Dr. Horrible-Sized Budget Creates Steampunk World of Riese

[show=rieseseries size=large]In the echo chamber that is pop culture, many sci-fi and fantasy genres feel overplayed, but unless you’re a Boing Boing addict, steampunk is not one of them. So the series Riese, launching today on YouTube and Koldcast, definitely has an opportunity to define the quirky combination of fictional technology and a Victorian-era aesthetic for the web video medium.

And it does so with style. Shot with a cinematic eye that demands watching in full-screen, Riese starts out deliberately and intriguingly in medias res. The first episode is almost entirely dialogue-free, introducing wounded Riese (Christine Chatelaine) and her pet wolf being hunted by unknown assailants, whose escape is only a brief interlude of peace.

It’s light on plot but a stylish introduction to the world of Eleysia, a crumbling kingdom described in great detail on the series’ web site, which also offers insight into why, exactly, Riese is being pursued. But for those who prefer to wait for answers, the next four episodes of the story’s first “chapter” will be released on a biweekly basis, running through the beginning of January 2010; a second chapter will begin shooting at the end of this month.

Series star Chatelaine (Sanctuary), is not the most natural martial artist I’ve ever seen, but the fight scenes are so tightly edited and scored that the combined effect is on par with anything you’d see on prime-time. And she’s otherwise a compelling heroine able to balance both strength and vulnerability; she’s also wearing an awesome leather outfit that is just one of the big hints of the time and money that’s been invested in the series.

According to series co-creator Ryan Copple, the costs of producing Riese (which was produced in Vancouver, B.C.) were “as much as was spent on [web series touchstone] Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” This, according to a recent Forbes profile, would mean that the budget was approximately $200,000, part of which came from private investors and part of which was supplied by Copple himself.

That number seems high for a series lacking major stars (though cast members Sharon Taylor, Ben Cotton, and Patrick Gilmore are established actors within the Vancouver TV scene — which means that they’ve all had major roles in various Stargate permutations). But the money is clearly seen on the screen via the use of the RED One camera, lush costumes and locations, and overall solid production values. Copple and his fellow producers are looking for a distributor for the series, but at this point, Riese is a gamble, albeit one that has serious potential to pay out big, depending on the show’s ability to build an audience. Will an ARG component and a forthcoming iPhone app be enough to make that happen? It’s a question I find almost as intriguing as the mystery of Riese herself.