Sci Fi resurrects Battlestar Galactica for a 21st century overhaul. Tara DiLullo reports back on how modern vfx are breathing new life into an old sci-fi warhorse.
Holy Cylons! Sci Fis ramped up and revised Battlestar Galactica for the new millennium sure isnt your daddys genre show. While the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica will always hold a special place for diehard fans, its plain to see that the cult show doesnt hold up well compared to 21st century standards. The cheesy outfits and visual look may have delighted back in its day, but the concept was in serious need of updating to become relevant for todays savvy audiences. Enter exec producer Ron Moore and his vision for a bigger, bolder, more focused reworking of the beloved concept. Working to engender fan support and understanding for the new project, Moore even created a mission statement before the miniseries that premiered last year that basically said, Our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of the science fiction television series. We take as a given the idea that the traditional space opera, with its stock characters, techno-double-talk, bumpy-headed aliens, thespian histrionics and empty heroics has run its course and a new approach is required. That approach is to introduce realism into what has heretofore been an aggressively unrealistic genre. Call it Naturalistic Science Fiction.
It was that mandate that drove the creative vision for the Battlestar Galactica miniseries that earned huge ratings on the Sci Fi Channel last year and became the template for the spin-off television series premiering this January on the network. Battlestar Galactica: The Series, starring Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, takes up right after the miniseries ended with humans losing the war against the Cylon robots. The battered Battlestar Galactica crew speed toward the fabled 13th colony, Earth, while Galactica commander Adama (Olmos) and president Laura Roslin (McDonnell) face waning supplies, crushed morale and the pursuing Cylons.
The bulk of the creative team on the mini made the leap to the series, including visual effects supervisor Gary Hutzel. A veteran of space special effects from his work on the Star Trek franchise, including Deep Space 9, Hutzel wasnt immediately sure he wanted to venture back into the star-filled abyss again when he was offered Battlestar Galactica. I knew Ron Moore from Star Trek, Hutzel details. My first love is working with miniatures and I prefer supervising projects that are really design oriented. I had done a lot of space already, but when I read [Moores] mission statement about the show, I knew he was serious. I just wasnt sure his seniors were going to allow him to follow through with it. So I went in to talk to them and the tools were all there and the premise was in place and he was getting support to make it happen. I talked to the mini art director and had an in depth discussion about design and I was given complete control over the spaceships. With that measure of control, I knew I could press my vision for the visual effects for the show. It all came down to trust and with Ron, David Eick, the exec producer, and the director, Michael Rymer, I was completely on board. I was a Battlestar Galactica convert. It was really a perfect match. All of us have the same vision, so the project is very blessed with a cooperative effort from everyone.
Cooperative effort. Not always the case in a project of this stature, but Hutzel says that ideal and Moores mission statement permeate every aspect of the show. It especially helps guide the visual effects process considering the very atypical approach to filming the series. The way we approach things on this show is so radically different from any other show, he insists. It is chaos! But we really embrace that on the series. We are all willing to let it happen. We started this project with Michael, who is very much into method acting and encourages it with the actors. Its one of the elements that brought so much life into the show. For instance, there is a military advisor on set at all times when Michael is directing. All the actors went to a boot camp prior to the miniseries production to learn military form. So there is quite a bit of attention to detail in the show. In working with Michael, one of the things that occurred to me is to ask myself was, is there such a thing as method visual effects?
I think, yes, there is and thats what Ive been doing on this show, he continues. What that means is interactions and letting things grow. There are always two or three roaming cameras on the set, so that is difficult for a DP that needs to prepare a scene to be shot. Michael will come into a scene and just let it evolve. Hes a true method director and our producer, of course, wants him dead, he laughs. He never makes a day, but he gets superior performances that wayYeah, its tough for production and it can be painful and absorbing. Ultimately, when you step away from it, you do say I dont know how much longer this can go before it blows up, but its all about making the show better.
Due to those challenges, Hutzel says hes very hands-on with every aspect of the production process, from filming to editing. I insist on being on the set. Its not an option on this show because it all evolves from the set. I have to be the cop. I help shape the work with the directors for each episode. Most guest directors are quite shocked by the set when they show up. Even when Eddie Olmos directed an episode, he came out wanting to do this extremely elaborate shot that kept growing as we discussed it. What was budgeted to be a single set extension turned into a triple, but I let it happen because it was something I could work with in post. In this case, he got two out of three things he wanted and it was a terrific shot and it wouldnt have happened if I was inflexible. And on a show like Battlestar Galactica, you need complete cooperation and so I work closely with editor, Dany Cooper. We have a challenging, but rewarding relationship where we work to have integration between what we do.
Hutzels work on the miniseries set the foundation for the overall design and reworking of the classic ships that are now used in the new series. In figuring out how to upgrade from the original `70s show, Hutzel went back and established what would stay or go. Looking at the original series, it struck me that it was all the same four ship shots used over and over, he chuckles. They had nothing to work with, but they made it work.
In my mind, the Viper is everything. The show is all about it. If the Viper was too slick or weird, it wasnt going to happen. Before we even had a first review pass with the Sci Fi executives, I had gotten a complete 3D model made of the design and brought it with me. It was the only design for it and it was never questioned. We incorporated a retro look for the ships and we went right to Lee Stringer at the effects house, Zoic Studios. Hes an expert on Battlestar Galactic and is knowledgeable about all of the physical constructs of the miniatures from the original show. Lee was able to go back and identify original kits used on the original series and created 3D models of the pieces and applied them to our new ships.
I designed everything to go right into the series, he continues. I knew if we went into series, we would have one third of the budget that we had for the miniseries. So we applied the models that we had already created for the mini into the show. For the series, we werent able to afford Zoic Studios totally, but they wanted to keep working on the show. So we created this great partnership between Zoic Studios and Atmosphere VFX in Vancouver. Merging the two companies work into an integrated look has taken the bulk of Hutzels time.
There is a lot of variety, but its organized in a way that visually doesnt impact the show, he explains. I started out on Galactica feeling it would go to series so I wanted to do the 3D work on a cost-effective platform. I decided to use LightWave, which is great for spaceships and hard body animation. In doing the Cylons, I found we got much better results when we rebuilt the original model in 3ds max or in Maya, which are better for character animation. Once we transitioned that into 3ds max, we got much better results. At Zoic, we have a very streamlined workflow. We do all the 3D in LightWave and do a rough composite in combustion. All final compositing is done in HD flame, so we can make changes quickly. At Atmosphere, its a different workflow, but we get an identical look. We start in LightWave, so we are all using the same models. They go to Digital Fusion for compositing. We final everything in Fusion there. It works out and they have enough of a staff that I have the flexibility to go back and they can tinker for me.
While Hutzel isnt able to reveal too many specifics about the effects on the series without giving away spoilers, he is able to share an overview of what is asked of his team. The bulk of Battlestar Galactica is spaceships and space shots. As far as visual effects shot counts are concerned, we range from as many as 70 shots in an episode to the smallest episode, `Colonial Day, which had about seven or eight shots in total. It ranges quite a bit. The final two episodes of the season are both double pattern shows, so there is a mountain of work there. We are doing a lot of R&D for that show. Episode 13, `Kobols Last Gleaming, has the most expensive and complex shots yet for the series. A good example of the cooperation on the show is working with Ron Moore and his writing team on episode 10, `The Hand of God. They warned me months in advance that they had an impossible episode. They always say that to me because they know I will do it, he laughs. The episode has a tremendous battle scene and they didnt have the resources to do what they wanted. But we ended up with 40 sophisticated shots, because it was a cooperative effort with Zoic and Atmosphere. Atmosphere primarily did that show and they did a terrific job. Zoic and Atmosphere are both in the right mind to do Battlestar. They are open and cooperative and there isnt that feeling that we are going to screw them because most people that I know in my position have an adversarial relationship the houses. I didnt want to do that.
In Rod Hardys episode, Act of Contrition, that was supposed to be a small show, but we put in a very dramatic Cylon sequence that grew out of Rods desire to really push the envelope, Hutzel continues. He really went to bat for the sequence, and we able to come up with a very dynamic sequence. Normally, your first reaction as a supervisor is to say, `Youre not going to shoot this! You dont have the day to do this! What I worked on with Ron was to storyboard the sequence completely and simplify the plate shooting and gave him complete freedom. By working with him, we didnt go over budget and he got a sequence he was very happy with.
After being so reticent to return to space, Hutzel says this show is proving to be a superior experience. Doing Battlestar is different. Each show has a unique set of demands. Its such a cooperative effort that personally, my favorite part is doing the design work with the directors, as opposed to the execution. The management is not very exciting but its an important element. Im very proud of the management. As far as the visual effects, executing the work is quite diffused. When I get to the end to look at the sequence, its successful, but its so collaborative, my role is just fine-tuning eye focus and such. Its less about a cool spaceship. Its more conceptual. Its about how it worked at the end of the show. When you get there its not about the visual effects. Its about Captain Lee Adama and his relationship with his father. On other shows, it is about the effects. There is pleasure in doing that, but in this show I find myself not watching the visual effects but the performances, which is exactly what Ron Moore wants. It should never distract from the human drama. People are really going to watch this show for the drama and that will be my greatest success.
Battlestar Galactica: The Series debuts Jan. 14 on the Sci Fi Channel.
Tara DiLullo is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI-FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the Websites atnzone.com and ritzfilmbill.com.