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A Sci-Fi series with a budget

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The time: the future — sort of like in Blade Runner.

The place: Los Angeles — pretty much like in Blade Runner.

The mood: shadowy, cynical, tech-noir cop thriller — a lot like Blade Runner.

The budget: more Woolworth’s than Blade Runner.

When production began last winter on NBC’s new sci-fi detective series Mann & Machine, about a human cop (David Andrews) and his new partner, a brilliant female android (Yancy Butler), the show’s creators faced a conundrum: How to create a convincing future world on a TV-size budget and eight-days-per-episode shooting schedule? As it turns out, there’s more than one way to make a virtue of television’s limitations. Well, maybe not a virtue, but at least not a crippling drawback. ”With each shot,” says production designer Hilda Stark, ”we try to say, ‘How can we hit the public with the future?”’ Here’s how:

* Future? Make that near future. ”It’s basically still a familiar world,” says Stark, who imagines the setting of Mann & Machine to be a not-so-far-off late 1990s. The short leap in time allows a lot of current products to make their way into the show in scuffed-up form. In other words, today’s new Humvee is Mann & Machine‘s…used car. ”Ideally,” says Stark, ”we’d just take everything and age it down.”

* Choose your camera angles shrewdly. Remember that spectacular scene in Mann‘s first episode when android Eve reaches into her own skull, removes her electronic eyeball, and replaces it with another? Of course you don’t. Emulating first-grade magic tricks, the scene was discreetly filmed from the other side of Eve’s head — the low-tech side.

* Don’t be afraid to mine the past Mann & Machine‘s police-station set is based on a building constructed in the 1930s. Stark color-coordinated the interior in ”black and safety yellow, and I put in a new drop ceiling with different power sources. Even if you don’t directly perceive it, it adds something to the show.”

* Adapt locations whenever possible. When footage of a hospital exterior was required for one scene, Stark checked out dozens of Los Angeles buildings and finally found just what she wanted — the outside of a water-processing plant. ”You have to look at architecture very creatively,” she says.

* And don’t forget to tweak the small stuff. In Mann & Machine, the future is in the small details. Note the lapels on Mann’s jackets: They’re trimmed and somewhat elongated, a slight adjustment that’s envisioned to be just around the next fashion curve. A sign at a gas station reads ”We do not service electric cars.” Windows are covered with orange filters for post-ozone layer protection. The show’s doughnut machine talks back in an electronic voice. And at the police station, one door is labeled ”Child Care”. ”I try to sneak things like that in,” says Stark. ”I guess you could call it an optimistic vision of the future. At least sometimes.”

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