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Raising the VFX Bar In-House on 'Battlestar Galactica: Razor'

Tara DiLullo Bennett cuts to the chase about Battlestar Galactica: Razor with VFX Supervisor Gary Hutzel.

The success of Battlestar Galactica: Razor can be partially attributed to the fact that all the visual effects are now created from one source, the in-house vfx staff. Credit for all BSG images: In-House Visual Effects.

With the start of Battlestar Galactica's fourth (and final) season still more than five months away, SCI FI Channel gave the show's devoted followers something special to tide them over. Battlestar Galatica: Razor (which aired Nov. 24) is the franchise's only special two-hour movie event since the initial miniseries that launched the re-invented series back in 2003. Razor will go back in time to reveal Lee Adama's first mission on the starship Pegasus in the early days of the Cylon war.

Continuing our discussion from last month with Gary Hutzel, the visual effects supervisor for the BSG series and Razor, VFXWorld delves into the tricky world of creating feature style visual effects on a television scaled budget. Hutzel reveals the secrets of how he made Razor look like something that should fly in theaters.

As with any project, starting on the right foot with the right team is key and Hutzel first and foremost attributes the success of the Razor project to the fact that all the BSG visual effects are now created from one source. "Razor was done completely by the in-house vfx staff," he explains. "It was a great project for everyone here. It was very demanding but rewarding." While previous years of BSG vfx were done with Zoic Studios, Hutzel says the shift ultimately allowed for more creativity and flexibility within a tighter budget. "Honestly, if we had gone with an outside house, we would have only been able to do a third of Razor at most. We were able to really accommodate this show and do over 184 effects. Over 120 of them are full CGI, 30 to 50 layer comps. It was very heavy, complex stuff. If we did not have an in-house op and went to do this show, it would have literally cut the show in half and then cut it down from there because of the expectations. In this case, we beefed up scenes and added shots and even a whole new sequence. We went from being down half the show to actually increasing a number of shots. In truth, many of the people who started working on the miniseries at Zoic are now working for me full-time, so we didn't give up anything artistically to do this and in fact, we spent over $300,000 on infrastructure, so our render capability and storage is improved."

While the BSG series has always been known for its gritty, minimalist approach to vfx, Hutzel says Razor expanded upon the look and feel of the franchise. "We went for something a little bit bigger and flashier for Razor. Normally when you see a TV show taken to feature, you'll get a glossier look that's more mainstream and over the top. The look for this is brighter and noisier in texture than our show. In meeting together and talking about what we'd like to do for Razor, we all agreed that it's basically our chance to do a Galactica movie. We have a feature quality cast and writing standards, but no opportunity to do one for financial reasons. Consequently, we approached it as a completely separate project. As it turns out, it was very much like doing a new pilot. We had to create many, many new models and work out new details for the sequences. Specifically, we had the original series Centurions and original series ships that had to be created. Normally that type of development is only done on a pilot. But these were all new ideas, with new ships and an entire new fleet for the Pegasus, and a huge fleet of shipyards. It was a huge undertaking for us... like a feature."

While the BSG series has always been known for its gritty, minimalist approach to vfx, Razor expanded upon the look and feel of the franchise and went for something a little bit bigger and flashier. 

Hutzel suggests that another important fiscal and time saver was the fact that he and his team used atypical compositing software to achieve the high-end look of the movie while maintaining the demanding turnaround schedule. "What's interesting is that we did more of the composite work and the general work in Combustion than we have in the past. A lot of people say Combustion is an old program, and it's not being updated, but we found for our show and workflow, it's very fast. You would never be able to tell a Combustion comp from a Digital Fusion comp -- there are no quality issues. In fact, there are some superior tools in Combustion and there's nothing faster for what we are doing and that's part of the equation. The render times are more reasonable too. We kept all the animation in LightWave, to keep the pipeline clean and fast. All previs was done quickly in LightWave and then we'd bring that straight across to refine the shots. It's the same pipeline. We start with the previs built with all the stand-in elements. We go to refinement of any animation, then breakout all the stand-ins with full-res and then it would get broken into separate components, like key light passes, so they can all be fine tuned in the comp. The comps look excellent so I saw no reason to shift gears to a more difficult 3D package. We also did quite a bit of sophisticated character animation with the Centurions and I was very pleased, because that is frequently an argument with LightWave -- that character animation is very limited. By comparison to Maya, that's true, but it's 10 times faster to get the animation out and that allows me to get the sequences that I want. Otherwise in TV, what you are really saying is, 'I give up!' because I cannot turn out 38 shots of Centurions in that period of time because it's impossible with Maya. But it is possible in LightWave to have animators like that here."

Sophisticated character animation was done with the Centurions. Razor was fortunate to find the animators who could use LightWave and turn out many shots of the Centurions in a limited amount of time.

Detailing some of the specific vfx challenges of Razor, Hutzel reveals, "We developed a lot of new techniques for the huge pyrotechnics sequence and for the destruction of the fleet yard. The attack on the dock was originally written in the story and it was unusual because it was moving in and out of timelines. It was very disorienting but they reworked the structure so it's more palatable for the audiences. Getting into it, the concept of the attack on the docks was that we would see it in bits and pieces. For the most part, it centered on the fact that they had to jump out of there before two nuclear missiles hit them. We talked to the director, Felix Alcala, and he said it really should be Pearl Harbor. But it was only written as them looking at a monitor and then they see two missiles coming," he laughs, "so that's quite a big difference from what the director wanted."

"So we discussed what we wanted to do and we developed a huge sequence that was all done in previs, including the Raiders jumping in and then sending the virus to the docks. In the lore of the story from the miniseries, at that time, they took them by surprise by sending the virus to cut them off. So we had them coming in, the power going off, cruising over the docks and finally attacking. Eventually, the chain reaction on a ship next to Pegasus begins to detonate so we came up with this very elaborate sequence that we presented to [exec producer] Ron Moore. What ended up happening in this case was there wasn't enough live action to support what we'd done, but it still allowed us to run free and develop it from beginning to end. We trimmed it back until it felt like a good flow and it completely revitalized that sequence. It worked really well. It's a complex sequence with Raiders and lots and lots of pyro. Now because of our budget, we couldn't shoot pyro so we combined some original pyro elements from the miniseries with full CGI pyro which worked very, very well."

BSG fans can even get more of their vfx work with the unrated, extended Razor DVD release available Dec. 4.

They also used the original series' Centurions. And Hutzel was on the fence for a while about how he wanted them to look -- "either the chrome look that was authentic to the original series, or something a little bit more sophisticated and looked more like a silvery metallic. I actually laid the Centurion shots out myself, because frankly there was nobody else to do it. As always, there's never enough time, but I finally decided to go with the chrome because the reflections worked really well on the surfaces. I went with the chrome with a star-filter effect in the hot lights."

With Razor being the last event planned for the franchise before the series begins its swan song in the spring of '08, Hutzel says he's pleased they were able to go big and show what they can do from a vfx perspective. And Hutzel reveals that BSG fans can even get more of their work with the unrated and extended Razor DVD release available Dec. 4 (from Universal Studios Home Ent.)

"A lot was done specifically for the DVD only. Those folks [at Universal Home Ent.] came up with all the money so part of the deal is that they get proprietary material. They have an additional 20 minutes of show and several minutes of visual effects." Giving a taste of what fans will see, Hutzel teases, "We have a ridiculous sequence that people can't believe when they see it. It's the death of Columbia, which is one of the original series battleships being destroyed. It causes young Adama to go after some Raiders. He hits the atmosphere, ejects and is forced to parachute. In the course of getting out of the ship, he's attacked by a Centurion in mid-air; then they hit the ground and continue the fight! It was over-the-top and pretty demanding. But in order to see that, it's on the DVD!"

Tara DiLullo 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 & 2.