Whoosh! Issue 54 - March 2001

By Bret Ryan Rudnick
Content copyright ©2001 held by author
Whoosh! edition copyright ©2001 held by Whoosh!
2739 words

Author's notes:

Simon AMBRIDGE: worked his way up through the ranks of Pacific Renaissance Pictures, from Main Unit First Assistant Director to Production Manager to Co-Producer. His hard work has paid off, but he continues to fine-tune things and make sure the work in the field gets done. He must be both pro-active as well as reactive to solve production problems, and he approaches his work with obvious enthusiasm. I talked with Simon in Auckland, New Zealand in November of 2000.

The Adventure Begins (01-03)
A Day in the Life of a Co-Producer (04-09)
THE DEBT and the Donnie Duncan Style (10-14)
The Crew (15-22)
More on THE DEBT (23-26)
Efficiency Is the Rule (30-31)
Post-XENA (32-33)

An Interview with Simon Ambridge (Co-Producer)

If they find out I'm playing solitaire instead of working, I'm in trouble!

Simon Ambridge, in his natural habitat (his office at Pacific Renaissance Pictures)

The Adventure Begins

Tell me how you came to Pacific Renaissance and how you started life here.

Considered for one of the post-XENA spinoffs

''Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle'' is a book series for children, brought to television by Universal when they still did television.

I was working on a TV series that Universal was making out here called MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE. Chloe (Smith) phoned me and said Eric (Gruendemann) was coming down to make the HERCULES tele-features. We all met and talked about it. It was all quite new to me, in that they were going to use a separate second unit to shoot the action sequences. My experience with second unit to that time was sending a guy out with one camera to shoot a car driving down the road, that kind of thing. This new way of doing things looked quite interesting. But we couldn't get our dates to line up, and I was busy doing other things. We kept in touch for the next couple of years while HERCULES went to series.

[3] As I was finishing on another film, they called me to say they had this new series called XENA about this woman warrior. They said the show was akin to HERCULES in many ways and would I like to work on it. I said that would be great. I came on board in 1995. I worked as a First Assistant Director. Last season I became a production manager and when Eric left I became a co-producer.

A Day in the Life of a Co-Producer

If there is such a thing, describe what a typical day for you would be like.

A typical day now would be for me to arrive at the office between 8:00 and 8:30. It's unlike working on set or location, where you have a set list of things to accomplish in a day. Here you have an idea of what to do, but other things will come along and you have to take care of those. Sometimes your day will be spent being reactive to things that come up. The other part of the day you spend being proactive, so problems will be solved ahead of time. A typical day for me would be to read beat sheets and scripts and look at things from a production/logistics point of view.

You'll look at things to see that a certain scene will have to be shot at a certain place...

...or we need a certain location, where can we find it? We have a show coming up where Xena and some Amazons get attacked on a beach that require catapults being used, and I have to figure out where they can go to do that. We'll have to set up charges on the beach, so it can't be anywhere near a populated area. Some scenes will be shot at night and will we do them on location or in a studio? It doesn't get dark outside right now until around 9:00, and there are limitations on the number of hours we can work in a day, so night shooting is difficult. In the wintertime, we'll try to work in a few night scenes late in the afternoon when the light drops. It's juggling the practical concerns in what we can achieve on the sets we have and the locations we need.

Sometimes those hot peppers are just a little *too* hot

Actual explosions and pyrotechnics, not just artificial special effects, can look quite realistic as in this shot from TO HELICON AND BACK.
This shot was achieved with a telephoto lens so it appears the explosion is much closer to Renee than it actually is.

[9] We set out to achieve, from the beginning, a very cinematic look. We tend to shoot movies rather than television episodes. We pay a lot of attention to lighting, art direction, that sort of thing.

THE DEBT and the Donnie Duncan Style

I was talking to Rob Tapert the other day, and he mentioned that THE DEBT (52-53/306-307) was the feature film he never made.

Did you order the Kung Pao chicken?

THE DEBT was, for all intents and purposes, a feature film made for television.

THE DEBT was the first two-parter that we did. That was back in third season. On so many levels that was probably the best two-parter that we've done. We'll be doing another two-parter later this season [the season-ender]. In terms of all the elements coming together, that was a great show.

[12] With Rob Tapert, we typed up several pages of how we wanted things shot and how we wanted things to be. That's been handed down as a by-law so that at the end of last season when we had two new Directors of Photography join us, we gave them that so they'd know how things should be. So, that style has continued right up to now.

[13] Donnie Duncan (former Director of Photography) was the driving force of that style. We've had a lot of help from a lot of really able people. Rob (Gillies) has been a really great Production Designer. Many people have grown with the show. We've had camera loaders become camera assistants, assistant grips become key grips. People have grown with the show, and I think that's to Eric (Gruendemann's) and Chloe (Smith's) credit as a key for putting a bunch of the right people together.

[14] Pacific Renaissance has always been a feeling of family, and especially on the film crew, you probably spend more time at work than at home. They got the chemistry right with the crew across the board. I think that's contributed to people wanting to do well and keeping the work ethic strong.

The Crew

I understand you took quite a hit when LORD OF THE RINGS (Peter Jackson, 2001) came to town.

They took some people, but I think for most of those it was time for them to take another step in their career.

[19] We've had some technically difficult things to do, such as the Valkyrie. I remember when we did THE TITANS (07/107) that was our first exercise in forced perspective, and there was a steep learning curve there. Rob Tapert gave us a speech and said (imitates Tapert), "I know it's been hard, but it'll get easier—after it gets harder for awhile". (both laugh)

I bet I can zap that annoying extra without even looking!

As an A.D., Simon Ambridge had to sometimes direct extras, including the author of this article, as he did in an episode called SACRIFICE.

[20] But there's no such thing as a simple show. As you meet demands, demands keep increasing. As we've developed techniques, we've become more expansive. Kiwis are, I think, a "can do" sort of people. That's one of our faults, too, if there is a fault, that we'll always try to find a way to achieve something. It may be cheesy at times, but it generally works. In many ways this final season has been our most expensive and complex ever. Our filming of LEGACY (117/605) and the three part RINGS trilogy [THE RHEINGOLD (119/607), THE RING (120/608), and RETURN OF THE VALKYRIE (121/609)] were done on a scale we've never done before. And from what we know from this point to the end, it's not going to get any simpler.

Do you find yourself missing being out in "the field"?

A little bit, but not really. There are so many challenges here, and you get involved in different aspects of production. The involvement I have from the planning stage through the script stage has enough challenge to keep me busy. I try to make what happens on set more achievable. On days like this, I kind of miss it (bright, sunny), but when they were shooting the RINGS trilogy and it was wet and dark and cold I didn't miss it at all!

More on THE DEBT

Any memorable experiences from over the years that stand out?

It would have to be when we went on location to shoot the SIN TRADE episodes. We got down to the center of the North Island to shoot some of the mountain scenes. We had a week. The first night we were there, T.J. (Scott, Director) did the campfire scene and worked out really well. There was a lovely sunset. We came down with no foul weather gear, and that night it started to rain. It rained all the next day and the next. Lucy was miserable, but she worked right through it. And we as the crew felt that if she can endure all that, without even a coat, she's wet and cold and toughing it out, that inspired us too.

[25] It finally stopped raining on the fourth day, but it was cold and windy. We shot some scenes on the mountain, and the Amazons were having trouble even standing up. We had two units working, and the wind was so strong people were being blown from one shooting zone to another. We went back to the same site the next day, and there was two meters of snow there that weren't there the day before. T.J. thought that was great, and we went even further up the mountain than we did the day before. We spent the whole day in the snow, but the weather cleared and there was great blue sky.

You may be a Warrior Princess, but I'm Queen of this Mountain!

Amazons and crew alike found the conditions tough going on location for ADVENTURES IN THE SIN TRADE.

[26] All during this time, the town where the crew was staying was cut off from rivers that flooded. The crew that was staying at one motel came out to knee-deep water in the car park. In the end, it was quite a bonding experience, everybody having to endure all that together. And there are other shows I quite enjoyed working on.


[27] I quite liked THE BITTER SUITE (58/312). I loved the sets and the costumes—it was a great show to work on. I couldn't pick out a single best show or experience though. There are a lot of good memories.


What are you working on now?

We're doing THE GOD YOU KNOW (124/612), coming to the end of shooting for that. We're also working on an alternate view of how things might have been [WHEN FATES COLLIDE]. We're in a run of three action shows that continue until the end of February.

You know, I think I *am* the fairest one of all!

Gods are still trouble in THE GOD YOU KNOW.

Efficiency is the Rule

I notice the various departments are very efficient in terms of using things from before or modifying something to do the job.

Nothing is wasted. Rob Tapert was in on a meeting the other day when we were talking about using catapults for an episode. Rob Gillies said we didn't really have any catapults we could use, but we could build one and maybe CGI others. Rob (Tapert) said, "I was walking around the location ranch the other day and saw some rusting away. You could just paint them silver and use those!" The art department doesn't throw anything away, and Rob Tapert is famous for walking around and pointing to something and saying, "Hey, I can use that!" We'll use a little of this, a little of that, create something new, and it all comes together.


Do you have any plans for after the show is over?

It's hard to think of life without XENA in many ways. I'm really too pragmatic to have an answer for that. I'll have to see what comes along.


Schmoozer Spice Bret Ryan Rudnick
WHOOSH! staff
IAXS Executive Committee
"You can never have too much money or too many Amazons"
When he's not working for a big Science/Engineering company that (amongst other things) designs, builds, launches, and operates exploratory spacecraft, Bret writes fantasy novels and short stories. Bret is a man of many skills, having also previously been an Olympic-qualified archer, a drummer in the Butch Grinder Band, a news reader for Public Television Station KVCR, and a Deputy Sheriff for the County of San Bernardino, California. He also collects Japanese swords, armor, and art. He and his dog hunt down stray Bacchae in New England.
Favorite episode: HOOVES AND HARLOTS (10/110), WARRIOR...PRINCESS...TRAMP (30/206), and THE QUEST (37/213)
Favorite line: Xena: "What's this?" Gabrielle: "I'm... an amazon princess?" Xena (rolls eyes): "Great." HOOVES AND HARLOTS, 10/110; Xena after being goosed by Joxer: "Are you suicidal?" WARRIOR...PRINCESS...TRAMP (30/206); Joxer: "Ha. Ha." A COMEDY OF EROS (46/222); Autolycus: "I'm not just leering at scantily clad women, you know, I'm working!" THE QUEST (37/213)
First episode seen: CRADLE OF HOPE (04/104)
Least favorite episode: IN SICKNESS AND IN HELL (72/404)

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