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One of the final panels at the 2009 New York Comic Con was this panel featuring cast & crew of the upcoming Disney XD keystone show. Moderated by Jermaine Turner, head of development for Disney XD, the panel began first with a clip promoting the new channel which debuts next Friday. According to the promo, Aaron Stone will be joined by other programs such as: new series like Kid vs Kat and Jimmy Two Shoes; classic Disney Channel shows such as Even Stevens, Phil of the Future, the Suite Life of Zack and Cody; and new episodes of Phineas and Ferb.
The promo was promptly followed by a screening of both parts of Hero Rising, the series premiere. Turner advised that this was the first time the two-part episode was being shown to anyone outside the company, but this was half-right (if anything) since the first episode had been available to download for free from iTunes for a week (and most recently had been offered for download on the Xbox).
As you may imagine, I had already watched the first episode when it became available a week ago. I have to admit I was hesitant at first because I knew it would be hard enough for me to watch it (or most anything) a second time during the panel, but I was also afraid that I’d find it absolutely deplorable and impossible to digest so it lingered in the back of my mind that I really might not want to sit through it again. I’m pleased to say my fears were unfounded and I absolutely ended up looking forward to watching the episode again, especially in conjunction with the second half of the premiere.
For the uninitiated, Aaron Stone revolves around a high schooler named Charlie Landers who spends most of his free time playing a MMO (that’s short for massively multiplayer online role-playing game, such as World of Warcraft) called Hero Rising (to promote the series/channel launch, a Hero Rising website was created). In the MMO, billed as ‘not just a game,’ Charlie has risen to the position of top player with his character (avatar) known as Aaron Stone. The reality is that Hero Rising is a cover for a training program for a top secret organization led by the game’s creator, Hall Industries. When the bad guys known as the Omega Defiance eliminate one of the good guys, Hall has no choice but to recruit his best player against Charlie’s will.
I really did enjoy the first episode. What I expected was campy, done before mentality (let’s face it, the basic premise HAS been done before), cutesy stuff. What I got was a decently written (often downright clever and funny) show with okay-to-decent acting and some good eye candy (not so much the game itself unfortunately, which looked rather cheap compared to what games are capable of today) and action. Charlie (Kelly Blatz) is introduced to us as a great game player but not such the champion IRL (that’s gamespeak for ‘in real life’). While he somehow managed to make the school’s basketball team, Shaq’s free throws put his real life game play to shame. There’s really no denying the physical resemblance between Blatz and Shia LaBeouf from his Even Stevens days (just replace the ‘fro with mussed up hair) – there’s even some similar character traits at times. He’s just fashionably geeky enough to not lose the tween girl demographic.
When Hall (Martin Roach) loses his best man, he has no choice but to send his android STAN (Sentient Tactical Assisting Neo-human, portrayed by character actor J.P. Manoux) to collect and recruit Aaron Stone, aka Charlie Landers. This sets up for the scene of the show: a chase scene which features Charlie in some decent, mild parkour action. The show then follows Charlie as he conducts his otherwise humdrum game-driven life at home where he lives with his mother (Shauna MacDonald) and his younger teen brother Jason (David Lambert). Conveniently enough, Charlie has a new neighbor next door in the form of coy cutie Emma (Tania Gunadi of Even Stevens, Go Figure, Pixel Perfect, Star Trek and more). The two get off on the wrong foot (foots?) but quickly warm up to each other – an obvious budding relationship.
If there’s anything I feel the need to complain about with the first episode, it’s the pacing. It takes a long time to develop the story, which is somewhat understandable, but by the time the show is nearing the end, you just expect it to be further along. This is of course by design since the cliffhanger of the first episode comes shortly after Hall makes Charlie an offer he simply can’t refuse – for the world’s sake. I actually resented Disney for ending the show right there.
Fast forward to the screening of episode two earlier today (and by fast forward, I mean fast forward). The rapid pacing of the second episode makes up for the slowness of the first half. With no physical training required, Charlie (or Aaron Stone I should say) is handed his new suit and thrust into his very first mission to save the world from the evil rogue Dr. Necrose (Anthony J. Mifsud) and his right hand man-slash-cold blooded killer Souljacker (Ho Chow). Souljacker was charged and successfully obtained a rocket launcher to distribute a dangerous toxin and it’s now up to Aaron and his techno-charged super suit to stop him. Unfortunately Stone learns that while the suit’s equipment is exactly the same as in the game, there’s something lost in the translation to the real world, so his first encounter with Souljacker doesn’t go as ‘planned.’ Meanwhile, while Charlie continues to sit on the fence about committing himself to Hall Industries, Hall makes some serious plays to keep Charlie within his sight (despite being a quarter of the world away).
To bottom line it, Aaron Stone is a promising start to the Disney XD line-up. Or as I like to put it, a very good stepping Stone.
The panel concluded with a Q&A session featuring some of the cast along with the show’s creator, Bruce Kalish, which I’ve transcribed here to the best of my ability. Keep in mind that the majority of these questions were asked by children. At least up until the part where a debate about the show’s content almost broke out.
Q: How was the experience of filming it?
J.P. Manoux: Super fun. We film in Toronto, Canada. I’ve never been there before so it’s really exciting because it’s some place different. We shoot on stages and then we also shoot out on location, so sometimes we get to go to really exciting different places, some of them you saw in the pilot episode there and we often have stunts like you saw – big stunts and special effects – so every day it’s exciting.
Kelly Blatz: yeah like you saw in the first two episodes,we get to do so many things especially like driving that Ferrari, it’s always been a dream of mine to drive a Ferrari or Lambourghini and the first day I walk onto the set, they gave me the keys and said just drive it back and forth for about an hour. So just throughout the whole season, I’m going to be doing stunts and crazy – driving different cars, riding skateboards and stuff. It was just a blast and we had a great crew and a great cast we had to work with.
Q: How does he [STAN] take his head off? [Audience laughs]
JM: Do you want me to right now? [mocks taking head off] It’s camera tricks. Yeah, it’s all kind of stuff that I don’t know how they do it. We film me acting like I took off my head and then we use green screens in some parts, sometimes I wear something green and computer experts take all the video and they manipulate it and then cut it together and then later it looks like I really did take off my head, but no, I can’t do that for you right now.
Q: Did you use a lot of stunt doubles?
KB: Yeah, actually, I had a few stunt doubles. I have one that does all the fights and I have the guy on the skateboard who’s a stunt double and there was also a BMX one you haven’t seen yet. His name is name is Stephan and he’s just unbelievable, he can do anything gymnastics: fighting, flips. I got to do a lot of the fighting when they do the close-ups and stuff so I do get to do a lot of the fighting stunts but… my double Stephan, anything you’re impressed by, it’s not me. [Audience laughts]
JM: And Kelly’s being very modest too. As the season went along, he really became an accomplished stunt performer. Actually, everybody got to do… by the end of our first season, I think all of the characters got to get involved.
Q: How do they make it look like you’re jumping off walls?
KB: They don’t make it look like anything – that’s me – that’s all me. [Audience Laughs] No, they use a wire and what they do.. I get a harness on under the the suit and they use a wire and they safety rig it on the ceiling and so in post production, afer the show’s finished, they computer generate – they can take out the actual wire off the screen so it looks like I’m actually jumping off walls.
Bruce Kalish: And in that first episode you saw, all that big chase in the beginning was all done without any wires. It was actually done physically.
KB: Yeah, that is correct, sorry. There is a lot of amazing stunt work by Stephan. He was the one jumping off the stairs and stuff, that was all real.
Q: Was most of the stunts green screens and computer tricks?
KB: No, all the stunts were performed by a stunt double. I don’t think there was any green screens stunts in that one. We did use some green screen stunts throughout the shoot, but all that stuff in that whole chase scene with him jumping off walls and jumping down the stairs and doing flips, like, he did that flip off those stairs, he jumped over that fence, he’s a very, very talented guy. What they call it is parkour. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with it but it’s a bunch of running and jumping and flips and that’s all real.
Q: Are you actually brothers?
David Lambert: No, we’re not brothers.
KB: No, we’re not brothers, but we became like brothers throughout the shoot. He’s kind of like a little brother to me now so it’s not that hard to kind of imagine him as my little brother.
Q: If you could really save the world like you do on the show, would you do it in real life?
KB: In the show, he kind of has no choice. So I think if I had to and it was up to me.. yeah, I’d try to put myself in the situation when I knew I was doing the show and I think I would have to, yeah. I think anybody who is presented with that situation has just got to go for it because they’re the only person who can do it. So I think so, yeah.
Q: To the actors and actress, I was wondering how you got cast for the roles?
Tania Gunadi: Well I auditioned for it.. I think June 2007 and then the call back and then the call back to the Disney Channel for the producers and then I came back and read with Kelly and then they said okay, you’re going to Toronto.
DL: I went to an open call in LA and then from there I went to the Disney Channel building and I read for a room full of producers and then Kelly came on another day and I read with him. We did like some improv stuff and some scenes together and then J.P. came in and I remember when J.P. came in, I was a little starstruck because he’s from Phil of the Future and I used to watch that show and he’s been on E.R. as well, so for me it was like it’s really, really cool working with him and getting to audition with him. It’s awesome.
JM: And now I’m starstruck with him because he’s going to be on the cover of Tiger Beat [Audience laughs] and every other magazine. Yeah, I was on Phil of the Future before so the people at Disney already knew me but I auditioned for the part also and was just very lucky to get to play STAN the android.
KB: And for me.. for all of those kids who want to aspire to do anything or to be an actor or be anything you want to do, I worked at the Starbucks down the street from Disney and I had been auditioning, I had an agent, I’d been auditioning. And the first time I went into the building – I actually went in to go read for something else and they were like we think you’re going to be right for this thing, Aaron Stone. So they said go to the Disney building and audition and I went to the Disney building and the first thing that I did was I tried to go to the bathroom and I pulled the fire alarm. So the whole floor – the fire alarm is going off, they open the door, all the employees, the executives are poking their heads out like what idiot pulled the fire alarm? And I was like yeah, yeah, that’s me and I really just wanted to leave and not even go to the audition and I walked into the room, it was like a room full of producers and they said.. I’m like yeah, that was me who pulled the fire alarm, I’m sorry, I could just leave and they’re like no, and I read and thankfully I was somebody they saw as this character and they told me a couple of days later. So any mistake or any that you make, just go for it, because it could just work out like that.
Q: The technology, the gadgets that are in the movie, the special effects. How much of that is a product of research and how much was imagination? Is any of this stuff close to real from what you’ve found? Is this stuff that actually exists somewhere? The FBI, the CIA, or is it just your imagination?
BK: I think it’s a combination of both of information we read about combined with imagination from our writers. It’s using what is technology today and just amping it up to what we think is a few years in the future.
Q: what was your favorite part about filming?
JP: For anyone in particular?
Q: Well, for Tania [Audience Laughs]
TG: Well, let’s see.. my favorite part is to be able to imagine things in a good way and I get to play a different character and not myself so it’s just fun to experiment and then work with the cast. That’s it!
Q: What do you guys do when you’re not shooting?
KB: I spend the time I’m not shooting, I play in a band, I sing in a band. So when I’m not working on the show, I’m working with the band every day. I also like to read a lot and I live in California so I like to surf and snowboard and skateboard. I grew up doing all that stuff.
JM: I’m on a soccer team so I have soccer practice certain nights of the week and we have games every Tuesday night, so that’s the thing I’m focusing on right now.
Q: Is it [unintelligible]?
JM: Yeah! it’s fun to play soccer.
DL: I play video games.. a lot. [Audience laughs] I think I’m the only gamer on the cast actually. I tried to turn them onto it, but, you know. I mean Tania plays some video games.
KB: I play Rock Band, Guitar Hero -
TG: Yeah, I’m really good at that.
KB: Left 4 Dead
BK: I play Pong [Audience laughs] What?
BK: And then we also have in the audience, we have Ram from the two brothers, Jesse Rath. And we cast a character later on called Tatiana and we cast this woman named Megan Rath who turned out to be Jesse’s sister, we didn’t even know it at the time.
Q: Is it fun to play a robot?
JM: Yeah, it’s really fun to play a robot. Do you have any favorite robots that you’ve seen in other tv shows or comic books or things? Because I used to watch a show called Star Trek: Next Generation and there was a character named Data and I really liked Data. So when this part came along, I was very excited. And I fall I apart too. You saw my head come off. In other episodes, you’ll see I lose an arm or leg or something so that’s always funny to play.
Q: Did it hurt when you got slammed into the window?
KB: Yes, it’s funny actually. They were like okay, we need to make you look like you slammed into that window really hard and actually Stephan with the big shot where you see him jump up, that was actually Stephan on a wire but they’re like okay, we need to do a close-up of you during it so I stood outside and that window is actually three feet off the ground so I squatted down and I just jumped up and I’m like I gotta make it look like I hit this so I really just jumped into the window and slammed my face on it so.. it was a lot of fun and banged up my cheek a little bit, but I think it looked like I did it.
JM: Don’t try that at home.
KB: Don’t do it, don’t do it.
Q: Did you guys play any pranks on the set? Any classic jokes or anything? [Panel laughs]
DL: We tried.
JM: One of our directors, because we have a different director every week on the show. one of our directors was in an episode that I was directing – he was playing a goon, a thug. So we didn’t tell Kelly, but he’s just supposed to stand there and hand Kelly the blueprints and – we didn’t tell Kelly, but – we prepared a whole monologue for this guy Larry to say. So the cameras are rolling, action!, they start the scene, Kelly has his line and then all of a sudden, this other guy launches into like a five minute monologue. [Audience chuckles] And Kelly’s so focused and in character, he just keeps standing there and nodding and looking at him, looking at him.
KB: I thought it was like he took this as the moment to shine. [Panel and audience laugh] You know, I’m like here he sees this moment to just go for it and I’m like.. I’m just gonna stay in this, it’s a little weird, but I’m going to do it. And then he said something about my leather pants and every one started laughing and yeah, thanks a lot.
Q: Will there be a Hero Rising video game?
BK: You betcha.
TG: You can go to herorising.com and test your skill levels first.
BK: Yeah, there will be an Aaron Stone game I believe.
Q: Do Dave and Tania get in on the action pretty soon? Do they find out Aaron Stone is really Aaron Stone?
TG: That’s a secret
DL: There’s a lot of moments where Jason almost finds out but you never know, you never know.
BK: But Jason is involved in action throughout the year and so is Tania.
Q: Do you like being Aaron Stone?
KB: Yes, I do actually. For all you guys, you know, I grew up loving superheroes and Batman was like my guy and to be able to play like a real superhero on a show is a dream of every body’s so I couldn’t be more excited to be part of this and to play Aaron Stone. So yeah, I’m very, very excited.
Q: Is there anything you don’t like about playing Aaron Stone?
KB: Exact opposite. No, actually. I can’t say anything negative, it’s just so much fun doing all the stunts. It’s just an amazing, amazing show. I could say maybe the suit gets a little hot in the summer. That’s about it.
Q: How did you shoot the lasers in the suit?
KB: The lasers unfortunately do not really come out – well, when I’m shooting it, I have to actually pretend like lasers are coming out because it’s all visual effects. So actually when I watch the show, then I see the lasers in it. It looks like I am, but while I’m shooting, lasers do not come out.
Q: Does the show pay better than Starbucks? [Audience laughs]
KB: No, Starbucks pays better. We got tips and insurance at Starbucks, so, I’m going back. Forget this.
Q: First of all, Tania, we loved you in Go Figure a few years ago. My kids watch that all the time. Obviously, PJ (sic), the kids love you in everything. As a parent, this show’s a big departure from what Disney usually does. Go Figure and everything else on the Disney Channel doesn’t have martial arts. Is this show going to be filled with that? Or is it gonna be more of his life, Aaron Stone’s life, in high school and relationships and everything?
BK: It’s going to be a balance of everything, like the pilot. There’s really good, wholesome family values in it and there’s a responsibility that the Charlie character feels for his family and the love for his brother and his mom played throughout and we’ll have big action.
Q: Would you say this is marketed more toward older children than the younger ones like on the Disney Channel?
Jermaine Turner: It’s a similar demo, 6-14 and our sweet spot is 9-11 but the idea is all kids.
Q: But the martial arts could get a little too much if the kids try it at home and run them down.
JT: We took that into account and we tried to focus more on the message than the fighting so as the show goes on, we’ll have more adventure set pieces and opposed to fighting.
Q: Does it really hurt when you jump into stuff? [Audience chuckles]
KB: Most of it, I usually don’t have to jump into things. It’s usually either my stunt double or they make it look like I actually fell. Like being dragged by the truck, that wasn’t me so if Stephan was here, I’m sure he would say that getting hurt, he gets banged up sometimes and he actually really kinda goes for it. I’ve actually never really been hurt except for that crazy window stunt that you saw – pretty heavy duty. But no, not really.
The panel concluded with the guest speakers autographing mini-posters.
“Aaron Stone” is an original live-action, single camera adventure series about Charlie Landers, a teenager who’s enlisted to become the real-life version of a crime-fighting online game character. Starring are Kelly Blatz, David Lambert, JP Manoux (“ER,” Disney Channel’s “The Emperor’s New School” and “Phil of the Future”) and Tania Gunadi (Disney Channel’s “Pixel Perfect” and “Go Figure”). The creator and executive producer is Bruce Kalish (Disney Channel’s “The Famous Jett Jackson”) and executive producer is Suzanne French (“Overruled!” “Life with Derek”). The series is produced in HD format by Shaftesbury Services II, Inc.
Disney XD will reach over 72 million households via its basic cable affiliates. Disney XD is the seventh brand in the kid-driven, family inclusive TV and radio business of The Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS). The global portfolio encompasses Playhouse Disney, Disney Channel, Radio Disney, Disney Cinemagic, Toon Disney and Jetix.