Content Is KingThe Dead Zone’s Lloyd Segan

Television audiences will probably never tire of special effects. From the moment Samantha Stephens twitched her nose on Bewitched to the first time Colonel Jack O’Neil and his team stepped through the portal leading to other worlds in Stargate SG-1, viewers have flocked to TV shows with heavy visual elements. The Dead Zone, which is loosely based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, is a show about Johnny Smith, a man who wakes up from a coma to find out he is suddenly haunted by psychic visions.
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Television audiences will probably never tire of special effects. From the moment Samantha Stephens twitched her nose on Bewitched to the first time Colonel Jack O’Neil and his team stepped through the portal leading to other worlds in Stargate SG-1, viewers have flocked to TV shows with heavy visual elements. The Dead Zone, which is loosely based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, is a show about Johnny Smith, a man who wakes up from a coma to find out he is suddenly haunted by psychic visions. It often features spectacular visuals. For example, in the program’s pilot, Smith touches the arm of the doctor treating him and is gripped by a vision of the physician as a baby, being pushed into the arms of an American soldier by his desperate mother during the fall of Saigon in 1975. In the quality of the visuals the scene could be right out of Platoon.

For many viewers, this is what makes great television. Yet Dead Zone co-executive producer Lloyd Segan says the story behind the effects is the most important element of the program. "The Dead Zone is a drama," he said. "It’s about people, it has heart, it has a soul. It’s about a person whom we can all relate to because we might be presented with an extraordinary situation, and we would wonder how we would handle it. Each episode has pathos, humor, and mystery, and that combination is characteristic of the show."

That combination seems to have unlocked a winner: The Dead Zone premiered June 16, 2002, on cable’s USA Network. That debut drew 6.4 million viewers, setting the record for the highest-rated dramatic series debut in the history of cable. Less than a year since its premiere, numerous fan sites and chat rooms have popped up on the Web. The first season finished as basic cable’s top-rated dramatic series among adults 18 to 49.

Segan is no stranger to successful projects. Before the The Dead Zone, he produced Bones, a hip-hop horror film starring Snoop Dogg; The Bachelor; and Crossworlds, an HBO movie; among other projects. This background, which is primarily in television movies and film, has informed his work on The Dead Zone. "There is a discipline to both that easily translates," he said. "The most important discipline is you want to have the top people you can afford...be a part of the show. And you don’t want to compromise on the visual aspects of the show, the production values of the show, and, equally important, on the stories you’re going to be telling."
Telling good tales is the goal of Segan and his co-executive producer, Michael Piller. In order to do that, they divvy up their job duties in a specific manner. Piller, according to Segan, "runs the show." An Emmy award-winning journalist best known for his work as the executive producer and co-creator of many Star Trek episodes, he is the main creative force behind The Dead Zone. He has the final word on virtually everything having to do with the program, including hiring issues and the development and final rewrites/polishings of stories and scripts.
Segan, of course, also has a large role in the production of The Dead Zone. But "Michael [Piller] is leading that process," he said. "So I may be a part of the discussion of it, I certainly have my opinions about it, we certainly debate about it, but ultimately, at the end of the day, we all defer to Michael, because that really is what his expertise is, and he does it brilliantly well."
The Story Behind The Story

Like that of most television programs, the production process of The Dead Zone is a juggling act. On any given week, Segan and Piller will be looking at cuts, helping to cast an episode, looking at a story outline for another episode, reviewing scripts, and prepping an episode (while one is in production). Although Segan is based in Los Angeles, he often commutes back and forth to Vancouver, British Columbia, where the show is shot. He also has a major hand in the program’s marketing—working with his studio partners, Lions Gate Television and Paramount International Television; and the network to promote The Dead Zone domestically and internationally as well as on licensing arrangements for exploiting the "brand."

Production itself begins in the writers’ room, where Piller and Segan generate story ideas. While The Dead Zone has an internal writing staff, it also hires freelance writers. Throughout a given season, Piller and Segan brainstorm ideas with their staff and listen to idea pitches from freelancers.

After a story idea has been approved by the USA Network, as well as Lions Gate and Paramount, Piller sits down with the scriptwriter to "break the story"—outlining the script in detail.

Once the episode is written and the script delivered, Piller disseminates it among his staff members and to Segan for review. He and the staff make notes and revisions, and once he does a final polish on it, he gives the script to production.

The physical production of The Dead Zone starts with a seven-day prep period. Shooting also takes about seven days. According to Segan, there is also an additional extra unit day to pick up any elements that may have been missed.

After shooting, the episode goes to post, where the directors and producers will make any changes or revisions. Once everyone, including Piller, Segan, USA, Lions Gate, and Paramount, agrees on a final version of the episode, it is considered "locked." The sound mixing is done on it and it is shipped.

The Dead Zone’s compelling storyline has no doubt contributed to its popularity with viewers. Its visual effects have also probably had a hand in the show’s success. While the program does make use of digital software, Segan says one might be surprised to find out how much of these elements are not computer-generated. "A lot of people cannot figure out how we do some of the effects we do," he said. "There’s not software written for some of the effects we do, because they’re not computer-generated, they’re done in-camera." A simple example of this is when Johnny Smith begins to receive a psychic image. The camera appears to be panning very rapidly around his head. Compositing software doesn’t take credit for this effect. It really is happening. "It’s an array shot—a dolly shot—literally a camera rotating around Johnny Smith," said Segan.

Similarly, in another fall of Saigon vision. Smith receives, there is a moment where all the characters freeze, mid-scene. Although it looks like a digital effect, "when those people stopped, they literally stopped," said Segan. "Those were extras that stopped. The only thing we did in terms of digital work in that is we ramped down their stopping so it looked a little cooler and we put things in the air that were hanging—fruit and straw and debris."

Much of The Dead Zone’s innovative visual effects are born of a need for keeping production costs down. "The effects team works in so many different ways that sometimes it’s seamless. It’s about putting somebody in an environment that we couldn’t afford to shoot in the real world," said Segan. "For example, if somebody is in Paris, you’re going to see the Eiffel Tower in the background. Well, we didn’t go to Paris to shoot that; we may have put that in."

Above all, Segan stresses the importance of the storyline over any other element in the show, including the special effects. "Michael [Piller] and his team of writers don’t set out to go, let’s see what cool effects we can do in this episode. They come up with the greatest stories possible and then the effects are there to service the story," he said.

The Future’s So Bright...

Currently, The Dead Zone is in the middle of its second season. Given its success, it’s a safe bet there will be many more installments of the evolving tale of Johnny Smith and his psychic powers. Segan certainly has an eye toward the future. For one thing, he may consider a switch from 35mm film to an HD format. Although he says there are no plans to shoot in HD in the immediate future, "it is certainly a possibility as the technology gets better and better."

Sarah Stanfield is the managing editor. She can be reached at: sstanfield@uemedia.com.