Nickelodeon's 'Supah Ninjas' moves to Pittsburgh's 31st Street Studios for second season

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Four months into shooting Nickelodeon's "Supah Ninjas," there's an air of congenial chaos at the 31st Street Studios in the Strip District as three young actors and one very large guest villain prepare for their next scene.

Ryan Potter, who plays high school student/secret ninja Mike Fukunaga, and fellow crime-fighting ninjas -- actors Gracie Dzienny (Amanda McKay) and Carlos Knight (Owen Reynolds) -- are running through a rehearsal that involves comically peeking into a huge hole in the side of the "Food Rodeo," a cheesy Wild West-themed family restaurant.

Shortly, actor Paul Wight, otherwise known as WWE star "Big Show," will come crashing through another wall to confront our heroes.

But there's a hitch: the actual hole in the breakaway set isn't large enough to accommodate the villain "Two Ton Harley's" roughly 6 feet 11, 470-plus pounds, so another had to be made.

"It's just sheetrock," Mr. Wight said, pooh-poohing the pain of smashing through. "The hard part is not to trip."

The same could be said for Pittsburgh's first foray into shooting a regular television series: after a few messy starts, it's now on its feet. When Chris Breakwell developed 31st Street Studios here last year, he envisioned a place where Hollywood could cater to the film and television industries.

He and partners hoped that production companies would take advantage of Pennsylvania tax credits. Its previous occupant, Mogul Mind, closed in mid-2010, but not before several feature films were shot there, including "Abduction," "Unstoppable" and "Love and Other Drugs."

Bringing a regular television series was something high on Mr. Breakwell's list when renovations began. For a time, it looked as if a serialized version of "Hemlock Grove," a gothic horror novel written by Mon Valley native Brian McGreevy, would be the first.

But issues with tax credits dunked the deal last May, and production for the Netflix streaming series is being readied in Toronto.

Brian Banks, Nickelodeon executive in charge of production, live action, said the network made the jump from LA to Pittsburgh for the "Supah Ninjas" second season after visiting the city and liking what it saw.

"The first season, we were shooting on a movie studio lot in Los Angeles, and it was great, but it was inside. And we were sort of beholden to what was available to us there," he said.

"[Pittsburgh], it absolutely looked like Empire City to us. We're shooting interiors, but when you go outside and see what's there you want to take advantage of that: warehouses and bridges and rivers and rooftops."

A few sets, including rooms in Mike's house and the ninjas' dojo, were simply shipped in pieces to Pittsburgh and reconstructed. Others, such as the temporary "Food Rodeo" swing set, were built here.

About 250 people are involved in the production.

For Eric Garcia, who created the show with Leo Chu, the idea of working in his native Pittsburgh after years in California still seems absurdly impossible.

"When you go out to California and break into the business, you dream about creating your own show. And there's just a lot of steps, but they're all short-term goals.

"So just coming back here was fantastic."

For Mr. Garcia and Mr. Chu, serving as showrunners with the rest of the writers back in Los Angeles has worked relatively well. The bulk of the episodes were mapped out before everyone arrived to begin production.

"We really hit the ground running," Mr. Chu said. "But since this was the second season, we were able to hit the stories hard and you want to have all that in motion before you get out here."

A couple of times they had to get on Skype to "break" stories, which is the building block process of constructing an episode. Although somewhat effective, that was not the ideal way of doing things, thus necessitating some plane trips back and forth.

Actor George Takei, who plays the ghost of Mike's late grandfather as well as "Hologramps' " evil twin, has been flying between coasts, too.

Although most of the production crew are local hires, the young stars have been living with a parent in an extended-stay hotel. For Gracie, 16, that means an easy drive home to Toledo, Ohio, on weekends.

"I was very excited [when production moved east]," she said, taking a break between rehearsal and attending high school classes on set with Ryan, 17.

The Dzienny family was already familiar with Pittsburgh, having attended dance competitions at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. And yes, she is acquainted with the young ladies from the reality show "Dance Moms."

Somehow she found time to nurture his inner Cupcake Princess while living in a hotel. What started as a simple goodwill gesture of baking snacks for the cast and crew has morphed into "Cupcake Wednesdays."

"I just got this book about cupcakes and wanted to try it," said Gracie, who has baked up to eight dozen at a time, often using that week's villain for the theme.

Ryan has lived in L.A. for 10 years but before that, Japan. He said he finds a lot of similarities between Pittsburgh and Tokyo: the temperature is very similar, also, "how close you are to the [natural] environment."

"In Los Angeles, you have to drive 30, 40 miles out of town to find a forest."

In his spare time, he has gone camping with some of the stunt team in Somerset and Beaver counties and purchased vinyl for one of his three turntables at Jerry's Records in Squirrel Hill. But he and his co-stars spoke most enthusiastically about Pittsburgh's restaurants, both refined (Meat and Potatoes, Salt of the Earth) and fun (Klavon's ice cream parlor in the Strip District.)

"I am obsessed with Oh Yeah! [Ice Cream & Coffee]," Gracie said of the Shadyside spot.

Mr. Knight, who just turned 19, no longer has to attend classes, although somewhere in the depths of the cavernous spaces at 31st Street, there is a set of the ninjas' high school.

Like his young co-stars, Mr. Knight has a Twitter account (@IamCarlosKnight) but he's not obsessed with it: "I try to tweet a funny thing now and then ... but if I'm getting some cereal, you don't hear about it from me."

The others -- @GracieDzienny and @RyanKPotter -- are more into sharing. Gracie is hoping to live tweet with fans once Season 2 debuts; a date has not yet been announced.

There were a lot of laughs and hugs on set the day a reporter visited, and it didn't appear to be an act.

"The kids and crew that have come out here and made this home for the last few months have really enjoyed it," said Mr. Banks, the production chief. "It's sort of been like a summer vacation, to get away and work here and then go back home when it's over."


Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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