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'Battlestar Galactica': Reinventing VFX Design

Mary Ann Skweres talks with the visual effects leads on Sci Fi Channels Battlestar Galactica mini-series about how they re-envisioned the TV series and vfx design.


Vfx supervisor Gary Hutzel (left) jumped at the chance to work on Battlestar Galactica as soon as he heard about it. On the right, Zoic took the bluescreen element of the CAG pilot, rotoscoped him out of his ship and placed him in a CGI Viper. After color corrections, reflections and details were added to make the final shot showing him before the entire Viper fleet is destroyed by the Cylons. All images from Battlestar Galactica courtesy of USA Cable Entertainment LLC. © 2003 USA Cable Entertainment LLC. All rights reserved.

The television series Battlestar Galactica first thrilled sci-fi fans 25 years ago. An edgier, racier version of the cult classic returns on Dec. 8 and 9 as a two-part, four-hour mini-series on Sci Fi Channel. Dynamically directed by Michael Rymer (Queen of the Damned) and penned by veteran sci-fi scribe, Ronald D. Moore (Star Trek: The Next Generation), the series has a number of twists: ace fighter pilot Starbuck is a brawling, cigar-smoking woman, the villainous Cylon robots look human and the Galactica is now a museum. Also featured is a new generation of vfx designed to compete with big budget film effects.

When vfx supervisor Gary Hutzel heard Battlestar Galactica was being revived, he wanted to be involved. Its probably the only sci-fi series that I can think of that would have the staying power of Star Trek It has all the elements of a classic sci-fi. Too often in visual effects design the action happens, then the actors look and the editor cuts to the visual effect. Things are not smoothly integrated. Rymer wanted a documentary style. That was something Hutzel had wanted to do for a long time with vfx to carry the story and create real environments that didnt detract from a natural style. The success of Battlestar Galactica is largely due to the organic vfx created through the collaboration between Hutzel and the artists at Zoic Studios, guided by cg supervisor Lee Stringer and digital effects supervisor Emile Smith. Zoic wasnt just a company that was hired. According to Hutzel, Zoic came onto this project with an unbelievable amount of vigor. No matter what we asked for, they kept it coming.


Digital effects supervisor Emile Smith (left) and CG supervisor Lee Stringer, both of Zoic, became committed and indefatigable partners with Hutzel in creating the vfx. On the right is a full CGI shot of the nuclear bombs going off from the Cylon attack.

From approximately 138 hours of select dailies a mountain of material for a four-hour series only 360 vfx shots were created not an enormous amount. What is striking about the vfx is the duration of the shots. Generally speaking, a CG house will storyboard for 3-1/2 to 5-second shots. Hutzel and Zoic took a courageous chance. Many establishing shots run more than 30 seconds. The visual effects are right for the show. They dont jump out. The length is based on the pace of the scene that theyre in, not artificially short or long. Extraordinary at the time, the original series had nearly as many visual effects as the current reincarnation. Hutzel watched several episodes. Back then, there wasnt any money for visual effects. In a 20-second sequence, the same shots would be shamelessly repeated. The editor made sequences work by flopping, reversing and repositioning shots. Hutzel realized that wasnt done anymore. Instead, editorial calls for more visual effects.


Hutzel came up with a director-friendly system to do elaborate animatics, making it possible to involve Rymer and editor, Dany Cooper, in the design of vfx sequences. A full-time programmer pre-visualized battle scenes. Instead of storyboards or 2D animatics, Cooper took this material, adjusted the previs and cut sequences. The technical aspects of vfx, the creative editing and the directors vision, were married together. By the final week of shooting, when filming the principal actors in the cockpits was scheduled, the editor had cut sequences in full 3D low-res renders. The actors looked at the sequences and fully understood the action in the scene. Every scene, every line and every piece of business was covered from three different angles over eight days. This process allowed the vfx shots to be fully integrated into the live action. The vfx team was aggressive with the final battle, taking big chances in assuming the audience would be able to follow complex logistics. It paid off. The show has the longest continuous battle sequence ever done for television, running more than eight minutes.


As the Battlestar Galactica is about to jump to warp speed, details of its landing bays on either side of the pods can be seen. Lee Stringer executed the exterior of the ship.

Vfx used to be physically dependent on clean plates. The process required the team to lock off the camera, lay down bricks and ropes and test the camera for stability. To achieve the style envisioned for Battlestar Galactica, Hutzel worked in ways he had never done before. Discussing his requirements with technicians from various facilities, Hutzel knew software existed to put tracking markers on set that would allow a different way of shooting do a crane move, pan, tilt, have the actors cross in front of tracking marks and still get a rock steady, absolutely believable 3D track. This allowed the camera work for the vfx shots to be consistent with the documentary, moving camera style of the rest of the show. Hutzel credits Zoic for making the large number of set extensions seamless. The hanger bay was a huge 80-foot long set, but needed to appear 600 feet long. All extensions were achieved without hampering the camera with motion control by using the 3D software solutions to match in the 3D set to the existing set.


The Viper speeds down the launch tube of the Battlestar Galactica (left) while a group of Vipers head toward the Cylons to do battle.

The project came together quickly. Generally the art department designs the spaceships, but due to the tight schedule production designer Richard Hudolin passed the bulk of the exterior design to the vfx team. Hutzel was pleased: In the past Ive had a lot of problems dealing with designs that are beautiful on paper, but we cant make work in 3D. A 2D drawing can imply that a line goes from here to there, but when you physically create it the lines need to connect or it doesnt look like the drawing. As key modeler, Stringer superbly executed the exterior design of the ships. Hutzel worked with Hudolin to make the interiors and exteriors work together. There was quite a lot of leeway with most of the ships, but the Galactica and Laras liner had to relate directly to the interiors. The liner is a transport, the 747 of the future. Hudolins concern that the set would fit inside was satisfied when Hutzel confirmed that his team had measured it out and even included the production designers chairs through the windows.


The famous red eye of the Cylon fighter ship (left), which disables the Mk7 vipers, is visible here. The Viper is blown apart (right) by a Cylon. A few flames were shot as live-action pyro elements, but everything else, including additional flames, were created via CGI.

The teams directive was to create a whole new Battlestar Galactica that didnt necessarily depart from the original show. Hutzel was intrigued with the idea of retro sci-fi. He wanted to do a futuristic space show with real rocket ships, real engines and real limitations. You dont just fly as fast as you want to go as far as you want. You dont fly faster than light. None of this silly, which flat light on this panel do I push to make the ship go? For engines in Star Trek, a glow is added on the back end of the ship. On the Galactica, the engine fires up and jets shoot out. Its a visual dialog that people understand. Those details were more difficult to achieve, requiring a lot of research and development in a short period of time. The real science concept also enforces the shows premise that the only way to defeat the Cylons is to use human skill and retro technology.

In post, Rymer sat with the animators, directing the animation in the same way that he would direct on a set. Cooper fine-tuned finals to make the cuts flow smoother. Unlike houses that lock effects, Hutzel and Zoic changed vfx to an unprecedented level as the edit evolved an unheard of process on a television show. The whole approach to the show came from a Mission Statement that Moore wrote. He wanted to reinvent science fiction. In reinventing the process of vfx design, Hutzel and his team at Zoic contribute to that goal and the success of Battlestar Galactica.

Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary post-production with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.