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Exploring the Expanse: how a spacewalk scene sums up the show's VFX and its character conflicts

Exploring the Expanse: how a spacewalk scene sums up the show's VFX and its character conflicts


Miller as an outcast among his own people

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Syfy Channel

The Expanse is a television show based on the novels by James S.A. Corey. Every week, I’ll be taking a look at one moment in each episode of the show’s second season, and chatting with the creators about how it was created and what it means for the larger story.

Spoilers ahead for the fourth episode of season 2, “Godspeed.”

The latest episode of The Expanse is all about action. So far in season 2, we’ve followed Captain James Holden and Detective Miller as they deal with the fallout of a massive science experiment on Eros and learned of the existence of an alien protomolecule with the potential to transform humanity. Now, they’re going to do something about it.

In last week’s episode, Holden and Miller had a falling out after Miller executed the scientist in charge of the project. Now they’re uneasy partners, as Miller and Tycho Station chief Fred Johnson hatch a plan to deal with the massive biohazard Eros represents. They can’t blow it up. That might scatter bits of protomolecule across the system, an unacceptable risk. Miller has an ambitious plan: steal Nauvoo, the massive generation ship that’s currently under construction at Tycho Station.

Photo: Syfy Channel

Nauvoo is massive: it’s designed to take a contingent of Mormons to another star. (It’s popped up a couple of times throughout the series. Spoiler: it will play a pivotal role in coming seasons, if the show continues to be renewed.) It’s big enough to be used as a battering ram. Miller and a group of Belters travel to the station with Holden and the Roci to drop off some nukes to help change the asteroid’s orbit, and plan to escape before the ship crashes into it.

Spacewalk with me

The CGI is pretty obvious in the moment where Miller jumps from a spaceship to Eros, but the sequence is particularly technically intriguing, because it meshes live-action wire work and CGI. According to Expanse stunt coordinator Matt Birman, the scene began with storyboards. “I then design, with my aerial team, the most efficient and safest way to represent the zero-G, and the most economic and comfortable methods for the cast, based on set requirements and everyone's schedules.”

It was a physically demanding shoot, Birman told The Verge, with the coordinators piecing together the entire scene from several separate shots. As the actors left the ship they “flew stunt players in a large arc,” and for the close-up work, they put the actors on teeter-totters, or flew them up and down.

Birman noted that the crew sets up and rehearses the shots for a couple of days before cameras start rolling, aided by computerized winches that help sync up camera movements closely. “What Gravity did in a few years, we deliver week after week.”

Miller is the star of this episode, and one of the episode’s most narratively interesting moments is the lead-up to his spacewalk. Miller is a Belter: he grew up on Ceres, and until the events of the series, hadn’t left his homeworld. He’s uneasy outside a pressurized station, much to the amusement of his fellow Belters, who live and work in deep space. As Miller prepares to jump into space, his anxiety is clearly visible. “How the hell are you Belter?” one of his companions asks, “Ever done no spacewalk ever?”

“I’m more of a city Belter,” Miller replies.

This scene really cuts to the heart of who the Belters are: they’re the blue-collar workers of the future solar system, adapted to zero gravity, and comfortable living in it for long periods. This scene shows just how alone Miller is, even among his peers, and it goes a long ways toward explaining him. From the first season, we’ve seen that he’s an outcast. He doesn’t play well with others, and he often strikes out on his own, which gets him into trouble. That’s what has consistently made Miller one of The Expanse’s most compelling characters: his conflicted morals drive him to pursue Julie Mao, which leads him to Eros and into the company of Holden and the Roci crew. This scene is part of an illuminating arc for the character, and that’s something we’ll talk about next week, after the team’s carefully laid plans around the Nauvoo go south.