A mere month after the end of Battlestar Galactica, Universal offers the unrated pilot to prequel Caprica on DVD, and Tara Bennett gets the scoop from VFX Supervisor Gary Hutzel.
Despite the fact that the Battlestar Galactica series came to a close in March, the world and mythology reworked by Ron Moore and David Eick is far from over. The SCI FI Channel (soon to be SyFy) has The Plan, an original two-hour movie from the robotic Cylons' perspective, on deck for the fall and the new prequel series Caprica in prep to debut in January 2010. Of course, that's still a while away for pining fans, so Universal Home Ent. has made the bold move of releasing the unrated pilot for Caprica for purchase on DVD and digital download today.
As it turns out, Gary Hutzel, the Emmy award-winning visual effects supervisor on Galactica, and his in-house Universal visual effects team are staying with the franchise, creating the visual effects for both The Plan and Caprica. Providing VFXWorld with some tantalizing insight into what to expect from the new series in terms of visuals and the overall aesthetic, Hutzel talks to us exclusively about their work on the Caprica pilot and his expectations for the new series.
Setting the context for their recent work on the various franchise projects, Hutzel explains, "It turns out with Caprica that we did the pilot and we completed it with previs and presented it to the studio and network. But at the time they presented, they didn't feel they had the ability to pick it up so it sat there. Our scheduled delivery date was October  and it sat and sat and sat. Everyone knew it was a winner but they had no scheduled date or game plan for a pick-up. When they did find out about the pick-up [in December 2008], then there was a new game plan from the DVD folks that wanted to release it in April '09. For that to happen, they needed it months in advance so that became a panic for us because it had to be done immediately. And that pushed the delivery for the Battlestar finale, so we were working seven days a week for four months to put these shows out."
Aside from the work crunch, Hutzel says Caprica also represents a big change in terms of the kinds of effects they creating for the mythology. "You'll find that Caprica has the same dramatic textures as Galactica with the seriousness and the attention to keeping it real and connected. But the texture of the show is different. It's not a gritty, documentary. In its style of shooting and its color palette, it's much more of a standard drama. They are going for a vaguely '50s look by using sepia and saturated colors. There's a muted color range done primarily by removing a lot of the blues. For us that's not a particular issue at all. Galactica had an iron-clad design element, which was the documentary style. This is much less so and more about saturated tones and beautiful photography and it doesn't impact us as far as design is concerned. The elements of the design are pretty straightforward.
"I met with Jane Espenson, who will be executive producer and showrunner by mid-season," Hutzel adds, "and we talked about what they want to accomplish with Caprica." As some background, the series takes place 58 years before the events of Battlestar Galactica and deals with the infancy of the robotic Cybernetic Lifeform Nodes, or Cylons. The 12 Colonies, which include Caprica, are peaceful but the underlying issues that will eventually lead to the annihilation of humankind begin in this series. One of those big issues is the development of artificial intelligence. The first version of the Cylons created is called the U-87, which actually looks like a more primitive Cylon from the original Battlestar 1978 series. But this robot isn't just a collection of impersonal metal and bolts. It's created through the investment of wealthy technologist Daniel Graystone (Eric Stolz), who is obsessed with the idea of reincarnating his newly-deceased 14-year old daughter Zoe (Alessandra Toressani) as a cyborg. The story reveals before her death the young girl, who was also quite brilliant, managed to download "rudimentary elements of her personality and DNA into the machine," forging this astounding hybrid that elicits all sorts of moral and ethical quandaries.
"Obviously Caprica involves the U-87 and Zoe's continued life as U-87," Hutzel continues. "So we talked about the first six or seven episodes and how virtual reality is going to be integrated into the storyline because that will involve us. I did a pilot for Ron [Moore] called Virtuality and we did hundreds of greenscreen comps where we put in heightened backgrounds. What was requested for that was a similar situation of virtual worlds where they can escape to where the environments are vivid and interactive. I took some of that work over and showed it to Jane and the other writers and they got quite excited by it. They want to integrate some of that into Caprica so the virtual environments become more of a player in the events that occur. I'm not clear how that works yet in the storytelling. It could be a separate tool to allow them to keep Zoe alive perhaps, but there is probably going to be a virtual Caprica.
"But because of the nature of the show itself and the fact that a 14-year-old is in charge of the robot, that gives us a tremendous amount of latitude. Also I think that Jane being the executive producer will also have an impact on our freedom to express a wide range of emotions with the U-87. Now the U-87, per the requirements of the show, isn't inherently an expressive robot, so we have to work with that. But it is a much better tool for the storytelling than we had in Battlestar. The Centurion we had in that show was a highly-designed robot and was meant to look like it was stylishly built by the creators because of their high sense of art and god. So that was the premise as opposed to it being functional and that's what we did with it. Primarily, its basic function in the show was to walk in and get blown up," he laughs. "We're past that now and I'm looking forward to expanding that character and what it can do in Caprica."
Hutzel hopes they are able to explore other robots as well but probably not in season one. "I think season one is Zoe's exploration and the conflicts between the different races in Caprica and the other planets," he explains. "Zoe will be a second storyline to see where she is going. Finding out how she comes to grips with the U-87 is probably not going to be until the second season and how her control is expanding... that's my guess. They are ruffling in the stories now but it has all the promise of the pilot and all the internal conflict between the colonies, including the general Galactica theme of man's cruelty to man. It's equally powerful whether it's different countries or worlds fighting amongst themselves."
Hutzel says their work on the Caprica pilot isn't as ambitious in terms of special extended sequences like its precursor Razor, which featured exclusive DVD-only scenes from his team. "I am pretty sure that the extended version is primarily live action and quite a bit of footage that would be inappropriate for broadcast. There's sex and a knifing sequence with blood spurting!"
As to his crew, Hutzel says they have remained intact from Galactica. "Our principal artists are here on the lot at Universal [in Los Angeles] and whether we carry a team up in Vancouver hasn't been decided yet. Certainly having a seasoned team from L.A. working here on the lot has been tremendously successful. Universal is even thinking about pushing the two departments [writing and visual effects] together. We are only about 150 feet apart now but they are thinking about sharing offices to keep the momentum."
As of March, Hutzel says he and his team have shifted over to working on the pre-production for The Plan and won't touch anything on Caprica again until late summer. "Sometimes I think Universal have a special staff to torture us," Hutzel laughs. "They have an exotic delivery schedule which is to slam the first ten episodes and then the second 10 don't air until 2011. We have no idea what that means. We know for sure they have developed a hopeless delivery schedule for the first 10 and we are going to have to deal with it. They don't start shooting [Caprica] until July and then want to air in January '10. They have to get them shot, edited and locked before we can start working on them. If they had gone into the usual shooting schedule, shooting earlier, it would have been perfect for us. As it is we have to languish here for awhile but fortunately we do have The Plan, which we are working on now and will take us through that bridge."
Aside from the scary turnaround window, Hutzel shares that he is excited about the potential of this new project. "I think that Caprica has a lot of promise and going into the series will be very telling. I think it will be very important to get the right directors. I hope they bring some Galactica directors back for Caprica because they understand how to keep the reality moving. They've done excellent casting on Caprica and it's quite obvious in the pilot. Now it's a matter of keeping the stories real and cohesive so the actors have something to work with. We do have a big changeover in the writing team but Ron has put the right together for this and Jane is a pleasure to work with. She is very relaxed and open and that's important."
Tara Bennett is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.