Behind the Scenes of "Smoke & Mirrors": The Assassination

It's not easy orchestrating an assassination. It requires reliable intelligence, careful planning, precise timing, and pinpoint accuracy, not to mention props, costumes, special effects, and a dozen extras. This is the challenge facing the SG-1 production team on the second day of shooting the episode Smoke and Mirrors. The script calls for the assassination of Senator Kinsey.

Well before a single shot can be fired, or filmed, for that matter, extensive pre-production meetings carefully plot out every detail from camera angles to license plates. One of the earliest pre-production considerations is the location survey. Lynn Smith, the location manager, is responsible for finding and selecting the locations to be used for each scene, as well as for arranging all the necessary permits and waivers. The senator is to be assassinated at a hotel, and the Accent Inn, directly across the street from the Bridge Studios, provides a perfect, and very convenient venue. However, the matter of preparing hundreds of hotel guests for the possibility of early morning gunfire must also be taken into account. Coordinating with Lynn Smith, the hotel manager has prepared a special announcement, and the day before the scene is to be shot, each guest at the Accent Inn found an urgent message left in his room:

Please Read
A notice to our guests:

On Tuesday July 16 2002, STARGATE SG-1, the TV series, will be filming here at the Hotel.

Filming will start on Tuesday morning at 7am. The filming will be completed by 12:00pm that same day.

In order to prevent early morning noise, the equipment trucks will be kept in the studio lot across the street at the Bridge Studio.

The scene involves an actor reacting to being hit by a bullet. There will be several extras on this day 'SCREAMING' in reaction. Although there will never actually be a gun firing at this location, there will be a 'squib' affixed to the actor that will go off and he will fall to the ground. There will be guns present therefore there will be a Burnaby Police Officer present on this day to assist.

When the film crew moves back to the Studio for further filming in the afternoon, they will be filming from the rooftop of the Stage, at 2400 Boundary Road. During this short scene, they will have an actor on the roof assembling a rifle and pointing it over the roof towards the Accent Inn. Again a Burnaby Police Officer will be present. When this scene is complete the film crew will be inside of the studio for the remainder of the day.

To Our Guests:


Thank you for your patience and cooperation, and enjoy the shoot!

With the potential for mass panic thwarted, the next consideration is to prepare, or decorate, the location for its appearance on camera. This is the work of the Art Department, which prepares an "Art Department Package" as part of the pre-production schedule. This multi-page document breaks the script down scene by scene and includes detailed notes for each department, including Location, Set Decoration, Paint, Greens, Transportation, Props, Special Effects, Visual Effects, Playback, Lighting, Grips, Hair/Make-up, and Costumes. The package also includes detailed diagrams and floor plans of each location and scene, indicating camera angles and special directions for set decoration. The diagram for the Accent Inn shows the hotel entrance and lobby, and the position of Kinsey's limousine and the guards' vehicle on the drive in front. Notes to the Set Dec department specify that the "Lobby" sign must be taken down, and the Canadian Telus phone booth must be covered to place the scene in Washington, DC. Additional notes alert the Visual Effects (VFX) department that a rifle cross-hairs matte will be needed for the assassin's point of view. Transportation will be responsible for the limousine and a Washington, DC police car, while the Props department will furnish the DC license plates for the vehicles as well as a brass luggage rack with luggage for the bellman, and the guns for Kinsey's security guards. Special Effects (SFX) will provide the squib that Kinsey will wear to mimic a bullet, and the Hair, Make-up, and Costume departments must be responsible for outfitting Kinsey, his security guards, a bellman, and 6 extras.

All of these details have fallen into place before shooting begins. It is now up to Peter DeLuise, the director, to make the words in the script come alive on film. As written, the script gives very little detail, leaving a lot of room for interpretation. The scene is described simply:

"A limo pulls up, and some men approach it. They are Senator Kinsey and three security guards. One of the guards opens the door of the car for the Senator. Kinsey is in the cross-hairs. A silenced shot is fired. Kinsey is hit. He goes down. His men pull out pistols and surround him. They scan the area for the shooter."

It is Peter DeLuise's decision to add extras to the scene, fans and well-wishers to greet the senator, to shake his hand and to witness the assassination. He also directs the cameras to shoot lots of slow motion footage to add to the impact, hoping that editing will allow for the extra seconds. He explains his vision for the scene, "I will inter-cut those images of him being a politician with images of a rifle being assembled. And eventually at the end, I will show him get his chest burst with a shot going into it. And then, what's really nice about my touch, or my direction in that particular case, if you wanted to know what have I added to the scene, now I've got people who are screaming and who are in terror running around, where there is no mention of people. I was very affected by the Reagan-Hinkley assassination attempt, and the chaos that ensued when he shot those bullets, and the screaming, and the people that were yelling. So, we've got to have that. Every time we see somebody getting shot at, there is this obligatory screaming and people running. So, even though there was no mention of that, that was my touch that I added. That and the slow motion, envisioning the inter-cutting of the assembly of the rifle with the images of Senator Kinsey doing what he was doing."

Art Department Package
Page from the Art Dept. Package for scene 2 of "Smoke & Mirrors"

Smoke & Mirrors
The set of scene 2 for "Smoke & Mirrors" at the Accent Inn

July 16th is a bright and sunny morning in Vancouver. Early in the day, the crew had already begun bringing equipment across the street from the studio to prepare for a 7:00 call time. The set has been decorated, identifying signs removed, and a velvet rope has been set up in front of the hotel entrance to hold back the crowd of Kinsey well-wishers. The limousine and car are parked in the drive, and the bellman's luggage rack is in place. Opposite the drive, the lighting equipment has been set up, with huge white reflectors to balance and soften the lighting. The cameras will be moving on dollies, and so temporary tracks have been laid across the front driveway to guide the grips who will pull the two camera carts by hand. Other carts and equipment adorn the front lot, including the sound cart through which the many microphones are coordinated. Off to the side, a makeshift canvas shelter houses the portable video village, the pair of monitors on which the director and producers rely to see what each camera sees. By 7:00, the front of the hotel is abuzz with activity.

As Peter DeLuise prepares to begin rehearsal, he decides that the half dozen extras who have been hired to greet the senator may be insufficient to give the desired effect of "obligatory screaming and people running." He decides to expand his audience, and turns to the visitors on the set as volunteers. Today, three Explorer Unit staff members, Gary, Hal, and Kate, are covering the goings-on behind the scenes, in the company of Bill Vigars, the SG-1 publicist. All four find themselves drafted as extras, and are placed in position behind the velvet rope. Another visitor to the set, Aaron Craven, is a friend of DeLuise, and is shadowing him for the day. Stargate viewers will recognize him as Captain Kyle Rogers, the young commander of the off-world trainees in Rules of Engagement. He, too, becomes an extra for the day, and joins the group behind the rope as a Kinsey supporter wearing a baseball cap. DeLuise may have his hands full guiding a crop of willing but inexperienced extras, and when one asks him jokingly, "What's my motivation?" he shoots back with a grin, "Your motivation is you don't want me to scream at you!"

People and equipment begin to fall into place as DeLuise prepares for a rehearsal. Meanwhile, executive producer Michael Greenburg is roaming the set with a large video camera, capturing footage of his own that will be used for a behind the scenes special on one of the upcoming DVD releases. Bill Vigars, too, is making use of a video camera brought by the Explorer Unit staff, and he is wandering about the set capturing the preparations. As the publicist for SG-1, his responsibilities range from coordinating with MGM and with the press to arranging and escorting official visitors to the set. Extremely open and forthcoming, he enjoys sharing the behind the scenes stories as much as the fans do, and his enthusiasm for the show and the people behind it is obvious. Today he is making his screen debut, and he is enjoying the opportunity as much as the other novice extras.

Ronny Cox is mingling and conversing with some of the actors and crew, a complete antithesis of the malevolent Senator Kinsey he plays. DeLuise begins by introducing Ronny to the actors who will be his bodyguards. He and Alex Pappas, the 1st Assistant Director, walk the actors through the scene, directing each one to his mark, where to move, and how to react. Then they turn to the waiting extras, reminding them that Kinsey "will hopefully be the President of the United States, so this is pretty exciting." The extras are directed to applaud and cheer, to take pictures and shake hands. Then, "When I say 'BANG'," DeLuise continues, the reaction must be big, everyone ducking, women screaming, and general panic. Alex calls out DeLuise's final directions to actors and crew, and the rehearsal begins.

The first rehearsal goes smoothly enough, but DeLuise isn't satisfied with the results. There's not enough action. "Double the reaction from the extras!" he orders. He's looking for more screaming and more movement, and he selects a few extras for special directions to run in a panic in random directions after the shots are fired. Likewise, the bodyguards are instructed to move closer to the senator, to draw their weapons and scan the crowd for danger. One bodyguard is told to shout into his sleeve, "The senator's been hit! He's been hit!" and Alex practices with the actor a few times to make the dialogue into the sleeve realistic. Kinsey needs to be at a different angle for the bullet to hit him, and so Ronny is given new instructions to pause at the limousine and to turn once more toward the crowd. A second rehearsal is called for, and this time the effect is more what DeLuise was looking for.

For the next take, the cameras will roll. DeLuise plans with Ronny Cox the direction in which he will fall when he is shot. They discuss the use of a mat to soften his fall, and Dan Shea, the stunt coordinator, has come prepared with an assortment of mats to choose from, depending on how the scene will be staged. However, Ronny decides that he will fall toward the limo, and a mat will be unnecessary. The costume set supervisor and the prop assistant help the bodyguards on with their holsters that will be worn under their jackets. Before putting the gun in the holster, however, Alex makes a point of shooting the weapon toward the ground in front of the actors, and he calls Ronny over as well to witness that the gun is indeed empty. It is a courtesy when using firearms that the weapons be demonstrated as safe, in front of the actors, before the scene is shot. The make-up and costume departments step in for final touch ups, and cast and crew prepare for the first take. "Action!" calls DeLuise, and Senator Kinsey, flanked by his bodyguards, emerges from the hotel entrance. The crowd of enthusiastic extras applauds and cheers, snaps pictures, and reaches for a handshake. Kinsey moves off toward his limo, but as he approaches, DeLuise's voice calls out, "Just one more picture, Senator!" This line will likely be DeLuise's cameo for the episode, and it is also the reason that Kinsey pauses and turns toward the crowd one last time. "BANG!" shouts DeLuise, and Kinsey falls backwards. Instantly the bodyguards move in, weapons drawn, scanning the crowd, talking into sleeves, the startled crowd screams and ducks, several panicked extras run in random directions across the lot. And then, with cameras still rolling, the action fades. The bodyguards are frozen in position over the wounded senator, and DeLuise shouts directions from off camera. "Deal with the senator! Get him into the car!" Immediately the bodyguards jump into action again and shove Ronny Cox into the back seat of the limo.

Smoke & Mirrors
Peter DeLuise gives directions to the senator and his bodyguards

Smoke & Mirrors
Special Effects arms the squib hidden under Ronny Cox's jacket

Peter DeLuise is now satisfied that the scene will work the way he wants it to, but it will require several more takes to accumulate sufficient film and camera angles and slow motion footage to create the final product he envisions in editing. Again and again the Senator greets his fans and then falls backwards as DeLuise yells "BANG!" and the crowd screams and ducks. For the final few takes, it is time to add the special effects. Ronny Cox is fitted with a squib that will explode on his chest on cue, and the control pack is secured to his lower back, under his jacket. The special effects crew lifts Ronny's coat tails and adjusts the settings on the explosive pack, announcing, "Okay, you're armed." Alex approaches each of the actors and extras, offering them ear plugs in case the sound of the explosion is uncomfortably loud, but most decline. Several more takes are shot, and Ronny's coat tails are lifted and his pack armed and disarmed before and after each one.

During the morning's activities, the hotel guests have been staying discreetly beyond camera range, but most of the action takes place directly in front of the hotel lobby, and business must continue as usual despite the ducking and screaming out front. At one point between takes, a father and his two young sons exit the lobby, and immediately realize that filming is taking place. However, they mistakenly assume that the velvet rope had been set up to hold back onlookers, and they position themselves among the extras. So casual is the atmosphere on the set that not a single person asks them to leave or to move. Instead, one of the crew leans over and advises the hotel guest helpfully, "When you hear the gunshots, duck." After the next take, it becomes clear to the father that he has placed himself in the middle of an assassination attempt, and he quietly moves his family to the opposite side of the lot to continue watching the action out of harm's way.

Another visitor to the set arrives as the final few takes are being filmed. Richard Dean Anderson's vacation had been extended by a day, and this is his first day back to work since his three week hiatus. He has a 9:15 call this morning, and his scenes will be shot at the studio after the work at the hotel is completed. Arriving at the studio a little early, he decides to investigate the morning's activities, and he rides his bicycle across the street to join the crew at the hotel. There he settles himself at the video village, chatting with Michael Greenburg and other members of the crew, and taking in the action.

The final few takes will focus just on Senator Kinsey, and so the action is picked up as Kinsey approaches the car. He turns toward the crowd, the squib fires, giving the illusion of a bullet to the chest, and he falls backward as the actors and extras repeat the panicked reaction yet again. Finally, Peter DeLuise is satisfied that the footage is complete. It has taken over two hours to shoot a scene that will last only seconds on the screen. It is past 9:00, and the day has only just begun. The rest of the day's scenes will take place at the Bridge Studios, and with great efficiency, all the equipment is packed up and moved back across the street, leaving not a trace of the morning's events behind.

Back at the studio, the equipment is once again set up to continue shooting on the soundstages. Meanwhile, upstairs in the production offices, pre-production continues for the following episode, Paradise Lost. This morning the executive producers and department heads, most of whom were involved in the filming at the hotel, will be gathering upon their return at the concept meeting, the first meeting to coordinate the preparation for the new episode.

The next scene to be shot is a splinter unit video shoot involving Richard Dean Anderson. An upcoming scene, due to be filmed later today, requires the video playback of Jack O'Neill descending a stairway, carrying a gun case. In anticipation, the video footage must first be shot on the stairs by the Bridge Studios Office, prepared, and then flipped so that it can be projected from the rear onto the screen in the briefing room when the time comes. Afterward, the company moves to the doorway of the Visual Effects building on the lot to capture O'Neill exiting the building and departing down an alley. This scene, as well as the scenes of the gloved hands assembling, firing, and disassembling the rifle, will be inter-cut with the scene of the assassination. While Richard does indeed exit the building wearing gloves, the gloved hands with the rifle are not his. Those scenes are scheduled to be shot two days later, when Richard is no longer on the set.

One more scene is scheduled before lunch. Scene 5, the arrest of Colonel O'Neill for murder, takes place in Jonas's lab on Stage 5. Although most of the cast and crew had returned from their hiatus the day before, this scene marks Richard's reunion with the group. Looking tanned and rested, he's in a playful mood, and is catching up with the news from the others on the set. Two days before, he had attended the 90th anniversary of Paramount Pictures as one of Paramount's 90 outstanding stars, and he chats about the event, and his hiatus in general, in between takes.

The scene is completed on schedule, and the crew breaks for lunch. On this glorious sunny day, lunch is served on tables outside on the lot. This afternoon, a special visitor has arrived on the set. Amanda Tapping's twin brother has come for a visit with his wife and baby daughter. The family joins Amanda for lunch, and she proudly introduces them around to the cast and crew.

Following the lunch break, everyone adjourns to the Briefing Room for the final scene of the day. Scene 6 involves Major Davis presenting SG-1 with the evidence against Colonel O'Neill, using the playback of the videotape shot earlier this morning in the stairwell. As with the Briefing Room scenes that were shot the day before, the scene is first blocked out as Peter DeLuise plans the movements and dialogue of each character. The crew gathers around the briefing room table for instructions on lighting and camera angles, and special directions for playback, costume, make-up, and props. Amanda's brother and his family again join her to watch the procedure as the scene comes together, from rehearsals to costume, hair and make-up, to the final takes.

As shooting continues on Stage 5, next door on Stage 6 the Explorer Unit staff members have brought along their merchandise to be autographed for sale to fans and members. One by one, the actors excuse themselves when not needed for the scene upstairs, and come down for a signing session with Light Speed Fine Art. Richard Dean Anderson is among the first to drop by. His scenes are finished for the day, and he will spend much of the afternoon, as he often does, making editing decisions and taking on his executive producing duties. Meanwhile, up in the production offices, details are being finalized for tomorrow's scenes. The Art Department is completing the signs that will be used to decorate the deserted hallways of the hospital building, and props and equipment are being coordinated for the move to a new location. In the boardroom, prep meetings are mapping out the upcoming episode, Paradise Lost, and at the far end of the hall the writers are planning the final story arc with an eye toward the end of the season. Each time SG-1 steps through the giant ring on Stage 5, they are not traveling the galaxy alone. Hundreds of people stand behind them. Pre-production and props, writing and rehearsals, editing and autographs, it's all in a day's work on this side of the stargate.

Ritter, Kate. "On the Set - Day Two." July 16, 2002.

Previous Article | Next Article