February 8, 2007

Super Secrets

Heroes Creative Team Gives Students Inside Scoop On Hit Series

By John Zollinger

Heroes creator Tim Kring
In an era when network economics are skewing prime-time fare toward reality shows and infotainment programming, launching a big-budget, large-cast, theatrical-quality series would seem a super-heroic feat. But, like the individuals he’s created for NBC’s Heroes, Tim Kring draws his power from the basics: Great characters, solid stories and a clockwork production schedule.

Kring, who was a member of the class of ’83 majoring in production, came up with the idea for the program after watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Incredibles back-to-back when they came out in 2004. The former concerns a “normal” person coming to terms with a surreal world. The latter depicts a family with superhuman powers trying to live “normal” lives.

“I liked the idea of starting from the perspective of people who were really unexpected and really ordinary,” Kring told students who packed Frank Sinatra Hall on Feb. 5 for Howard Rosenberg’s Television Symposium.

“I chose the characters first and then backed into the superpowers based on the characters and what they seemed to want or need,” added Kring, who was joined on stage by executive producer/director Allan Arkush, co-executive producer/director Greg Beeman (USC College ’82), co-executive producers/writers Jesse Alexander and Jeph Loeb, and actor Masi Oka.

Strong characters and superpowers have long featured in Kring’s career. His credits, which span two decades, range from Crossing Jordan and Providence to Misfits of Science and Knight Rider.

“This show was designed to be very big in terms of having an identity not just on the air, but online and with DVDs and video games,” said Kring, who knew the concept ran against a tide of safe, economical programming. To counter this, he went into his pitch at NBC armed with a strategic plan that appealed to the network’s need to go beyond traditional TV fare.

Kring’s strategy worked, with NBC giving the green light in May of 2006. Pitching success, however, meant coming up with a new way of writing and producing the show to get it on the air by September. “The sheer size of what it is that we’re trying to do really forced a new model,” Kring said.  
   Masi Oka, from the NBC series  Heroes

An example of going beyond the televised medium is the blog that Oka writes in the voice of Hiro Nakamura, a young Japanese office worker who discovers he has the power to alter time and teleport. Oka uses the posts to provide insight to the character and the evolution of the program. “It’s a lot of fun and it’s a great way of filling in the blanks sometimes,” Oka said.

Hiring what Loeb referred to as the creative equivalent to the New York Yankees, Kring once again went against the convention of assigning individual episodes to specific writers. Instead, the entire team breaks and writes each episode together. Once it’s established, an individual writer will then be in charge of stewarding the episode through the production process.

“It should have been the greatest disaster you could ever imagine. But very quickly we were inspired to help one another instead of competing with one another,” said Loeb, who is a renowned comic book scribe, as well as a writer for Smallville.

“It’s an incredibly transformative thing for the business and for the way that storytelling is going for television and all the media we are doing,” said Alexander, who has served as a producer and executive producer on dozens of Alias episodes.

Likewise, shooting and editing are also highly condensed, with multiple directors often filming sequences from different episodes on the same set on the same day.

While they wouldn’t divulge upcoming plot points, the speakers were quite open to student questions that ran the gamut from marketing, to special effects, to creative control.
A clip from the hit show.

The team also offered personal advice, such as how to tap into the industry.

“I recommend that you as a writer crank stuff out and work on your relationships,” Alexander told the audience. “That’s one of the most important things. You’re all going to rise up in the business together and you can all give each other work.”

Asked what he’s found most rewarding about doing Heroes, Kring recalled one example that goes well beyond entertainment—a teacher for students with learning disabilities who has used the show’s positive characters as models for the class members to understand that each of them is unique and brings special qualities to the world.

“That’s really a tough one to beat,” Kring said.