TechRadar was given exclusive on-set access to the filming of Kirill, Microsoft's new sci-fi series that's set to take the internet by storm.
Halliford Film Studios is slap-bang in the middle of Suburbia. Based in Shepperton and a stone's throw from the Shepperton Studios – the famed home of sci-fi classic Alien – Halliford's humble backlot is the somewhat more low-key venue for a new breed of science-fiction drama.
"It's like Royston Vasey round here," says our chaperone as he opens the door to the set. "But come inside and it's pretty special."
And special it is. In front of us is a small but impressive-looking set built amongst the chaos of a soundstage that's littered with cables, half-empty polystyrene coffee cups and lots of gaffer tape.
Monitoring the situation
TechRadar's first glimpse of Kirill – Microsoft's ambitious new web project and the UK's first interactive science fiction show to be broadcast online – is on a monitor, where actor David Schofield's worried-looking, badly beaten face fills the screen.
Schofield, who has starred in blockbusters such as Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean, plays a scientist who is trying to save the Earth from an environmental disaster, by reporting back from 50 years in the future. Various members of the crew are huddled round in anticipation of the scene, at the centre of the action are co-directors Ollie and Lewis.
Suddenly, the red light to signal filming flicks on, someone shouts "action" and there's total silence.
Schofield is acting most of his scenes with no dialogue, with voiceover to be added in post-production. The silence is broken by Schofield flinging a tape machine to the floor – a pivotal prop of the show.
After the cut, TechRadar manages to get a proper look inside the actual set. The size of a small room – to be fair, it is meant to be a small room – three crew members contort their bodies to fit in the diminutive confines and behind the camera.
Schofield is in the middle, the screen of his computer – a Windows-based PC – flickering.
Computers are integral to Kirill. Not just in plot, but in realisation. The show is spread across myriad online Microsoft platforms – blogs, MSN, Messenger and webcasts. Microsoft is hoping Kirill will spiral viral-like into everyday internet life.
The show is as multi-layered as any videogame. In fact, it is a game – a guessing one, with the viewer trying to figure out just what is going on.
Echoes of Lost, Torchwood and Dr Who reverberate through the show. The nature of time is a particular plot point, as is current events. The Large Hadron Collider plays a significant role, malfunctioning and bringing the world to chaos – much like what was predicted in the media when the device was turned on just last month, and which has now (eerily) broken down.
TechRadar visited the set of Kirill when the shoot was nearing its end; the climax of a hectic week for the filmmakers. Each episode (or webisode) may only be three minutes long, but as 10 episodes have to be shot in the space of five days, everyone is working at a breakneck speed. To help things move quicker, scenes have been filmed in order, so continuity isn't too much of a problem, and takes have been kept to around four.
Shot like a film
Although Kirill is a web-based project, it is being shot like a film, in HD, in case there's a move in the future to TV or other platforms like Xbox Live.
The show isn't a flash in the pan for Microsoft, with the company hoping that Kirill is a prologue to much bigger things and has more episodes planned.
Utilising Silverlight, a Microsoft application that delivers high-quality video on the web, the show will be broadcast weekly on the MSN homepage, and also shown on various video-upload sites, including YouTube.
For Kirill to work, however, Microsoft needs to prove that the show is entertainment first and foremost and not just an advertisement for the company. This is the tricky part, as it has been made with an overall intention of being a platform to get people familiar with the various online Microsoft services, as well as providing entertainment.
Just as a TechRadar turns sceptical about the whole thing, we glance at a storyboard of one of the episodes. Covered in Post-its, the drawing reveals where Kirill is hiding and what happens at the end of the series. Without giving too much away, it's fair to say that the scope of the web-drama is as high concept as anything churned out by the likes of JJ Abrams, with the directors assuring us that there's a proper three-act structure that's played over all 10 of the episodes.
At the fringe
One person who is not at all sceptical about the show is its main – and mostly sole – actor. "I love the new media platform we are working on with Kirill," says Schofield. "The audience for the show is not entirely different to that of theatre. Viewers will be able to give almost immediate commentary and criticism."
He continues: "I started 40 years ago in the Fringe Theatre, with the likes of John Osborne, David Mamet and Arthur Miller. At the time it was at the cutting-edge, new and exciting.
"Now I am almost 60 and I am back once more at that cutting edge and it's great. But it doesn't matter how good the technology behind Kirill is. If you haven't got a good story, forget it. Luckily, the quality of this project, and the people working on it, is fantastic."
The first webisode for Kirill is available now at www.msn.co.uk/kirill. The series is being produced by Endemol.