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Deep InsideRe-Imagining Battlestar Galactica SCI FI Brings Seventies Staple Into The 21st Century

It could be argued that with the 1978 premiere of Battlestar Galactica space on television actually started to look like space. With the advent of the program, which concerns the adventures of a group of humans marooned on a spaceship when a cybernetic race called the Cylons murders most of their species, viewers no longer had to contend with the tinted-Ping-Pong-balls-on-thread-in-a-diorama-box look made infamous by early sci-fi flicks and, to some degree, the original Star Trek series. Thanks to a visual effects team comprising many of those who worked on the groundbreaking effects in the original Star Wars movie (released in 1977), the series became a pioneer in the use of high-end visual effects for television.

Nowadays, audiences don't bat an eye at special effects in the movies or even on television. Alien, The Matrix, Shrek, The X-Files, and the many spin-offs of Star Trek have spoiled them. That's why the producers of the new Battlestar Galactica miniseries, premiering on SCI FI on December 7, are taking a new tack with the look of the program. While the new Battlestar Galactica will feature awe-inspiring visual effects, it will be grounded in the type of reality that today's audiences demand.

Down To Earth

According to Mark Stern, senior vice president of programming development for the SCI FI Channel, bringing a new version of Battlestar Galactica to television was a no-brainer for his network. "From my perspective, it's one of the classic titles of the seventies," he said. The real challenge was making it a draw for an audience that is much less likely to be thrilled by wham-bam visuals than that of 1978. "You have to pay attention to the fact that the audience is much savvier than they used to be," said Stern. "They're used to special effects on TV."

Therefore, the SCI FI Channel decided to set the new Battlestar Galactica, which will feature most of the same basic characters and premise as the original, apart by making its plots, scenes, and characters as true to real life as possible. "I think it's really hard to get an audience to believe in or buy into a traditional Star Trek space opera anymore, where it's wall-to-wall carpeting and everyone is walking around in spandex," said Stern.

To that end, the network hired 18-year viz-effects veteran Gary Hutzel as the show's visual effects supervisor. "It's a bit of an odd story," said Hutzel, regarding how he came on the show. "I had been online doing a little research about shows that were greenlighted in December [2002]. And I came across Battlestar Galactica. I saw that Ron Moore, who I knew from working on Star Trek [Deep Space Nine] had written the miniseries. So I sent him an email congratulating him on its greenlight. It wasn't more than 10 minutes later that I got an email back from him saying 'call the executive producer immediately, we need someone to do the visual effects.'"

Hutzel got together with Battlestar's executive producer David Eick and director Michael Rymer to discuss his ideas for the show's visuals.

One of the main concepts the three agreed on was grounding all visual elements of the series in reality. "David [Eick] and Michael [Rymer] really embraced my ideas of taking the Galactica technology back a couple of steps and having them deal with the real physics of space, the real physics of rocket engines," said Hutzel. "This was something I was looking to do as far as the type of space work I'd done in other shows, particularly in Star Trek, where primarily, everything is motivated by magic engines; undefined we don't know how they work, we just go real fast whenever we feel like it."

Hutzel says this approach does not mean viewers will be treated to a non-stop lesson in mechanics. "I'm not saying we're going to spend a lot of time rebuilding engines on Battlestar Galactica, but we do take into account what needs to happen [mechanically] before you get into your Viper [the one-man fighter ships that were a well-known prop in the original Battlestar] and fly away."

For example, it's been traditional in the sci-fi genre to depict spaceships moving through space much the same way airplanes move through the atmosphere. "When they need to turn to the right, they bank to the right and then go to the right," said Hutzel. "Obviously in space, no such thing would exist. There's no wind blowing on you, there's no lift. [In Battlestar] everything is motivated by small rocket engines firing, rotating the ship, and bringing the mainline onto an axis that you want to fly on. There's an intellectual level to what the pilot has to do."

Hutzel admits this approach is a little unorthodox. "It's something that is generally not allowed," he said. "But ultimately, once you've taken the audience on this trip along with you, it's a much more visceral experience for them." Another element that adds to the realistic look of Battlestar is the fast-paced, documentary-like style in which it was shot. "It's not your typical, boring, proscenium shooting," said Stern. "It's lots of handheld, lots of Stedicam, very first-person, very in-your-face. So, when you're running down the hall with somebody, it's not this wonderful gliding dolly shot. It's--you're running down the hall with somebody!"

Indeed, according to Hutzel, there are plenty of what he calls "sloppy" shots. "Normally, with visual effects of this type, they're overdesigned," he said. "Everything is perfectly framed, the action takes place in just the right number of frames. Instead, we have sloppy shots. We have shots where the action only partially takes place in the frame. In effect, we have studiously looked at doing a loose-looking film. And what has grown out of that is a very frenetic look to both the space battles and even to establishing space. And a very kind of natural look to the spaceships."

Keeping The Fantasy Alive

Of course, Battlestar Galactica is still a fantasy. And audiences, blas? or not, expect some good visuals. To that end, the miniseries' crew built enormous sets to depict the Battlestar Galactica spacecraft itself (which Hutzel describes as an "aircraft carrier in space"), the Vipers, and the hangar bay where they launch. Even with their considerable size, however, set extensions were needed. "The spaces inside the Galactica are vast," said Hutzel. "The hangar bay for instance, even though the set itself is over 80 feet long, the hangar bay ran over a thousand feet. So consequently, set extensions were required in order to sell the idea that the distances were vast inside the ship."

Hutzel and his team accomplished this feat by fully 3D modeling the interior of the Battlestar. "For both its landing bay and its launch area, both areas have been completely modeled, including set pieces, various moving parts, and background spaceships," said Hutzel. Most of the modeling has been done using NewTek's LightWave software. Production staff is also using a complete software solution, 2d3's boujou, for 3D track.

As for depicting the Galactica in space, Hutzel and the staff at L.A.-based visual effects house ZOIC Studios laid out those scenes in a virtual environment and positioned the length of the ship from the viewer using "virtual lenses." "Through ZOIC we're able to mix-up lenses," said Hutzel. For example, he says, "...the battle scene is laid out literally as a complete scene that plays out in the virtual environment. We then go in and pick lenses and camera positions within that virtual environment, and pick up shots, just as you would if you were shooting a battle with documentary film cameras."

Software will also be used to enhance the Cylons, the race bent on the complete destruction of humankind. According to Stern, there will be several types of Cylons, including some that look like human beings. "There's a great opportunity there to tell an Ôenemy-among-us' kind of story," he said. The Centurions, the robotic-looking Cylons known best for the eye-like strip across their foreheads with a red light tracking across it, are full CGI characters in the Battlestar Galactica miniseries. Hutzel felt that using men in suits to depict the Centurions would have made them look a bit too hokey for today's audiences. "If you tried to introduce the Cylons in a similar fashion in today's world, it would have taken the show down."

In order to give the Centurions a realistic appearance, Hutzel motion-tracked live-action performers and then applied that information to the walk of the Centurions. "What we've done is captured the best parts of the original. Which is to say the Cylons are based on human beings. The humans give them a human appearance, but by creating the Centurion as a virtual character, we've made him much more threatening," he said.

Galactica, Sans Farah Hair

Even with all the changes to the show's visual elements, Hutzel and Stern think (and hope) the fans of the original Battlestar Galactica will be pleased. Stern says fans will still find themes in the miniseries similar to those in the original. "I think you have to be true to the intent of the original series," he said. "What made the original series so great was it depicted real people in real jeopardy and the issues they were dealing with." He says that element won't change. Hutzel went a step further: he threw in some visual elements that hardcore fans of the original Battlestar will recognize off the bat. "The Galactica is a very familiar design--the fans will recognize it immediately.

Plus, the design elements of the ship are actually based on the design elements from the original show." In other words, Hutzel and Lee Stringer, CG supervisor at ZOIC Studios, added a modern twist to the traditional visual effects concept called "kit-bashing" (whereby extra details on props are added from model kits): "Lee went out and got a bunch of model kits and scanned them. So he had all the parts as virtual items. And then literally placed them on the ships to recreate the kit-bashed look for our ships. It gives them an authentic look to that period."

Despite the importance he places on staying true to the fan base of the original series, there is one thing Hutzel will not be bringing back: the hair. "It wasn't an intriguing show for me when it first came out," he said. "And there were a number of reasons for that. But mostly it was the hairdos, I think, that threw me for a loop. The '70s 'poofta' hair was too much for me."

Sarah Stanfield is the managing editor. She can be reached at sstanfield@uemedia.com.