Although Ark of Truth and Continuum, the second of Stargate SG-1’s feature-length adventures, were very definitely separate entities, they were produced very closely together throughout 2007. The writers and directors of both films were different (though naturally, the productions were as collaborative as any Stargate episode has ever been), but Peter Woeste was one person that worked directly on both. As director of photography, Woeste was charged with creating the directors’ unique visions in camera. Director Robert Cooper and Woeste had worked together before, and this familiarity would prove invaluable in bringing Ark of Truth to the screen, particularly given its tight shooting and post-production schedule.
“It was extremely difficult because when we started this project, the first shooting we did was actually for Continuum, in the Arctic,â€ Woeste reveals. “The Arctic shoot had to be coordinated with the military, so we did all of that first and it was after that that I had time to really sit down and prepare the shows properly. What I attempted to do was prepare them both simultaneously, because I think there was just four to five days between the two production schedules, before we segued into Continuum.â€
As Cooper has said previously, one of the most difficult sequences to organise and shoot, thanks to the weather, was Teal’c’s epic trek toward the city of Celestus and the stunning aerial shots that augmented it – and the films spectacular opening. It’s also a perfect example of a director of photography’s complicated role.
“For landscapes to work, you need the right kind of light,â€ Woeste explains. “What I mean by that is if you don’t have the right light, then the crags and fissures and the three dimensional of terrain is lost. It also has to be from the right direction. The sun and the direction of the light changes at different times of day, so what you’re looking for is the light coming from just the right direction to give shape and texture to your images. If you’re backlit or you’re front lit or the light is flat, you just won’t get that texture and it’s not very interesting.â€
To get the “right kind of lightâ€ Woeste has to work out the right time of day for filming, in addition to the right place. It’s a prediction of precise scientific proportions that takes place during the location scout.
“I’m loaded down with calculators and tables and celestial prediction devices and GPS’s so I can determine the right time of day to shoot something,â€ he reveals with a laugh. “I’ll do that for any shoot, whether it was that particular one or whether we’re planning a scene in a meadow somewhere or in a busy street. I’ll plan the time of day. It’s important that you’re aware of that. Everywhere in the world, the sun conditions are different. If I’m planning a shoot in May and that’s when the production would like to do it, well, I’ll check the script and make sure that the proper sun conditions will actually exist. If not, we’ll reschedule.â€
Woeste also had a hand in the decision that Ark of Truth should be shot on 35mm film rather than on video. “I said, ‘Guys, I think we should reconsider the format that we’re shooting in.’ I had built up this case and I had reams of research papers and documents and an outline,â€ Woeste says, chuckling at the memory of the struggle he was expecting. “But when I walked into the office and started talking about it, I don’t think I got beyond item number two when Coop (Robert Cooper) was already on board!â€
Having a director of photography so in tune with his way of working was no double invaluable for director Cooper. On every film shoot, certain things go awry and problems have to be overcome on the fly, and having a crew able to work around such difficulties can mean the difference between a resounding success and an expensive failure. For Cooper, completing the shoot on Ark of Truth meant swapping one set of complications for another as he immediately went into editing and post-production on the film. The director realised that time would be incredibly tight to meet the release schedule.
“People look on it and say, ‘They had all this extra time, why does it take a year to make this when they make the show in this period of time?’ But really, why we are able to do what we do on the series schedule is because it’s going on television. On the series we finish the show within about two weeks of the airdate. So if you back that up, it might take us five or six months to finish a big two-part episode, with 20 days of shooting and three to four months of post production. When it’s done and mixed and the music’s in it, it literally goes on the air the next week.â€
For a straight-to-DVD release like Ark of Truth, of course, it’s a different story. It’s not just a case of putting in a disc and pressing a button to air, which is what a television network does. The DVD has to be produced, pressed, packaged and then distributed, which is a mammoth task taking many months.
“Fox, the distributor – their comfortable window for mastering, marketing and distributing a DVD is about six months,â€ Cooper explains. “They want the finished movie in their hands six months prior to that. Back that up from March 11th… We said ‘Look, we need more time’, and they condensed it for us. But they wanted to release both movies this year and they needed time between Ark of Truth and Continuum. So they needed the movie by absolute latest end of October 2007.â€
Coupled with the actors’ limited availability, most of whom understandably wanted to participate in 2007’s ‘pilot season’ and so weren’t available until late April, post-production was squeezed. Hard.
“It was the single most hectic visual effects approval sequence that I’ve ever been through on the entire series on both shows,â€ says Cooper, emphatically. “I cannot tell you how crazy it was to try and get that many shots done in the time we had. Even then, what we ended up having to do was deliver a version and then drop some newer versions of visual effects in after the fact. There was really not much time.â€
For Robert Cooper, work on Ark of Truth is finally over. After long months of work and worry, he can sit back and enjoy the fan reaction. It was a long and complicated road bringing the movie to the screen, but the executive producer/director is glad of the efforts he and his crew put in. “This is our job, this is our business. We love to be able to get paid to do this. It’s a privilege, and we hope that people continue to embrace the franchise and patronise the work we’re doing,â€ he laughs. “And I mean that in the best sense of the word.â€
Seeing the finished product also means seeing how all the trickiest aspects of the shoot finally came together. Any worries Woeste may have harboured about the light on that stunning opening sequence would have faded as the majestic title music rose, and Robert Cooper’s concerns over the filming from the one day that Morena Baccarin was available would be finally allayed. In fact, Woeste now lists “the fire sceneâ€ as one of his favourites to watch!
“I just loved how that came together,â€ the DoP explains, “because I know the difficulties that we had shooting it and how unsure Robert was. He just wasn’t sure about doing it the way we did it, and we were all kind of antsy when we went home that night. We had worked until like three or four in the morning, and we went, ‘Ugh!’ All that effort, and we didn’t think we had a scene at all. So that was great, to see it come together the way it did.â€
Woeste was also pleased with the very basis of the film – the idea that finally, a storyline that had spanned 40 episodes of television was coming to its conclusion.
“I think there’s a sense of satisfaction in seeing the resolution of the storyline,â€ he says simply. “I try to involve myself in the stories as much as possible, and honestly, I think that was the most satisfying [to see]. I love the fact that we were able to do the show visually with a little bit more scope. There’s a joy to doing that. But I love seeing the stories come together.â€
“I think the performances are great,â€ says Robert Cooper, of the highlights that Ark of Truth presented for him. “I think the actors really stepped up, taking things to another level. I think Michael [Shanks] is brilliant in some of the scenes that he’s faced with. I actually think everyone, Chris, Amanda, Ben and Claudia gave great performances, and the guest stars like Tim and Currie are really great. And the music. That was one of the most fun aspects of the process that I’ve ever experienced, going down and seeing the score performed by tremendously talented people in an orchestra.
“It’s the sort of thing that was a real pleasure to do,â€ says the director, signing off from this series as well as Ark of Truth. “That’s the best part of it, for me anyway ¬– the experience of getting to make it under the circumstances we did. I’ve been subjected to it about 400 times now, because of the post-production process. I don’t think I can see it the way the viewer would see it any more. I hope that a few years from now I’ll watch and I won’t just see the flaws!â€