Inside the making of 'The Expanse' season 4, which found new life when Amazon saved it from cancellation
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- "The Expanse" returned for its fourth season on Friday on its new home of Amazon Prime Video after being canceled by the Syfy network last year.
- Executive producer Naren Shankar talked to Business Insider about filming the show's new primary setting of the planet Ilus at an active quarry outside of Toronto and using "virtually no CGI work" for it.
- Shankar described how season four went beyond the fourth "Expanse" novel, which takes place entirely on Ilus, and borrowed the Mars storyline from an "Expanse" novella called "Gods of Risk."
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Warning: This post contains minor spoilers for "The Expanse."
"The Expanse" returned for its fourth season on Friday on its new home of Amazon Prime Video. It's fitting then that the show itself is heading into new territory.
"One of the things that makes the books [the show is based on] so interesting is that they're always evolving," Naren Shankar, the show's executive producer, told Business Insider in an interview this week. "That's what makes [the show] so unique."
The third season finale saw a gate open in space revealing hundreds of new, potentially habitable planets for humanity to explore, in turn opening up the series to new possibilities. Then Syfy, its original network, canceled it last May.
Two weeks later, and after a passionate online campaign by fans to save the show, Amazon renewed it for a fourth season - and then a fifth season before that even debuted (all four seasons are available to stream on Prime Video).
"We kept saying for the first three years 'this is the best show that no one has seen,'" Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays the feisty Earth-based politician Chrisjen Avasarala, said during a Q&A session at New York Comic Con in October. "Now we're going global. We're being seen. It can't get any better."
How the show brought Ilus and Mars to life
Most of the main characters of "The Expanse" will be stationed on one of those aforementioned new planets for the majority of the fourth season (the first six episodes, to be precise). Ilus, also known as New Terra by Earthlings, is at the center of a confrontation between the Belters who have colonized the planet and RCE, an Earth-based corporation that has also landed there led by the ruthless Murtry (played by Burn Gorman, a newcomer to the series).
James Holden (Steven Strait) and his crew arrive on Ilus to be the eyes and ears of Avasarala (Aghdashloo), the Secretary-General of the United Nations on Earth.
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Shankar said that the Ilus scenes were shot at an active quarry an hour and a half outside of Toronto and that "virtually no CGI work was used" in creating the planet. He called it a "departure" for the series, which has largely taken place aboard space stations until now.
"The idea of having part of the season take place on this habitable planet was a big deal," Shankar said. "It was a big change in physical production and the production team had a huge challenge. They were creating a Belter settlement on location and creating partial alien ruins. Toronto in the fall and winter is not the kindest place. It was a cold, remote location."
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But "The Expanse" is still an effects-heavy series. One of the most complex environments to create for the new season were the entirely-CGI shipyards on Mars, according to Brendan Taylor, the founder and visual effects supervisor of the Toronto-based company Mavericks VFX.
Taylor said that a single frame for the shipyards took two to four hours to render and some shots include 800 frames. Taylor and his VFX team had to start building months in advance. For the shipyards, Taylor said the team took inspiration from real-life NASA constructs and even the 2013 sci-fi movie "Pacific Rim."
Season four stays true to 'Cibola Burn,' but also goes beyond it
This Ilus-focused storyline is ripped straight from the pages of the the fourth "Expanse" novel, called "Cibola Burn," by James S.A. Corey, the combined pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. For the most part, each season has told the story of its corresponding book, with some overlap.
Heading into season four, it's not just the show's primary setting that's changed. Months have passed between seasons three and four and Holden has come to terms with his visions of "The Investigator," a construct that has taken the likeness of the fan-favorite character, Miller (which means actor Thomas Jane is back).
"Holden's been through a lot in three seasons and it would be understandable if he started to break," Strait said at Comic Con in October. "He was terrified that he was going insane [in season three], especially at a moment when he's really needed. But what I love about Holden is that he's resilient and he adapts, and now it's normal. And as a viewer, I love how the whole family accepts it."
"It's an allegory for mental illness," Dominique Tipper, who plays Naomi, added. "You love the person so you understand it and then it becomes a part of your life. That's how I view it as a character who can't see Miller."
New character Murtry will be a thorn in Holden and crew's side on Ilus, but Shankar isn't quick to call him a villain.
"This show doesn't really have that many villains," Shankar told Business Insider. "Murtry is willing to use violence if need be. He's justified in his feelings. It comes back to a theme of 'The Expanse' of tribalism. He's protecting his tribe. I don't think he's a villain, but he has actions that are cruel and dark. People can interpret them [how they'd like]."
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As for Mars, Shankar had said during Comic Con that what happens on the planet "when there are suddenly hundreds of other planets to go to" would be a major focus of season four. The only problem with that is that "Cibola Burn" takes place entirely on Ilus.
So for the Mars storyline, in which Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) finds herself at odds with an illegal drug operation, the fourth season borrowed from an "Expanse" novella called "Gods of Risk."
"Obviously in season four we didn't want to ignore the other characters not on Ilus," Shankar said this week. "['Gods of Risk'] allowed us to go deep inside Bobbi's head and what's happening within Mars, one of most important places aside from Earth and Belt."
"The Expanse" season five is already in the works and the novel series is expected to conclude next year with the ninth book. On Amazon, Shankar hopes the show can avoid the same fate it met at the Syfy network.
"These are full, rich novels and I hope we get to tell the story to the end," he said.