'Sanctuary' in Sci Fi's world

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Sci Fi Channel has greenlighted "Sanctuary," the first television series to use live-action actors against virtual sets in the style of the features "300" and "Sin City."

Sci Fi has ordered a full 13-episode season of the new scripted drama series, which originated online as the first high-definition sci-fi Web series.

"Sanctuary" hails from the "Stargate SG-1" trio of star Amanda Tapping, writer-producer Damian Kindler and producer-director Martin Wood, who are executive producing the series with Sam Egan.

Tapping stars as the enigmatic Dr. Helen Magnus who is on a quest with her young protege, Will Zimmerman (Robin Dunne), to track down, aid and protect strange creatures that walk the earth.

Kindler created "Sanctuary," while Wood directed the webisodes starring Tapping.

Because of Sci Fi's ties with Tapping, Kindler and Wood through the "Stargate" franchise, the network's brass had discussed "Sanctuary" with them even before it launched as a Web series. Talks shifted into high gear when the trio came back with a DVD containing two one-hour blocks of webisodes.

"We were blown away by the level of quality they have been able to achieve on a Web budget," Sci Fi exec vp original programming Mark Stern said. "We loved the world they'd created, and we particularly loved their approach, since we had been looking for a way to apply the virtual-set CGI environment from films like '300' and 'Sin City' to a television series."

TV networks have been trying to use CGI-generated environments on TV series, most notably ABC's efforts with "Dinotopia." But "this is the first time the technology is mature enough and inexpensive enough to do it," Stern said.

"Sanctuary," which features 90% CGI sets, will be retooled for its transition to television, including the creation of a new two-hour premiere episode and expanding some characters. Still, a lot of the footage from the Web series will be used, with some enhancement of the visual effects and the CGI background to play better on the TV screen.

The cast from the Web series will remain intact.

"Sanctuary" launched online last year using a subscription model, but many of its webisodes found their way to YouTube.

The series, produced by Stage 3 Media in association with the Sci Fi Channel, is slated to begin production in March. While, by most estimates, the writers strike will be over by then, that is not a factor for the show, whose production is strike-proof because it is based in Canada. Sci Fi's "Stargate Atlantis" is in a similar position and will begin filming its fifth season in a couple of weeks. Tapping, who co-starred on that series last season, will return for several episodes.

Sci Fi's decision to forgo a pilot and go for a straight 13-episode series order for "Sanctuary" dovetails recent statements by NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker that the company's new mandate is to order more projects straight to series. Stern called that a coincidence, noting that the network's decision was based on the fact that execs had seen material from the Web series.

The international distribution of "Sanctuary" is handled by Tricon Films and Television.

Kimberly Nordyke in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
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