SANTA FE, N.M. — Cast and crew are bundled in winter clothing against a harsh wind blowing down the northern New Mexico mountainside near Santa Fe.
They've been shooting here since 7:30 in the morning most of the week, up to 16 hours a day in wind, rain, bitter nighttime cold and bright fall sunshine.
Nothing unusual for the actors and technicians filming "Earth 2," NBC's new space-adventure series. Production started in June, just as Santa Fe was entering its hottest summer on record. Now, early in the fall, there's already been snow.
At lunch in a drafty mess tent a few feet from the set, first-time director Michael Grossman is trying to wolf down a steak and trimmings. He's anxious to finish shooting his daytime footage before the light fades, then set up for a night scene.
"We've found some incredibly unusual areas in New Mexico to shoot," he says between bites. "We try to augment them from time to time--like we have a couple of night scenes that have two moons we put in the sky."
Two moons? Well, this isn't Earth anymore, Toto. This is "Planet G-889," an earth-like orb somewhere else in the galaxy and the setting for "Earth 2's" space-traveling adventurers 200 years in the future.
Actually, New Mexico's locales for "Earth 2" don't need much "augmenting" to resemble another planet. They suffice pretty well on their own, thank you--from a strange geological formation called Tent Rocks on the Cochiti Indian reservation to vertical sandstone cliffs near Tesuque; from a gypsum canyon near Abiquiu to dense cottonwood groves on the banks of the Rio Grande.
"We scouted Australia," says supervising producer Tony To, "we scouted Canada, we scouted all over the United States to give us a unique look, a terrain that was virgin and yet majestic, to remind us that we were on another planet."
What they found in northern New Mexico was not only spectacular otherwordly terrain but a vast range of climate. Just the thing for the story's characters, all but one of whom had never set foot on a "real" planet before they crash-landed on G-889. They had spent their lives on a sterile Earth-orbiting space colony and didn't know wind from rain or snow from dust.
"It's really been an adventure," says To, "not just for the characters in our story but for the crew and cast."
Although "Earth 2" is based at the College of Santa Fe's Garson Studios, most of the series is shot outdoors, braving the kind of climate that gives special-effects technicians a New Mexico-size headache.
"Sometimes the weather comes up and it gets too cold for things to work, sometimes it's too hot and things melt," special-effects coordinator Kevin Pike says ruefully. "You have to deal with that on a weekly basis, and I fear that the snow is going to be the biggest challenge that we've got coming."
Actor Antonio Sabato Jr. ("General Hospital"), who co-stars as a hotshot spaceship pilot, isn't fazed by the difficult conditions.
"We've got to work under the circumstances," he says during a break in filming. "The snow, the rain, the wind, the cold--what have I left out? I love it here. I really, really love it here."
What he left out was heat; summer temperatures sometimes soar well above 100 degrees. This is high desert country, after all, and the weather can be uncertain--blistering heat and blustery rain storms in the space of a few hours. But it's fall now, and the mountains that flank the high desert already are mantled with snow.
Sabato's enthusiasm for rugged locations and roller-coaster climate is shared by co-star Debrah Farentino ("Equal Justice," "NYPD Blue), who plays the expedition leader.
"I'm bruised and battered from this," she says between takes of a difficult scene. "But that's what I love. It sure beats sitting on a sound stage."
A week after leaving the mountainside location, the crew sets up next to a towering sandstone cliff near Tesuque.
Equipment and commissary trucks are parked in a clearing near the highway between Santa Fe and Taos, but the set is a mile or so down a rutted dirt road.
Cameras and lights are perched precariously on the edge of an outcropping, directly under a sandstone overhang that looks as though it may crumble if someone sneezes.
The sun is out but the air is still frigid. Waiting to reshoot a scene with actor Tim Curry, child actress J. Madison Wright, who just turned 10, wears a ski outfit to keep warm.
When it's time for a take, she peels down to a light shirt and shorts because the scene originally was shot in summertime. She does it five or six times without complaint, displaying the kind of fortitude that cast and crew will need as the days stretch into winter. But northern New Mexico's natural beauty may be the buffer they need against a rigorous routine.
"It's the most physically challenging job I've ever had," Farentino says. "It's also the most physically stimulating job I've ever had. We are usually moving all the time, hiking all the time, yet it's so much more stimulating than being on a stage. I love being outside--especially in New Mexico."'
"Earth 2" airs Sundays at 7 p.m. on NBC.