has made reference to Universe being the last spaceship show standing and to the void that pure scifi fans are now experiencing. With so many new shows facing the axe after two or even a single season, I am eager to understand his thoughts on the current volatile landscape of TV.
“There’s definitely a weird landscape in the TV world in general at the moment,” he acknowledges. “It’s uncomfortable. On the major networks things get cancelled pretty fast. The viewers for live TV have gone down by about 10 or so million. If you hit 10 million you’re doing fantastic. I don’t think anybody can break 20 million anymore except for American Idol or football. It’s a different world.
“If you look at the Emmy nominations this year there’s a lot of HBO. There’s a lot of AMC. They had so many shows that were so acclaimed, like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones and AMC has Walking Dead and The Killing. It seems like the more subscription television shows are getting that critical acclaim now. It’s a different world for the majors.”
I put it to Mark that the majors may have to change how they take into account viewership figures in the future.
“I know some people who are heavily into web security and looking at traffic and they told me the torrents for Stargate Universe were pretty insane. Web traffic would go crazy after one of our episodes aired. Much more than any of the big network shows. It’s interesting because you know the viewers are out there.
“Everyone today is so tech savvy. Especially the viewers you want. The viewers that are important to science fiction and our genre in general are very smart. And I guess you can’t blame people for not wanting to watch live TV anymore. It’s too nice not to view things on your own time, right?”
As someone who rarely if ever watches live TV, I have to agree.
Mark’s admiration for the subscription model is clear. “I think HBO does it quite well,” he tells me. “They have their subscribers. They aren’t so concerned about ratings. They make a good product. It’s a perfect model to go on as a company. First and foremost are their shows. They concentrate on their shows first. And the audience will come.
“If you look at Game of Thrones from its pilot to its season ender its viewership went up about 43%. When you see a show do that, you know they know what they’re doing. It’s really smart. They’re not afraid to spend money and they’re not afraid to walk that fine line whereby they might offend a few people. It’s a great model and they have proved that time and time again in terms of critical acclaim and subscribers. They are a good network. Who knows, maybe people will come around to that model. The majors may become something different.”
We wish Mark Savela all the best with this year’s Emmy nomination, and hope to bring you more details on Echoes as we have it.