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Blowing Up on the Small Screen

Posted by GoreMaster Special Effects on September 24, 2009

A victim is carried from the wreckage of an exploding oil tanker truck in the first episode of NBC’s ‘Trauma.’

A victim is carried from the wreckage of an exploding oil tanker truck in the first episode of NBC’s ‘Trauma.’

By Amy Chozick– Wall Street Journal

In the first seven minutes of new medical drama “Trauma,” an electrician working on the roof of a skyscraper sustains a huge jolt. An ambulance races through the San Francisco hills, and a rescue helicopter crashes head-on with another chopper tumbling into a busy restaurant in a fiery blast.

This series of calamities may sound like the stuff of a big-budget Hollywood movie, but NBC plans to pull off such stunts weekly in “Trauma,” premiering Monday at 9 p.m. Eastern. The network hopes the action-packed medical show about first-responder paramedics can pick up viewers who watched “E.R.,” which ended in April.

The show is part of television’s growing use of expensive effects. Until recently, the small screen, except for reality series, rarely filmed off the studio set, and shot expensive special effects like multicar crashes or catastrophic explosions even less. Technological advances have made stunts cheaper and less time-consuming to pull off, making them more accessible to budget- and time-strapped TV crews.

Networks now devote about 10% of a show’s budget to both visual effects generated on computers and special effects that recreate live events on-set, up from as little as 1% three years ago, according to industry estimates. Last fall, Fox spent about $10 million on the two-hour pilot of “Fringe,” a science-fiction series about FBI agents investigating mysterious global occurrences loaded with computer-generated visual effects. CBS often uses costly special effects on its popular police series “NCIS” and on crime drama “CSI” about Las Vegas criminologists who solve grisly murders.

Anastasia Griffith as Nancy Carnahan in ‘Tauma’

Anastasia Griffith as Nancy Carnahan in ‘Tauma’

NBC, ranked last in total prime-time viewers among the four major broadcasters, has recently tried to cut costs. Earlier this month it debuted “The Jay Leno Show,” a nightly 10 p.m. comedy show that is less than a third the cost of producing a scripted prime-time drama. The savings from Mr. Leno’s show let NBC make “Trauma,” its most expensive new program this season, says Angela Bromstad, president of prime-time entertainment at NBC. She calls “Trauma” an “adrenalized version of ‘E.R.’ ”

The first episode of “Trauma” also features a multicar pileup that makes an oil tanker truck explode, an effect that required producers to close down part of San Francisco’s Interstate 280 for five days. The episode cost nearly $8 million to make, compared with about $3 million for the average hour-long show. NBC declined to discuss the budget for subsequent episodes.

Almost every episode will feature at least one major accident (or “MCI,” mass casualty incident) that calls into action cocky helicopter medic Rabbit, sexy blonde paramedic Nancy Carnahan and the other members of the team of first responders. In the sixth episode, a drunk speedboat driver in the San Francisco Bay crashes into a party cruiser with a Hungarian wedding on board. “We’re champing at the bit to do an earthquake,” says Dario Scardapane, creator and an executive producer.

While flashy special effects may entertain a movie audience for two hours, television viewers typically tune in each week out of loyalty to characters or suspense on a storyline, not eye-popping effects. “Knight Rider,” a NBC series based on the 1982 show by the same name and packed with effects and on-location scenes ended after a single season due to low ratings.

Producers say more dialogue and character-driven scenes have been added to “Trauma” with a conflicted young hospital intern and a rookie paramedic on a steep learning curve. The ensemble cast includes Cliff Curtis, who’s had roles in such films as “Three Kings” and “Training Day”; “Notorious” star Derek Luke; and Anastasia Griffith, best known for playing Katie Connor on the FX drama “Damages.” “We’re very concerned that it just doesn’t become the ‘pileup of the week,’ ” says director and executive producer Jeffrey Reiner.

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