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Fox's Reality Check : NEW SERIES ENTERS A DIMENSION VIRTUALLY UNTRAVELED IN NETWORK TV

March 05, 1995|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By day, shy Sydney Bloom, the protagonist of Fox's new sci-fi series "VR.5," is a telephone lineswoman. By night, she's a hacker on a home computer system. Bloom also possesses the unique ability to actually enter the world of virtual reality.

"VR.5," which premieres Friday in place of the network's low-rated "M.A.N.T.I.S.," is from executive producer John Sacret Young of "China Beach" acclaim. Lori Singer stars as Bloom; David McCallum ("The Man from U.N.C.L.E.") plays her presumed-dead father; Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") is Bloom's mother; and Anthony Stewart Head, a.k.a. the Taster's Choice coffee guy, plays a cold-blooded government representative.

Fletcher was drawn to the series because "it is creative." During a break in filming at a huge Culver City warehouse, she talks about how the series is working out for her. "It's fun. It's sort of like being a '50s mom. I grew up in the '50s and she is kind of an 'Ozzie and Harriet' mom. I love the state Lori's character is in. She is looking for answers. She knows they are out there and she needs to find out."

Bloom's life has been filled with tragedy. Her father, a neurobiologist on the cutting edge of virtual-reality research, was killed in a car crash 16 years earlier along with her twin sister. A drug overdose has left her psychologist mother in a catatonic state since the accident.

One night, Bloom's life changes when she accidentally taps into an open phone line and connects it to her computer modem, bringing the person on the other end into virtual reality. As Bloom brings herself and the person on the other line into this world, which she calls VR.5, she is able to affect real-world behavior. In fact, Bloom is able to converse with her mother and father in the VR world in hopes of discovering what happened to them that fateful night.

Her unique skill, though, doesn't escape the attention of "The Committee," a secret government organization that wants to use her ability for difficult assignments.

"VR.5" marks Singer's first TV series since appearing 13 years ago on "Fame." "It seemed like an interesting role," Singer says quietly. "It seems like the line between television and films is somewhat blurred these days. "

The opportunity to be one of the few actresses carrying an hour series also appealed to Singer, who shared the big screen with Kevin Bacon in the 1984 film "Footloose."

"We were really sick of males driving a series," says co-creator and supervising producer Michael Katleman, who has directed episodes of Fox's cult series "The X-Files," which precedes "VR.5."

"We really wanted it to be a female-driven action series just because it's about time," he adds. "Virtual reality is so new and fresh, anyone can do it."

Each episode contains three to five virtual-reality sequences. "Each trip takes two seconds," says Katleman, who had no knowledge of computers or virtual reality before tackling the show. "Fifteen minutes of screen time is two seconds in VR time."

The virtual-reality sequences have a surreal, dreamlike quality. The original concept was to give the actors a ghostlike pallor, "but still be able to see their features so you could get across the emotions, and then make the world that you are going into as intense, beautiful and vibrant as possible," Katleman explains. "We wanted to do as many effects on camera as possible."

For the pilot, the actors wore heavy pancake makeup, and the film was then overexposed. It wasn't an efficient or practical method. "We realized there is no way to do this (every week) because once you touch people the makeup comes off," Katleman says. "It was a nightmare."

CST Entertainment, a company that digitally colorizes black-and-white film frame by frame, came to the rescue. Now, scenes are shot in color and then stripped to black-and-white. "Then we colorize everything so you can be a little more specific," Katleman says. Each virtual-reality scene takes three weeks to complete.

Katleman acknowledges the series is a complicated endeavor. "What do people wear in VR? It has to be psychologically driven. What do they do? How do they act? We try to keep it fresh, different and honest, psychologically honest."

Offbeat camera angles and fact-paced editing also propel the sequences. "We tried to put specific sounds in VR," Katleman says. "If it's a bird chirping, it's a perfect sound. It's an opportunity to really manipulate the sounds and tell the story."

As for The Committee, Katleman describes the group as "corporate. It's government. It's the people who actually run things. Sometimes it's good; sometimes it's bad."

Not unlike Anthony Stewart Head's Oliver Sampson. "There are many facets to the character," says Head. "It's difficult to know if he is on the level. He's working for an unseen body who have an immense amount of influence and power without any accountability and are able to do all sorts of things. They manipulate Sydney. The fact he's their representative, you can't say he is the bad character. We see in one of the episodes what has turned him into the creature he is. We see something from his past."

Working for The Committee, Singer adds, is just an excuse for Bloom to enter the virtual-reality world. "She's always propelled by her heart. Even though she is a vulnerable person on the outside, she has this weird talent which allows her to find out information and really be able to help and affect a change."

*

"VR.5" premieres Friday at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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