'Mercury Men' Web series gets a shot on Syfy site

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Sci-fi movies and TV often are all about the special effects. So does a Web series about a couple of good guys battling space aliens with ray guns back in the '70s -- shot in glorious black and white to boot -- fit into that picture?

The Syfy channel is betting it does. On Monday, the Web series "The Mercury Men" premieres on the cable channel's website (www.syfy.com).

The series was made here and is set in Pittsburgh in 1975. It's the creation of director/writer Christopher Preksta of Whitehall and features a local cast and crew.

In "The Mercury Men," the city has become the staging area for an evil plot to take over Earth. The men from Mercury are eerie white silhouettes who terrorize people in a Pittsburgh office building. Edward Borman, a hapless government employee played by Mark Tierno, finds himself trapped in the building with the Mercury Men, and he becomes the unlikely hero who is called upon to save the world. He's guided by Jack Yaeger, played by Curt Wootten, an engineer turned alien fighter who works for an organization known as The League.

The initial season consists of 10 episodes. One will be posted every weekday for the next two weeks.

Mr. Preksta went to Point Park University and took classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. In his senior year, he filmed a short feature, "Captain Blasto," and toured it around film festivals. The Web series movement was gaining steam, and he decided to turn it into a Web series. The Web version of "Captain Blasto" was nominated for two Streamy awards.

"The Mercury Men" was filmed over three weeks in 2008 in locations around the area, including two offices in Wexford and a Downtown parking garage.

This week, Mr. Preksta is headed to the annual Comic-Con convention in San Diego. Excerpts from "The Mercury Men" will be screened at a Syfy panel there this evening.

Craig Engler, general manager and senior vice president of Syfy Digital, first learned about "The Mercury Men" by reading a Twitter post from the series creator, who tweeted that he had just finished the trailer. Mr. Preksta's tweet was timed perfectly: Syfy was looking for original Web series. The Web medium "had come so far in terms of what people were able to do, and the stories they were able to tell," Mr. Engler said.

" 'The Mercury Men' allows us to do something we just wouldn't be able to do on TV. It allows us to get this amazing-looking content with this retro future vibe and expose it to a sizable audience. You need a couple million people to watch every episode of a TV series to make it a success. Online, we need a couple hundred thousand. This opens the door to content we've never been able to get out to an audience before," Mr. Engler said. Syfy will also make the series available through On Demand.

While most contemporary sci-fi relies on state-of-the-art computer graphics and dazzling effects, "The Mercury Men" is very old school. The stark black-and-white footage, combined with the classic good vs. evil battle, hearkens back to the old movie serials of the '30s and '40s, such as "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers."

Mr. Preksta is too young to have grown up on those classic serials, but he did grow up captivated by the "Indiana Jones" and "Star Wars" films.

"Those are what you fall in love with as a kid," he said. "I remember watching all the behind-the-scenes stuff and hearing George Lucas and Steven Spielberg talking about what had inspired those films." "King of the Rocket Men" (1949) was another big influence on him.

"The Web series world really is a return to that old serialized form of storytelling," Mr. Preksta said. "Web series are very short -- 10 minutes at their longest. They always leave you with cliffhangers. It was a perfect fit."

"The Mercury Men" was made on a modest budget of $7,000. But its lack of slick high-tech effects was part of the appeal for Syfy, Mr. Engler said. "That's a strength, not a weakness. It has these very cool effects. Chris had to get so creative with them. I think he actually did a better job than someone with a bunch of money. The artistic constraints made it better, not worse, because you have to figure out what you can do on that budget.

" 'The Mercury Men' has a very distinctive look, feel and style. When you see a lot of Web series like I do, a lot of them tend to be post-apocalyptic, set in the streets of LA, because that's what's easy for people to shoot. Here there's aliens, there's ray guns, there's a nerd and a swashbuckling hero. It really does not look like everything else out there. This everyday unassuming guy becomes the reluctant hero, which is always a fun story if it's done well."

The glowing white aliens are played by Mr. Preksta, who donned an all-black costume and swim cap and was filmed against a white backdrop. The video image was reversed and converted into a white on dark background using digital editing techniques. "Since it's not CGI [computer-generated imagery], the challenge is having that character interact with the environment," Mr. Preksta said.

"The Mercury Men" also comes with a collection of "digital props" -- virtual series collectibles that fans can download -- posters, blueprints of the ray gun, journals and even a fake Nintendo game: The digital props are a tip of the hat to "that old cheesy merchandise we were always buying as kids," Mr. Preksta said. "These are things that help us tell a bit more of the story that we couldn't fit in the episodes themselves." They also helped generate viewer interest in the series in the months prior to its launch. Interest in the virtual "Mercury Men" collectors' glasses pictured on the website was so great that Mr. Preksta actually had a limited edition of 100 real glasses made. "We ended up selling 100 on day one."

For more on "The Mercury Men": www.mercuryseries.com.

Adrian McCoy: amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.


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